Few things stuff your bookshelf quite like a new Neal Stephenson novel; his latest, Seveneves, is no exception, weighing in at a hefty 869 pages. Now, I’m normally not that kind of guy, but in this case I’m inclined to say that Stephenson could just as well have used twice or thrice that amount in order to fully explore what he wanted to explore in this book.
First things first: without spoiling too much, I should say that the book is about an apocalypse, and the sudden struggles of humankind to escape from Earth and preserve itself out there for the next few thousand years, for only then will the Earth be safe to return to. The book is about the fate of those first human colonies in space. The book is also about the new cultures and societies that have sprung up after five thousand years have passed.
The first part is dedicated to the initial struggles: how do humans cope with and prepare for impending doom? Given roughly two years to launch an exodus into outer space, how do we decide who gets sent out there, and how, and how do they keep themselves alive for countless generations in space without being able to use Earth’s natural resources? There is a genuine excitement palpable in this part of the book, which mostly focuses around Dubois Harris, a popular astronomer — I can’t help but think of Neil deGrasse Tyson here — and Dinah MacQuarie, a roboticist serving a shift aboard the International Space Station, both of whom end up as central figures in the eventual exodus and the second part of the book. The excitement comes on the one hand from the rushing of minds to think of workable solutions to the biggest problem humankind has ever faced, but also from the sense of destiny, the preparation of billions of minds for an imminent death. A kind of lottery is organised to pick representatives from all peoples to be sent out into space; a fascinating and inevitably morally troubled concept. This is one area where the book could have been more thorough: what exactly would such a process entail in practice, and how would it turn out? Stephenson is able to explore some of the surrounding issues, but then again, the plot has to move forward and so many aspects of the whole situation have to be covered.
The middle, and largest, part of the book is dedicated to the first few years in space, the organisation of the survivors, their struggles, and the issue of how to remain alive out there. As is typical for him, Stephenson has the knack for succinctly explaining the complicated technological challenges involved in such a huge endeavour. I was never bothered by his tendency to info-dump in his earlier books, but in Seveneves these sections really blend seamlessly into the rest of the story: we have to know how orbital mechanics and water-based fuel and asteroid mining work, because those are the immediate challenges faced by all the main characters in the book. I can’t really go into detail about the political struggles faced by the survivors without spoiling too much, but these are exciting scenes where Stephenson gets to imagine how Earth-based cultural backgrounds translate to a sudden transplantation into a wholly new context. Here, too, reading went incredibly fast, but afterwards I was left wanting more.
The third and final section of the book jumps five thousand years into the future. Let’s just say that despite things looking extremely grim at one climactic point, even when compared to the general apocalypse, humanity managed to survive and re-expand. Stephenson introduces a fascinating scenario where issues of genetic selection, space colonisation, and the establishment of new political blocs play a major role. Eventually, the time is ripe for our future humans to gradually explore and recolonise Earth, but what they find there isn’t quite what they expected. The book ends with an exciting ground-based expedition, which again poses at least as many questions as it is able to answer.
To conclude, there are far too many issues worth discussing in this book than I could possibly do justice to in the space of a brief review. As befits a tale that deals with the future of humanity as a whole, Stephenson has a lot of things to say about politics, technology, genetics, and human identities. Many of these things are worth discussing and critiquing in detail, and I hope to see lots of that in the future. Again, I do get the sense that the whole scenario (or trio of scenarios) would have deserved something like a trilogy of books. Stephenson could write three fat yet gripping tomes on gold, alchemy, philosophy, and politics in The Baroque Cycle, and he could have done it again here. Perhaps he didn’t want to embark on another such project, and he wanted to get all of this out of his system. It feels like an extravagance to say that a book that spans almost 900 pages might be rushed, but I did find that feeling creeping up on me after finishing Seveneves. That said, this shouldn’t be a reason not to dive into this charming ode to human resourcefulness and tenacity.
This review originally appeared on the American Book Center blog.