Book Review: SEVENEVES

Happy Tuesday everyone!

Today let’s take a walk through SEVENEVES, the newest epic by Sci-fi author extraordinaire Neal Stephenson. Published this year, SEVENEVES is the third book I’ve read by Stephenson, and this blagh is going to feature details from all three–ANATHAM, SNOW CRASH, and this his latest feat of speculative fiction. Spoilers ahead!

I find Stephenson to be a perplexing author. I first read ANATHAM by request from a friend, who loves it almost as much as air. I emerged from the 900+ page slog not really knowing what had hit me, only that there had been some interesting ideas, cool philosophy, and just a bit too much math and talking. Next I read SNOW CRASH, a zippy, inventive race through a cyber-punk future that starts and ends with a bang. The contrast between these two texts is striking, and I had a hard time rationalizing that they were created by the same person–at least until some of the SNOW CRASH characters start discussing the higher-order ideas…aaaand then it was very obvious. I enjoyed the ride, and when I picked up Stephenson’s new book, I was curious which style it would follow.

The plot of SEVENEVES can be summed up like this: One day, the moon explodes. A tiny population moves into space to survive. Sh*t happens, most die, and 5000 years later their descendants move back to earth. And yes, that’s all in the book blurb.

SEVENEVES is rife with gold nuggets–a stunning opening chapter, great science, and some truly heartbreaking text. When Stephenson writes the end of the world, it hurts. The characters are real, beautiful, flawed people, experts in their fields, but not in how to deal with the Apocalypse–even though a handful are clearly based on actual existing people. /ahem/ Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

I was pleasantly surprised at the feminist undertones throughout. Hard science and sci-fi often gets flak for its male-dominated participation and audience, but Stephenson isn’t afraid to throw in gems like this one, regarding a staff change on the ark space station:

“The choice was explained in terms of Markus’s dynamic leadership style, his charisma, and other such buzzwords that, as everyone understood, boiled down to the fact that he was a man.”

As time goes on, and personnel diminish, women become more valuable–not just for their ability to continue the species, but because men are more susceptible to radiation damage due to a certain collection of cells with rapid turn-over. When the population dwindles to species-ending levels and the last man dies, it’s left to the last eight women to decide how–and if–humanity will continue.

My issue with the book is the pacing. Like any great disaster epic, what matters is the mad scramble in culture and technology to evade the inevitable. And as I just said, there are sharp emotional moments that stick in your throat, but they are scattered like bread crumbs through the 800+ page tome, each one surrounded by dozens of pages of hard-science. Perhaps Stephenson thought they would pull the reader along, and at first they do, but as the stakes get higher and the emotional moments become fewer and further between, the book loses orbit along with the space station.

There is only so much one can do to make orbital mechanics exciting. THE MARTIAN did, with the help of a snarky narrator and a narrow, focused problem–>goal structure, but with Stephenson’s sprawling cast and extended time-line, I found myself flipping through 15 pages of thruster adjustments and robotics coding to get to suspense and agony of the fracturing humans aboard the space station. It makes me sad, too, because I am a Science Person, with my degree in Bioengineering and day job at Big Pharma, Inc. I want to like the meticulously planned and precisely executed vision of near- and far-future tech. But the fact remains that I would much rather read about the high-stakes mutiny in space than 20 pages of history on the design of an airlock.

And speaking of the science, I have but one quibble. For an author so–dare I say–brilliant at imagining technology and ideas that might be, the leap that a very small population and ONE PhD in genetics can spawn billions is just too much. I don’t care if she single-handedly saved the black-footed ferrets, it just doesn’t work like that–especially given how close to real-world tech the book begins. It’s at that point in the book that the meaning of the title becomes one part clever, one part groan-worthy, and the reader starts to realize Stephenson has been writing a grand mythological epic, buried in the circuits and servos. Part III is, for me, where it all began to crumble, starting with my skepticism as to the survival of the species, escalating with the time scale, and finishing with a predictable and now-famous clipped Stephenson ending.

Like his other books, and more obviously than his other books, SEVENEVES is a thought-experiment on a huge scale. I really wanted to love it–and parts of it were brilliant! But the uneven-ness of the first 2/3 and the tacked-on, slightly unbelievable Part III means SEVENEVES has not eclipsed SNOW CRASH as my favorite Stephenson work.

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