Neal Stephenson (1959)
In one of my recent book reviews I recalled the 50-page-rule --- that a book should be given 50 pages before deciding whether or not to finish it. As I read Neal Stephenson’s seveneves, the rule most definitely did not come into play; I was hooked from the opening line, and when I first checked on my progress I was already 57 pages in, fully engrossed in the world he creates.
Set just a few years into our future, the book opens with, quite literally, a bang: “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparently reason."
The explosion leaves behind seven large fragments, plus a cloud of smaller bits and pieces, and, once the initial shock of the dramatic change in mankind’s view of the heavens subsides, appears largely non-threatening. Within days, however, scientists begin to understand that the new arrangement in Earth’s orbit is not as stable and benign as originally thought, and the situation quickly devolves into an inexorable countdown to disaster, leaving humanity in a struggle against time and odds for survival. With a hard, if not precisely defined, deadline in place, the nations of the world organize their citizens around a dramatic build-up of the International Space Station (ISS), to create a refuge for humanity in space.
Stephenson has divided his story of the legacy of the moon’s explosion into three parts. The book opens with the initial disaster, and the reactions of the world’s peoples to the rapidly approaching deadline the Earth faces. The second part slips ahead to the moments immediately before the cataclysm, and continuing on into the first several years after it, as the contingent of humans in space attempt to achieve a sustainable existence from which the human race can again develop. The final third of the novel jumps to the far distant future, to what has developed from the humble re-beginnings of the first post-apocalyptic years.
Starting from a simple premise --- Earth’s people forced to find a way to survive an apocalyptic event by creating a viable, sustainable presence in orbit above the Earth --- Stephenson creates a truly epic vision of our future. He presents a rousing story of action and adventure, as the main characters careen from one predicament to the next, trying to avoid potentially species-ending disasters while they create their future home in space, and then, several millennia later, as they look back toward a radically altered Earth. Fortunately, however, Stephenson does not just settle for an easy, mindless thrill-ride in his novel; instead he works into his story significant detail, through descriptions of the psychological and physical realities faced by the characters. This was a choice that surely complicated the preparation and writing of the book, but adds tremendously to the drama of the telling.
The psychological aspects are perhaps the less surprising of these, given the pre-ordained apocalypse that no one on Earth can ignore. Beyond the obvious issues for those doomed to a certain death, and others crammed into a small space struggling to survive, Stephenson broadens the story to include the kinds of political and social maneuvering and intrigue apparent in even the most superficial review of our daily news, with of course the pressure cooker of an apocalypse to heighten the stakes. Human nature also survives the apocalypse largely unchanged, in Stephenson’s view of the future, complicating a future that may look on the surface dramatically different than our present, but in which not unfamiliar conflicts play out. All of this makes a spicy addition to what would otherwise have been a quite run-of-the-mill science fiction tale.
Stephenson’s novel truly shines, however, with his descriptions of the science of what occurs in the novel, the physics and engineering behind much of what happens. Not satisfied, for example, to simply describe the shifting of a space craft from one orbit around the Earth to another, he explains the many challenges that such a seemingly simple maneuver entails, the why behind the significant planning and energy required. Taking what could easily have been distracting asides, Stephenson works them into the flow of the novel, so that, even if a reader might not be interested in such details per se, the understanding provided actually adds to the intrigue and tension of the moment. And for readers are interested --- in the challenges of living and working and maneuvering in space --- the story becomes a fascinating exploration of what may be possible just short decades into our future (if, hopefully, without the need for an apocalyptic event to make them manifest.)
For most of the novel Stephenson pulls off this tricky integration of added scientific detail into the story. I will admit that one place it felt a little forced was in his description of weapons of the distant future; those few pages felt more inserted than most of the other such topics --- less seamlessly incorporated into the story. But, that quibble aside, I found the novel doubly compelling for having the added level of authenticity.
Fans of science fiction, and particularly post-apocalyptic fiction, will find a lot to enjoy in Stephenson’s engaging novel. With fast-paced action that keeps you pushing ahead for more, and nitty-gritty details that give you a feeling of intoxicating plausibility, it will be hard to set the book down once you start it.
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In an interview in the Seattle Times, Stephenson is asked the question that will be on every reader’s mind when they finish the final page of seveneves:
Q: The end of “Seveneves” cries out for a sequel. Do you have one in mind?
A: There’s nothing currently in the works. A lot depends on what happens in the next few months, how people respond to the book, if there’s any interest in doing media adaptations. All science fiction and fantasy is about building worlds. When I was a kid, I remember reading Frank Herbert’s “Dune” for the first time. (There’s) a glossary of some of the unfamiliar terms used in the book. At first it was off-putting, though now it’s commonplace … by the time I had read through the glossary, I had a picture in my head of the way that this world works. It’s not just one story, it’s a whole world. … Almost any successful fantasy or science-fiction book is going to leave you with the sense that there could be more.
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