Neal Stephenson is one of the authors I turned to when I wanted to read a long, complex book so I was really excited to find out that he was writing an apocalyptic spaced adventure. Entitled Seveneves (which I pronounce as Seven-eves for reasons that make sense to anybody who finished the book but will remain un-discussed in this review because spoilers) the book tells the story of the human race dying and being reborn.
The book starts out with the moon exploding in the first paragraph, and then launches on an epic tale of survival. Soon after the moon’s explosion, physicists realize that the chunks will continue to bump into each other, breaking apart into a flurry of small meteors. When all these billions of meteors fall to the Earth they will generate so much heat that the Earth cooks and everybody dies. To save the human race, the governments of the world team up to create the Cloud Ark, a series of space vessels that will remain in orbit around the Earth commanded from the International Space Station.
That’s the first half of the book. The second half gets into speculative fiction as we jump 5,000 years into the future and see how the human race turned out.
Seveneves belongs to the technically minded hard science fiction genre like The Martian or Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unlike those two books, Seveneves operates on a much bigger scale, telling the story of the whole human race over thousands of years. But, despite the big scale, Seveneves dedicates a lot of time discussing the science behind what is happening in the plot. Which means that you get a lot of detail about orbital mechanics, nuclear reactors, the danger of radiation, how exponential functions work, the physics of whips and chains (which sounds kinky but is not), nanotechnology and asteroid mining, just to name a few. That can get a little boring for some readers who want the story to just move along, but I really enjoyed that Stephenson did his homework to create a scenario that feels real instead of just making stuff up.
But even when Stephenson has to come up with more fantastical ideas, it always feels grounded in possibility. Creating a scenario about the future of the human race is hard, and Stephenson does a good job showing us what the race could possibly look like in the future. The best part about this last third is that it effectively doles out the information about how the human race developed, leaving more mysteries unexplored. If I had to make a minor quabble about Seveneves it would be that the future humans still feel a lot like their ancestors from 5,000 years ago. I guess that you can’t really write a book about a culture completely removed from ours, but I always feel like these science fiction books tend to make future cultures too similar to present day 2010s culture. That’s just a problem with the whole genre I guess.
But overall, Seveneves is great. It had all of the things I like in science fiction: doomsday scenarios, space travel, future civilizations and a smattering of hard science thrown in. Seveneves opens up such a big universe with stories to be told that I hope Stephenson spends more time exploring the world that he created.
(Seriously Neal, give us some more books in this universe. You don’t seem like a person who likes to hug, so I’ll smile at you warmly if you do this and we ever meet. Promise.)