Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Review - Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Short review: The moon blows up on the first page and humanity unites to try to save a handful of people on a space station. Then things get bogged down in discussions about the physics of chains.

First, the global ark
Next, comes the hard rain of death
Then, just seven Eves

Full review: Seveneves is a bloated and turgid mess of a book that is simultaneously both annoyingly brief and way too long. At just over 850 pages long, this book really should have either been trimmed down to half that length, or Stephenson should have expanded it into a two or possibly three book series. As it is, the story is sprawling and unfocused, skimming over large volumes of the story in an almost perfunctory manner, while also getting sidetracked into obsessive detail over minor technical explanations.

The story starts off with a bang, almost literally, as the Earth's moon is destroyed by an unknown cause in the opening sentence. The story also starts off by showing that the humans in Stephenson's reality bear almost no resemblance to actual humans, as they take in this news with an almost dispassionate curiosity, seemingly only worried about the technical aspects of the fact that the Moon had suddenly been somehow shattered into seven large fragments. The story also gets right on to dry technical digressions, as the text spends some time explaining how the attacker in a fencing match is referred to as the "agent" and the defender is referred to as the "patient", and as will become routine for the book, the digression adds almost nothing of value to the story. The first few opening chapters set the tone for the book, and it pretty much never recovers.

The overarching plot of the book is a grand sweeping space operatic tale told with mostly hard science sensibilities. The destruction of the moon starts a process that will result in a shower of meteorites sterilizing the Earth and making it uninhabitable for a period of five thousand years. Almost immediately, all the the nations of the world band together with the goal of making the International Space Station into an ark that will carry a handful of people so that the human race can survive. The "carrot" offered to all of the billions of humans who will be left behind to die on the Earth is that their genetic material will be carried in an archive so that at some point hundreds or thousands of years in the future, children who are technically their descendants can be born. The notion that people facing imminent death would be mollified by the idea that some time in the distant future a test tube baby made at least in part from their sperm or ova might exist. The problem is that's not how people's minds work - we don't love our children just because they share our genetics, but also because they are part of our lives and we can love and share experiences with them. A "relative" who you've never met is something that most people will never care about one way or the other, and yet the supposed intense interest in such persons is the "glue" that holds chaos in check for much of Seveneves.

Throughout the book, the plot lurches forward, sometimes jumping haphazardly from one big event to another, and at other times getting bogged down into tiny details. One constant in the story is that no character ever acts like anything resembling a human being. Among the characters in the story, there are a few who are clearly modeled on real world individuals, and none is more readily apparent than Doctor Dubois Harris, who is clearly inspired by Doctor Neil deGrasse Tyson. Unfortunately, Dubois is such a creepy and amoral character that I had to keep reminding myself that he was only inspired by Tyson so as to not allow the invented character to color my perception of the real individual. Dubois, like Tyson, is a science popularizer, famous for being a television personality who educated the public on scientific subjects with his engaging personality, and for the first segment of the book he does that. But later he is the one who alone among all scientists of the world figures out the impending doom that the Moon's destruction has set in motion, and who then behaves like a man without actual human feeling.

Dubois strikes up a relationship with a woman early in the book, but all we ever really find out about her is that she is a school teacher, and that Dubois gets her pregnant. This pregnancy is important because when Julia Flaherty, the President of the United States who is clearly a stand-in for Hillary Clinton, asks Dubois to go to the ark, his one demand is that the embryo be extracted from his girlfriend and sent to the genetic archive. This seems moderately reasonable until one realizes that Dubois has already existing children, as well as other family, not to mention is girlfriend, and he doesn't really seem to spend much time worrying about their fates. He doesn't try to pull for his graduate student son to get a spot on the ark, or to arrange for his science teacher girlfriend to be given a berth, or anyone else. No, the only thing Dubois cares about is a frozen embryo that constitutes the seed of a person that he will never know. This sort of almost callous disregard for the living and breathing people around them while exalting collections of frozen cells pervades the development of the ark, and it quite simply makes almost every character involved in its creation seem like amoral monsters, the supposedly amiable Doctor Dubois included.

Setting aside the problems with characterization that pervade the book, the story is simply inconsistent - glossing over fairly important developments with almost perfunctory descriptions of them, and repetitively describing technical minutia ad nauseum. For example, the crafting of the international agreement in which all of the nations of the world agree to dedicate all of their energies to the ark takes place entirely off-stage, but the reader is regaled with an extended explanation of the details of chain physics not once, not twice, but three different times in the text. After a splinter group breaks away from the ark and strikes out on their own, their story over the next two years takes place off-camera, and when they remerge, the bitter split between warring factions among their ranks and food shortages that led to cannibalism is summarized after the fact in a recounting barely longer than the description I gave in this sentence. On the other hand, the story of a skeleton crew using miniature robots to steer a comet over the course of a handful of weeks into a rendezvous with the ark is told in exacting and often repetitive detail. At times, it seems that Stephenson simply forgot that he had already told the reader something - for example the multiple times he has a character remind the reader that Julia had used nuclear weapons to defend the ark. Having the text skim through some parts of the story would not be so annoying if it wasn't, at the same time, providing excruciating and duplicative detail at others. In many cases, it felt like there was a much more interesting story going on off-stage than there was contained within the book's pages.

The book can be broadly divided into three segments. In the first, the Moon is destroyed and the ark built. In the second, the "Hard Rain" starts and the ark community has to struggle to survive on their own, a struggle that winds up with the entirety of humanity reduced to eight women - one of whom is post-menopausal and cannot bear children. The remaining women become the "seven Eves" of the title, with each allowed to pick one genetic improvement for their progeny. And then the book skips over the entire process of rebuilding humanity from such tiny roots, and the ensuing development of an orbital culture, political infighting and division, and the reseeding of Earth with life to skip forward five thousand years for the final third of the book to a relatively mundane story about a group of these "new" human races coming into contact with two new groups of humans who never left the Earth - one that built an underground shelter to survive deep within the Earth, and the other that built an undersea ark and survived in the deep oceans. This leap across the millennia to an utterly banal portion of the story is where Seveneves completely breaks down.

One of the biggest problems with the book is contained in this five thousand year gap: After being fairly meticulous and mostly fairly accurate with the physics in the first two segments of the book, Stephenson throws everything away by resorting to absurd cartoon-level biology to explain the development of the multiple races of humanity that descended from the various "Eves". After the detailed physics of the first section, the ridiculous and nonsensical approach to biology that spans the gap between the second and third portion is incredibly jarring, and the resulting story simply disintegrates into goofy silliness. This hand-waving of essentially everything about genetics is, of course, accompanied by detailed explanations of how this future civilization uses nanobots, how individuals get down to and up from the surface of the Earth, and of course, more explanations about the physics of chains. The characters in the book also continue to not act like humans, having created a society that seems incredibly self-absorbed to the extent that any history that doesn't directly trace from the "seven Eves" is seen as an almost inconsequential "side story".

The truly frustrating thing about this book is that one can see the potentially quite good book (or books) hidden within it. Had Stephenson gone through the book to remove the redundant technical descriptions, the pointless digressions, and the simple repetition, the book could probably have been trimmed down a couple of hundred pages and been a lean and fast-paced volume that would hold the reader's attention throughout. Alternatively, each section could have been fleshed out, filling in the parts of the story given cursory attention, resulting in a two or possibly three volume saga. Instead, he chose an in between approach that simply does not work, forcing him to gloss over large chunks of the story with cursory summaries, but still padding the book with repetitious technical explanations. The net effect of this decision is a book that has flashes of brilliance, but is mostly clumsy, unfocused, and gets in its own way.

In the end, Seveneves is a very long and windy failure. It is an ambitious failure, but it never really transforms that ambition into a worthwhile story, and eventually simply collapses in on itself. This is a book that had a lot going for it: A global catastrophe leading to an epic tale of humanity struggling to survive against almost impossible odds with a scope on the grandest scale. Unfortunately, Stephenson takes all of these bold and brilliant elements and fritters them away on dry technical explanations, many of which appear multiple times, and characters that are, both often just barely two-dimensional and, for the most part, almost inhuman in their response to their surroundings. Ultimately, Seveneves feels like a missed opportunity in which what could have been a gloriously epic series ended up being a deeply flawed single volume.

2015 Prometheus Award Winner: Influx by Daniel Suarez
2017 Prometheus Award Winner: TBD

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  1. I am just on my second crack at this book, and agree wholeheartedly with everything you've said here. I think I may give up.

    1. @Megan Baxter: It doesn't really get better. In fact, I think that the quality of the book degrades the further one gets into it.

  2. Replies
    1. @Fredamans: I cannot say that would be a mistake.