Near Classic Marred by Flawed Second Act
I’m a big fan of Neal Stephenson. Right now, on a place of honor above my desk are hardback editions of “Cryptonomicon”, The Baroque Cycle, “Anathem” and “Reamde”. I have paperbacks of “The Diamond Age” and ” In the beginning… was the Command Line”. I’m only missing “Snow Crash” because it was stolen a few years ago and I’ve never got around to replacing it.
So I was excited to read his latest, “Seveneves”, even though it was getting split reviews. It took me a long time to power through it, and I almost bounced off it several times, but finished it recently and am glad I did. “Seveneves” is not an easy read (Stephenson never is), and it isn’t his best work, but it is a fun and thoughtful exploration of a concept. The biggest issue I had with it was the problematic second act.
The Story So Far…
“Seveneves”, pronounced as “Seven Eves”, is split into three roughly equal acts. As you are probably aware of by now, they first two sections tell the story of “The Epic”: The moon is destroyed by some natural, cataclysmic event, setting off a chain reaction that will result in the bombardment and destruction of the Earth.
In the first Section, Mankind Realizes that the Earth is doomed, and sets about building an Ark to preserve whatever it can of the Human Race. The action is centered on the ISS, here called Isis, and the crew that finds itself in the position of shepherding the construction of a cloud of habitats in a race against time as the moon slowly disintegrates, eventually causing The Hard Rain on Earth.
This section is the best of the novel, introducing Several interesting characters, including Ivy, a mining engineer on Isis and the focal character of the first part of the book as she programs the swarms of robots that will eventually help save humanity. She is in contact with her mining family on Earth through a jury-rigged Morse Code Ham Radio setup.
Doc “Doobie” DuBois, a Neil Degrasse Tyson analogue, ends up traveling the doomed world, collecting “Arkies” and artifacts selected from different cultures to be transferred to the orbiting Arks before he himself ends up on Isis to report progress back to Earth. With its focus on the hard science of orbital mechanics and technological derring-do, this part hearkens back to the classic science fiction competence porn of the past, and is an engineers wet dream.
But even this section has flaws. Doc DuBois’ mission is part rescue, part PR, and part pacification, but we never really see how the impending disaster plays out on Earth. There are scenes of heroism, mass panic and more on Earth, but they are only relayed to the Ark through heavily managed and censored media channels. Yet, there are hints of political tensions and conflict that are not explored in this section, but come into play in the disappointing second.
It’s the End of The World as We Know It…(Spoilers)
So the Hard Rain comes, the Earth is destroyed in Fire, and the weakest third of the book starts. The plan for survival is twofold: Isis is protected from impact by a massive asteroid tied to its front end. It is to be the main ark: Protecting critical technological systems and acting as a hub. Trailing behind it are the Arks: small space habitats than can be linked and unlinked in myriad combos. This is where the majority of humanity is too live. Small communities can be almost self sufficient, if everything goes right, ensuring the future of the human race.
Can you guess what happens?
Political pressures from Dead Earth, stowaways, natural disaster, rebellion and war, even cannibalism ensue. Part Two of “Seveneves” is just a race to get to the Seven Eves… the last Seven fertile women who are the progenitors of the New Human Races. And I had a lot of problems with this part.
First, the previously competent Engineers from Part One are now blithering idiots. They are completely blindsided by the political pressures in the Ark Community. Then with all the disasters happening around them, it’s a race to see who can die first, and most heroically. Should I ram myself into an Asteroid, Walk into a Nuclear Reactor, or go into space without a helmet? I Know, I’ll hold off the cannibalistic rebels! Oh, and the vast majority of survivors die “offscreen” as it were, in a war among themselves.
But the worst part is the Council of the Seven Eves. We are not properly introduced to about half of them, and the ones that we knew from the first section seem too old to be the mothers of the new races. One was the President of the United States, and much was made of her meteoric rise to power and young age, and she is the one with the least children, but it defies suspension of disbelief. Also, it seems unnecessary for all men to die before the council… I’m not saying men are needed, since they can clone themselves, but it just seems unnecessary, even in the world Stephenson is creating.
Welcome to the New Earth, Same as the Old Earth
So We’ve had an old fashioned hard science adventure, a deeply flawed disaster movie, and now we come to the third act, a far future magic-tech travelogue.
Set 5,000 years after the earlier events ( now known as The Epic), we are introduced to a resurgent humanity. Mankind now lives in a ring of habitats made from the remnants of the moon and orbiting the Earth. They’ve been terraforming the blasted planet, re-introducing flora a fauna and beginning to resettle the Globe. This part is fascinating for its look at far future, re-claimed tech. There are many fantastical elements: Cyborg gliders, Tethered Cities that land on Earth and take off again, Post-Human Neanderthals, and a mystery that really isn’t mysterious at all.
This last part of the book almost, but not quite redeems the rest. I know a lot of critics seem to be hung up on the jump, but it makes sense. And it informs the previous sections, too. While the characters of the Epic had their every movement and conversation recorded, the post-humans of the year+5,000 have interpreted it their own way. There are a few places (Tav) where what they think they saw isn’t what we would have thought we saw. In this context, the lack of the expected Earth based stories from part one makes sense. Of course all that data was lost, so it’s not part of the epic and not part of humanity’s shared collective memory.
It makes sense in the world of “Seveneves” for there to be gaps in the second part of the story: That is the part where there is the most damage to the data, the most violence and the most loss. It’s another thing to have to try to fill in those gaps as you’re reading the story. While reading it, I kept wanting more, kept getting frustrated at the parts I was missing. By the time I realized what Stephenson was doing, he had almost lost me.