Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Microreview [book]: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

The Most Stephenson-esque Book Yet!

Stephenson, Neal. Seveneves. William Morrow: 2015.

Neal Stephenson is the Gary Oldman of novelists—he can take on practically any genre, and do it well. He went from straight post-cyberpunk sci fi to quasi-historical to quite historical epic, followed by a dip into the near-present, then veered into the murky realm of speculative fiction. His most recent book, Seveneves, weaves together his entire oeuvre (I can never remember how to spell the funny-looking word for “body of work”, constantly getting it confused with the French word for ‘egg’, so just in case I’m wrong this time, I mean the one that’s not an egg!). It’s got plenty of speculation, a veritable mountain of hard sci fi concepts and babble (more on that below), and takes place in two distinct time-frames, the immediate future and the so-distant-it’s-almost-unrecognizable future 5000 years hence.

If you, like me, love a mind-bending initial premise, then you’ll take to Seveneves immediately: its first sentence begins, ‘The moon blew up.’ This seemingly random, unexplainable event sets in motion what amounts, we learn quickly, to the End of the World. This is awesome! I was thinking as I read those early pages, a cool ‘what if?’ premise that asks the hard questions about, for instance, what actually has value if only the tiniest fraction of the human population is to survive (genetic diversity, scientists and engineers, intrepid no-nonsense types who can Get Things Done, etc.), and what has absolutely none (friggin’ politicians who interrupt messianic scientists constantly to talk incessantly, almost everything and everyone on earth, cloak-and-dagger plotters (=politicians), and also politicians and their sycophantic, cannibalistic lackeys. Politicians!). Of course, if none of the latter list would have any value in a high-pressure survival situation, one cannot help but begin to question their value even in our day-to-day lives…

Yes, the beginning of Seveneves is masterful and entertaining. And actually the ending, 5000 years in the future, is fairly intriguing as well. Even the middle has its moments. But the story definitely gets bogged down, or indeed bedeviled (the devil is, after all, in the details), due to Stephenson’s almost obsessive need to explain the workings of every single physics concept in excruciating detail. Ever wondered how orbit adjustments are/might soon be made in low earth orbit? Prepare to have all your questions answered, multiple times.

I’m probably even nerdier than Stephenson in most ways, but even I was taken aback by the loving, painstaking effort he put into all such descriptions. Trademark Stephenson, to explain the workings of thrusters or whatever in lavish detail, yet deadpan though multiple romantic encounters. He’ll spend dozens of pages on what amounts to background world-building, in a style that, while always entertaining to read, flirts with an almost footnote-like “here’s what you need to know about this physical process” approach, but skip through anything with the barest hint of melodrama (the inevitable attrition of the Cloud Ark population, for example, essentially isn’t described at all; instead we lurch forward in time to the critical moment for that dwindling population, skipping all the human drama in between).

As my previous reviews on this site will attest, I think romance, melodrama, and human emotions are all super-awesome, but techno-babble not so much. Given that context, you might be expecting me to “grade” Seveneves harshly. Expect again! (An expression that, I just noticed, doesn’t really roll off the tongue like “Think again”…)  Midway through I was gearing up to Go Negative due to all the descriptions of minute course corrections and the near-zero discussion of how everyone felt about things, but before I could bring my Guns of Negativity to bear, it suddenly hit me: all that emotional stuff is ALSO more or less useless in a high-pressure, ‘survival of the species’-type test. Who cares about a given character’s internal monologue about how much of a bummer it is that they had to work hard? Or whether so-and-so is getting married, or whatever? It’s all made irrelevant by the enormity of the challenge facing humanity. 

Seveneves is quite an unsettling story, in that respect, much like the recent Australian apocalyptic film These Final Hours. If there were an extinction-level meteor strike whose atmosphere-igniting firestorm will reach your country in twelve hours (or, in the case of Seveneves, a similar catastrophe in about three years), all of the normal narrative logic fails to apply. Hey, it seems like Jimmy and Zoe will get together after all—thank goodness he didn’t end up with horrid Vicki! Plus, Zoe’s pregnant, so happily ever after it is! But wait a minute…none of these relationships ultimately mean what we normally think they mean, because all (or, in Seveneves, virtually all) of the characters have been denied any chance at a future. Their ability to influence things, whether through making a genetic contribution (having kids) or by swaying the hearts and minds of others, is literally zero. If humanity will soon cease, for all intents and purposes, to exist, does anything we normally care about matter anymore? Stories such as these force the viewer to ask terrifying questions about what has ultimate value, and we might be surprised by what we discover in the night at the end of the tunnel.

So ultimately, Stephenson won me over with the unshakable logic that hardly anything, including who shacks up with whom, is of any import at all, and can safely be elided, whereas the physics of movement in space and such things are suddenly of tremendous importance (and perhaps have been all along, but we humans can only see this clearly when we are standing in our own graves!).

There were things about the book that struck me as not fully successful/satisfying, notably the transition from the present to 5000 years in the future (I’ve drunk the cool-aid that the journey is more important than the destination, but Stephenson clearly doesn’t rate how things came to be as of any significance compared to the simple matter of what is, and thus decided to skip ahead to the ‘good part’). Yet it was close to spell-binding throughout, even during the long near-asides to describe the workings of a thingamabob. Despite having only the faintest traces of melodrama about it, even to the point that we pretty much know almost none of the characters have any chance at a future at all, Seveneves was quite emotionally satisfying nonetheless, at least to me. Any fan of Stephenson’s prior work will likely find Seveneves, to paraphrase Rick Blaine, “just like his other books, only more so.”

The Math:

Objective Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for forcing readers to confront the bitter reality that all the crap we spend our time obsessing about (who ‘ends up with’ whom romantically, etc.) is of questionable value

Penalties: -1 for taking the Battlestar Galactica gambit of moving the story one year into the future, but multiplied by (literally) 5000, thereby demanding readers just accept our solar system’s future without any chance to see how things developed the way they did

Nerd coefficient: 8/10 "Well worth your time and attention, even if 40% of it is scifibabble!"

Zhaoyun, Wearer of Rose-Colored Glasses and Reader of Dreams, has been keeping it real here at Nerds of a Feather since 2013.