A shotgun blast of flawed brilliance

Seveneves is Neal Stephenson in his pomp. This book combines all his most splendid qualities as a writer: his febrile inventiveness, his meticulous technical research, his appealing and idiosyncratic characters, his fabulously convoluted plotting, and his exemplary pacing of event and revelation. It’s a gripping a thriller, an intellectual riot, and a truly speculative work of speculative fiction. A lot of contemporary fantasy and science fiction has obvious allegorical intentions, or lends itself easily to the assumption that it does, especially when it posits some kind of natural disaster constituting an existential threat to humanity, but I got the impression with Seveneves that Stephenson was very interested in the specific questions in the book. What are the ramifications of exponential phenomena? How would the human race, en masse, respond to the certainty of its imminent death? What are the minimum conditions for politics to take place and how would it change when conducted near that minimum? What would happen if the moon blew up?

All of this, along with many more queries, is launched at the reader as though from a shotgun. Stephenson knows how to write at various levels of intensity (Cryptonomicon dedicates an entire chapter to the eating of a bowl of cereal), but his default mode is flat out, with a lot of detail. We are dropped very rapidly into the situation (which I won’t describe in much detail in case I have any readers and in case they want to read Seveneves), and right into the middle of the things that a large cast of characters try to do about it. Everything that happens is enormously important and high stakes. This is often the case with thrillers, but one of the things that Stephenson seems to be setting out to do here is to find out whether that kind of tone can actually be sustained by a plausible scenario—is it possible to imagine a situation in which things really would be as desperate as they are depicted in most action narratives? And could that kind of a narrative be elucidated with rigorous technical verisimilitude?

The totality of the catastrophe that Stephenson imagines requires him to set his book a short distance into the future, in order that the human race could be equipped with the technology it would need to survive without access to the Earth’s biosphere. So robotics are a good way further down the road, in terms of autonomy, both physical and in terms of control systems. Genetics have also cracked some important conundrums, such as how to reliably and safely induce parthenogenesis, and how to reconstitute data from digitally stored genomes. He doesn’t really discuss the details, apart from having some characters note that Biosphere II went very badly back in the 1980s, but closed-system agriculture also works a lot better for his characters than anyone would be able to make it work today. However, much of the technology in Seveneves is entirely recognisable. Computer technology, nuclear power, and space travel all work within pretty much the same parameters that they work within today. He depicts some impressive feats of space exploration and navigation, but they could all be done right now, it would just be a question of scaling up the infrastructure—of actually deciding to do them. These things are represented with the great technical detail and accuracy that comes only when a writer loves to do research.

This is a book, as tends to be the case with Stephenson, that is much more about the things that happen than it is about what it would be like to experience them. If you want to know what it would be like if the moon blew up, you’ll have to wait (I suspect for a very long time) for Kim Stanley Robinson to write a novel on the same topic. However, the characters in Seveneves are very much more plausible, more lifelike, and more sympathetic than the characters you’re likely to encounter in a mainstream thriller or adventure story. Stephenson does the work, and he’s interested in people, in what it is like to be people—but he is at heart an entertainer, and he does not want the experience of reading his books to be too challenging. Thought-provoking, yes. Difficult? Not so much.

Spoiler alert: about three quarters of the way through, having been reading a narrative that tells you what happens over the course of three years or so in fine-grained detail, the reader turns the page to be confronted with the words ‘five thousand years later’. What follows is really an extended epilogue. I have to say that it doesn’t work as well as most of the mad ideas that Stephenson has when he’s making novels, but he’s founded a career on tearing up the rulebook, and I’m happy in principle that he’s continuing to do so. I think what he really needed here was an entire sequel of about the same length, but he wanted to explore some ideas about what kind of a society humans might come up with if they had to get off-planet sharpish and stay there for a long time. His thoughts are extremely interesting and entertaining. It’s basically an extremely strong bit of world-building (as was the first half of the book, where the world he built was considerably closer to our own), in which he explores the ramifications of everything that happened in the few years of the opening narrative—a narrative which constitutes a kind of historical bottleneck for humanity.

I guess that one thing he postulates (without explicitly stating it) is that a technologically advanced society which is able to continually watch all the earlier versions of itself on video, would change a lot less over the millennia than one that has to confront the constantly receding horizon of living memory. Broadly, I agree, but I didn’t find the degree of cultural continuity that Stephenson imagines to be that plausible. Five thousand years is roughly as much recorded human history as we have had to date, and even with the limited cultural memory we inherit from the start of that time, we can tell that a thousand years of historical distance amounts to an enormous gulf of cultural difference. We might be able to watch videos of ourselves in five thousand years, but we will have forgotten irretrievably what it was like to be us, in my opinion. However, the stuff Stephenson makes up here is extremely cool, so I enjoyed it anyway. In the final analysis, this narrative appendix feels rushed, and it is absolutely crammed with explication, either in the mouths of the characters or of the narrator, for which reason I felt it would have been better presented as a meta-documentary appendix, or as another novel altogether. All of this might be okay if it was really, really important, but actually, in comparison to the unfeasibly high stakes of the first narrative, what happens in the second one is kind of inconsequential. I’ve never said that Stephenson was a perfect writer, and this is largely a novel of surpassing brilliance, but it has this one major flaw, which is rather more obvious than the flaws in any of his other books that I’ve read.

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