Written by: Neal Stephenson
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 744 (Nook)
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: William Morrow
Why I Chose It: Title was selected as a part of the Speculative Chic retrospective on the titles nominated for a Hugo. I’m quite possibly the only person on earth who actively liked the Librarian info-dumps Snow Crash, which still counts as my favorite speculative fiction genre fiction novel (my favorite non-speculative genre fiction novel being I, Claudius in case you are curious).
What would happen if the world were ending?
A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space.
But the complexities and unpredictability of human nature coupled with unforeseen challenges and dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remain . . .
Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown . . . to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO TALK ABOUT THIS BOOK WITHOUT MILD SPOILERS AS TO PREMISE, NOVEL STRUCTURE, AND OVERALL PLOT. YOU ARE WARNED.
Discussion: This discussion will contain broad spoilers as to premise and the overall plot, largely because I think it is extremely difficult to have a worthwhile discussion of this book without them. I will avoid spoilers as to specific character story arcs, for whatever that’s worth (more on why later).
Before you pick up this book, ask yourself a few questions:
- Did you read Snow Crash?
- Did you like Snow Crash?
- What did you like about Snow Crash?
- Did you like its wry, dark sense of humor and its enjoyable, well-written characters?
Too bad. By and large, you will not find either of those things in this book.
Did you enjoy listening to the Librarian lecture Hiro about Sumarian mythology and the origins of human language, but think, Gee, I really wish he would talk more about space physics and genetic engineering?
Well then! Pull up a chair.
I happened to have liked listening to the Librarian lecture Hiro, so I basically enjoyed Seveneves. It’s not going to be for everyone, though, particularly not topping out at over seven hundred pages. If you can’t get through the Librarian sections of Snow Crash, then seriously, I would not even bother with Seveneves. Go read The Diamond Age or something. You will not get through this book, unless space physics and disaster films are hardcore your jam.
All right. With that in mind, lets get our first spoiler out of the way: the moon blows up. This happens quite literally on the first page, so it’s not that much of a spoiler. Most of humanity dies within five years. Next spoiler (this one is quite a lot bigger, and is probably the biggest I’ll discuss, so you’re warned): when I say “most of humanity dies” I mean “all but eight women,” of which one is post-menopausal. The remaining seven give the book its title: Seveneves. Seven Eves.
I hemmed and hawed a bit when I was writing this piece about whether I would break the book up into two distinct arcs or three. Stephenson seems to break it up into two: events that quickly follow the explosion of the moon, and events that followed five thousand years later. But I think, from a narrative standpoint, that there are really three, though the first two are closely linked. Tongue firmly in cheek, I would define them follows:
1. OMG THE MOON EXPLODED AND WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE HORRIBLY! Yes, the novel goes, most of us will.
2. OMG ARE WE GOING TO BE ABLE TO STOP EXHIBITING ALL THE REALLY STUPID PARTS OF OUR COLLECTIVE ID LONG ENOUGH TO AVOID GOING EXTINCT? Yes, the novel goes, we shall do so through the magic of genetic engineering, though we will first try our absolute damnedest to obliterate ourselves with a heady mix magical thinking, petty selfishness, violence, cannibalism, and abject terror, just you watch.
3. OMG IT IS NOW THOUSANDS OF YEARS LATER AND WE ARE NOT ALONE EXCEPT ALL THESE ALIEN LIFEFORMS ARE HUMAN. Yes, the novel goes, at their core, they are all human, for all the good and ill that comes with it.
Let me make this clear: you will not, through the course of this book, learn why or how the moon explodes, and Stephenson is upfront about the fact this question will not be answered. Why it happened doesn’t matter — what matters is what it would mean (worldwide total extinction level event!!!) and how we as a species would attempt to cope with it (catastrophically badly!!!!!) Thankfully, that premise is sufficiently interesting enough that I believe relatively few readers will get hung up on a BUT WHY DID THE MOON EXPLODE? loop.
Here’s the problem: the characterization in this novel is painfully thin. Stephenson’s focus in this novel is clearly the thought-experiment which formed its initial premise: how does humanity survive an extinction-level event of this kind, and what does it make of us to do so? There’s just enough depth to the characters through whose eyes we the readers experience that we can kinda-sorta care about what happened to them as individuals. This may have been a deliberate choice on Stephenson’s part, since whether Dinah, or Ivy, or Doob survive vaguely matters, but far less than whether humanity will get sufficiently out of its own way to survive as a whole. I cared more about whether the characters of the first two arcs made it than those of the third but this isn’t saying much. I candidly had a hard time keeping the individual characters in the third act straight, and that’s not typically a problem I have as a reader. Stephenson is more than capable of writing characters that I, as a reader, care deeply about. He didn’t do so here. The premise is sufficiently interesting to carry the book, so I don’t feel it’s a fatal flaw, but I do think it’s a major one.
Allow me to make a brief Librarian-like digression and discuss a well-known phenomena in the world of fundraising: it is much easier to raise money for one person than it is to raise money for a hundred, or a thousand, or a million. As the slightly mangled saying goes, what happens to one person is a personal tragedy, one happens to a million is a statistic. We can’t wrap our little primate brains around the idea of horrible things happening to thousands of people the way we can around one person’s specific pain. We’ll sniffle and weep and log into a Go Fund Me for someone who got a lot of news play as a human interest story. By contrast, we will watch reports of hundreds dead and millions in peril due to war, famine, disease, or natural disaster, we will blink, go Wow, that really sucks, I hope somebody does something about that. Then we will flick on Netflix and binge-watch Bojack Horseman.
If you have ever wondered why those SAVE THE CHILDREN!!!! type ads focus on one child’s specific horrible situation rather than discussing the plight of their entire community, this is why. It is also why every professional fundraiser I know wants to throw their remotes through their TV every time they hear about eleventy-billion dollars being raised for one specific person or family who has been in the news lately. It’s not that the begrudge the person or the family the help. It’s that they can’t get people to be that quickly and openly generous when the lives of millions are at risk.
It’s somewhat ironic that this very phenomena is discussed in Seveneves, in a different context. Stephenson gets that we as a species need specific human stories to latch on to. It’s a great shame I just couldn’t latch on to the ones in this novel, and it isn’t that I didn’t try — I read the book twice. I’d care a lot more about the fate of humanity in Seveneves if I cared more about the characters in Seveneves. And I don’t. They’re too flat too much of the time, and the occasional glimmers of more only highlight what’s usually missing.
Seveneves is also missing much of the wry humor that underpins Stephenson’s best work. This novel takes itself extremely seriously. It is quick to point out (in a manner I sadly find all too believable) that we may be as a species too crazy and self-destructive to live, but by and large, it doesn’t find the (admittedly extremely dark) humor to be found in the idea. Which is a shame, as I think that would have gone a long way towards enlivening the novel as a whole and making the characters more three-dimensional.
I think chopping the book up into a trilogy would have helped. Seveneves is a monster at over 700 pages, and its easy to imagine this novel topping out at over a thousand if the characters were better fleshed out. Perhaps the work, as a whole, would have been the better for it. There is more than enough plot in this book to justify three sizable novels, and the three distinct story arcs would have provided natural starting and stopping points.
There is also one, extremely specific scientific error that eroded my willing suspension of disbelief to the point where I might very well have put the book down if I hadn’t decided to read it for this review. I’ll share it, but I also get that it’s a personal tick. I have a professional interest in the legal and ethical problems of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART), and I therefore know a fair bit about it from a scientific standpoint. It’s Seven Eves, and not Eight Eves, because although eight women survive the first two arcs, one of them is post-menopausal. A big deal is made about the fact that, through the wonders of extremely advanced genetic engineering, we can tackle the problem of How do you successfully breed a new generation of humans with only seven pre-menopausal women and no men? But a big deal is also made about the fact that there are only seven available wombs for gestating these marvels of human ingenuity. I can suspend my disbelief that what is managed in terms of bio-engineering is mind-bogglingly advanced given the near-future setting of most of this novel. But I nearly stopped reading entirely at the whole OH WE ONLY HAVE SEVEN WOMBS bit. You do NOT have seven wombs. You have EIGHT wombs. We’ve been able, through hormone injections, to enable post-menopausal women to successfully carry a pregnancy to term using a donor egg to term for years now. If you can figure out how to work around the need for sperm, Moira, you can figure out how to rig up an estrogen injection to give yourself one more incubator and extend the amount of time the other seven are available.
That said, the concepts in this novel are fascinating, and it is not hard to see why it was nominated: it is the kind of big-idea, relatively crunchy science fiction novel that historically dominates the Hugos, and I imagine it has a reasonable shot at winning, particularly given that it featured on the Sad Puppy reading list for potential Hugo nods.
In Conclusion: Seveneves is well worth a read, if you can get past the thin characterization, but it’s more intellectually interesting than moving and that can be a tough ride given the novel’s length of over seven hundred pages. That said, it is intellectually extremely interesting, so if that’s your jam (as it is often mine), go for it.