Seven (or Maybe Eight?) Eves: A Review of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves

113Seveneves (2015)
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).

Premise:

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.

51J6jDML6PL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_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.

y450-293If 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.

Ahem.

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.

14 Comments

  • nancyotoole August 10, 2016 at 8:07 am

    For several weeks, this book sat in the new section on display at one of the libraries where I work. Whenever I’d walk past, half of me would think “Hmmmmm. I heard this was pretty good” the other half would go “Ugh! At 700 pages it better be more than just ‘pretty good'” I eventually went with the no, and it looks like I made the right choice, from your review. I wouldn’t have liked this at all!

    Reply
    • Keyes August 10, 2016 at 9:55 pm

      Depends largely on what you want to get out of a novel of its kind, I suppose. Thing is, if you want to be OMG ALL TIME KEEPER on my list I need to give three-forths of a damn about your characters and I gave maybe half. About the characters in the first two-thirds. The last third? Meh.

      Reply
  • Shara White August 10, 2016 at 12:19 pm

    I’m just impressed you read through such a thick book TWICE. Some of these bricks are lucky I can make it through them at all.

    Reply
    • Keyes August 10, 2016 at 9:54 pm

      Professional hazard. I read EXTREMELY FAST.

      Reply
  • janicu August 10, 2016 at 1:44 pm

    I loved SNOW CRASH. There are people who don’t like SNOW CRASH? WHAT.

    What I couldn’t get through was CRYPTONOMICON (918 pages yo). After that attempt failed I haven’t tried a Neal Stephenson book, but I do have a copy of SEVENEVES, so maybe..

    Reply
    • Shara White August 10, 2016 at 2:49 pm

      *raises hand* SNOW CRASH was a DNF for me. Maybe the timing was wrong but I just couldn’t get through it.

      Reply
      • Keyes August 10, 2016 at 9:53 pm

        Shara being unable to finish Snow Crash continues to break my heart a little every time I think about it. ;_; BUT UNCLE ENZO!!!!!!!!!!

        Reply
        • Shara White August 10, 2016 at 9:58 pm

          Maybe one day, I’ll get the urge to give it another go. Maybe….

          Reply
  • Lane Robins August 10, 2016 at 2:23 pm

    I think you summed up my fears exactly in this review. I wanted to read it, but was afraid that the characters would get short shrift for the IDEAS. I also really don’t like reading much about man’s inhumanity to man in crisis situations so… I passed on it. Sounds like that was the right decision for me. I’m glad you persevered though! Twice!!

    It’s kind of a pity though because if you can’t write a really satisfactory thought piece in SF, where do you get to do that?

    Reply
    • Shara White August 10, 2016 at 2:47 pm

      But shouldn’t authors be able to do that without making characters out of cardboard? Are the two truly mutually exclusive?

      Reply
      • Keyes August 11, 2016 at 7:10 am

        I don’t think they have to be, personally, but it’s a hard balance to strike. Minor digression: I am absolutely unable to force myself through anything actually written by J.R. Tolken. Watching adaptations of his work? Sure, I can do that. Slogging through actually reading The Fellowship of the Ring? Nuh-uh. Someone (I forget who) pointed out to me once that part of the reason I probably find it a hard read is that Tolken doesn’t care as much about the plot and characters-as-people as he does about aspects of his worldbuild, particularly language and history. I do not care about those things (in no small part because I am attempting to read him decades after he actually wrote it and launched an entire genre as we know it, and I will thus never experience how fresh and innovative his world build actually was.) But he cares more about them than he cares about anything else, and to a modern reader? It shows.

        Before I run away from the pitchfork wielding mob, I mention this because I think this observation that “what does the author actually care about” is super important if you’re trying to write or to read a “HERE IS A BIG THOUGHT EXPERIMENT” piece. “This is the thing I am actually interested in” can drown out the other aspects of the work to the point where the work itself is unbalanced and harder to read than it could be.

        Reply
    • Keyes August 11, 2016 at 6:54 am

      If you can’t handle man’s inhumanity to man in crisis situations this is not the book for you. No. That’s one of the things I thought was done well, but I generally like those kinds of plots (bad people doing horrible things to each other is a genre of film I actively like). I remember the horrible things people did to each other in this novel better than I remember who did the horrible thing to who.

      As a thought piece, I think this is a successful work, though, aside from the fact that I wanted to throw my tablet across the room at the “Here is some ultra well researched highly realistic science. Now I will mysteriously not google whether hormone injections can assist a post-menopausal woman in carrying a child to term” bit

      Reply
  • stfg August 12, 2016 at 4:43 pm

    Thanks for the review. I just finished this book last month. I too basically liked it but had some issues with parts of it.

    I am one of those who liked Cryptonomicon much better than Snow Crash. The humor in Snow Crash just did not do it for me. In Cryptonomicon, Stephenson proved himself the master of the interesting infodump, which I really enjoyed. There was some humor there, but it was not the over-the-top fever-dream humor of Snow Crash, and it appealed to me much more.

    So I do think I was always going to like this book more than a Snow Crash fan would. I was not bothered by the characterization, though I was not blown away by it either. Certainly the villains were a little too villainous.

    What really got to me was the sociological speculation. It is standard, possibly even obligatory, for SF books to speculate about future scientific and technological advances, and I really enjoyed the hard science speculation in this book. But I think speculating about sociological change over 5000 years is fraught with dangers.

    Specifically, I had problems with the idea that each ‘Eve’ formed her own race and that 5000 years later, each of the races would have the characteristics of its founder. Apparently there was no interbreeding between the descendants of the different Eves?

    I’m white, and to me this sounded like a white guy talking about race in a way that was just not informed by reality. It really hit some negative buttons for me.

    I still gave it 4 stars on my Goodreads account. I did enjoy reading it. But I’d be very careful about recommending it to someone else.

    Reply
    • Keyes August 18, 2016 at 8:54 am

      The interbreeding thing got me too–Stephenson to my recollection said it happened, but it didn’t seem to have made much of an impact, and I would think it would. By way of comparison, dog breeds only stay dog breeds as long as humans are there to control mating artificially. Left to run around on their own, after a few generations, well, you get this: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potcake_dog

      You’d think the Eves-lines would have blended into a space-faring potcake dog. Metaphorically.

      Reply

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