Book Review

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Where do I begin? This behemoth took up two months of my life, but it was time well spent. The first sentence of the book is no secret and immediately sets the tone:

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.

Despite it being and staying unexplained, of course one can only imagine this disintegration of our natural satellite to promptly set a heap of things in motion. But when no one suspected that it could lead to rendering the Earth’s surface uninhabitable, one of the main characters, astrophysicist and TV personality Doc Dubois, predicts there is only about 24 months left for humankind to prevent mass extinction. We really only have a few options in regards to escaping the Earth’s atmosphere headlong and it inevitably brings about a severe population bottleneck. So what would humankind do if it was faced with certain death in the near future? Will it still obey established rules? Or will it descend into utter madness?

“Tav started it,” Aïda said. “He ate his own leg. Soft cannibalism, he called it. Legs are of no use in space. He blogged it. Then it went viral.”

What would you do? Would you quit school or work and maybe spend the next two years indulging yourself? Or would you go about your daily business and affairs as if nothing was any different? Would you go and make sure the people who you love know that you do? Would you wreak vengeance on the people who wronged you when really there is not much time left for any retribution, penance or guilt? Would you take the government issued suicide pills rather sooner than later? Or would you prefer to go out with a bang? Or should I say bolide?

There is so much potential to delve deeper into the human psyche here, but that is not the story of Seveneves. It is left up to one’s imagination and thanks to Stephenson’s ability to create these thought-provoking stories, I have spent quite some time letting mine run considerably wild. And while his entire human race, despite some major bumps in the road, is surprisingly working well together for the greater good and the ultimate goal of survival, to me, it felt a little too hopeful. My cynical self keeps reminding me that no matter how much you lower your expectations, humans have a knack for finding ways to disappoint. Nevertheless, any reaction to any event explored in a fictional but potentially believable setting makes for a good exercise if by golly, this ever was to really happen.

We can’t run this experiment a thousand times to see the range of different outcomes. We can only run it once. The human mind has trouble with situations like that. We see patterns where they don’t exist, we find meaning in randomness.

Seveneves is hard science fiction in its truest form and the worldbuilding is nothing but monumental. The book has been criticised for being too descriptive and the amount of narrative exposition or info dumping so very characteristic of Stephenson, but when comparing it to Snow Crash, I did not mind that much this time.

Lots of speculation has been made by readers trying to see the many characters of the first part of the story as inspired by existing people and it certainly is quite entertaining to imagine Neil deGrasse Tyson and Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk running around in there, but the characters are just developed enough that any comparison neither hurts nor enhances the reading experience.

As it turned out, imagining the fate of seven billion people was far less emotionally affecting than imagining the fate of one.

I was not entirely ready to let go of the protagonists when the second part of the book began and the narrative fast-forwarded several millennia into the future. Even though it could be argued these really are two separate stories, to me, it would have been a step too far to divide Seveneves, just short of 900 pages, into two books. I can see however, how it can cater to two different kinds of readers with their own tastes and preferences and I probably am just lucky that I fall in the intersection of that diagram.

You might expect me to give Seveneves a full five stars. And yet I don’t feel comfortable doing so, because I keep wondering if some well-targeted editing would have been able to reduce the word count significantly without losing the epic quality, and thus make it a little more accessible for people who might be daunted by just its sheer volume.

Regardless, if you happen to offer me a few glasses of pinot noir or a Godfather, my new weapon of choice, I may or may not be talking about this book incessantly. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

We’re all nerds now. We might as well get good at it.

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