An amateur astronomer in Utah was the first person on Earth to realize that something unusual was happening. Moments earlier, he had noticed a blur flourishing in the vicinity of the Reiner Gamma formation, near the moon’s equator. He assumed it was a dust cloud thrown up by a meteor strike. He pulled out his phone and blogged the event, moving his stiff thumbs (for he was high on a mountain and the air was as cold as it was clear) as fast as he could to secure the claim to himself. Other astronomers would soon be pointing their telescopes at the same dust cloud—might be doing it already! But—supposing he could move his thumbs fast enough—he would be the first to point it out. The fame would be his; if the meteorite left behind a visible crater, perhaps it would even bear his name.
His name was forgotten. By the time he had gotten his phone out of his pocket, his crater no longer existed. Nor did the moon. (1)
It’s been a long time coming, but the most monumental SF novel of 2015 receives its review. Is Neal Stephenson’s apocalyptic epic worth negotiating its 800+ pages?
Author: Neal Stepheson
First published in May 2015
A cosmic incident renders the world uninhabitable, but humanity gets some time to prepare for the end. While we make it into space, events do not unfold smoothly, and we’re left with a handful of woman, including the titular Seven Eves, and a genetic library.
The third of the novel’s three sections takes place five thousand years later, when the spacefaring humans can once again walk the earth, and realize they’re not alone.
The book slows down after the world ends, and I know several readers who finally put it down, unable to make it through Stephenson’s minute descriptions of how the human race survives in space. The first two books crawl for pages, and Stephenson keeps his characteristic wit more in check than would seem wise. Humanity, though hardly calm about events, appear remarkably resolved in the face of imminent disaster. Tensions don’t take long to develop in the crowded conditions in space, however. The first two sections have much to recommend them, but at times, they feel like slogging through The Silmarillion before getting to The Lord of the Rings.
If you love detail-oriented hard SF, you’ll love the first section.
If you absolutely cannot make it through without falling asleep and having Stephenson’s weighty tome hit you on the head, then skip ahead. The second section becomes a little forced, but it features some interesting character development. Since five-thousand years have passed before the third starts, the characters are brand new, and the historic figures of the Epic sketched well-enough that you can follow the final storyline. You will miss much, but the third section, with its questing characters, sociological, historical, and technological speculations, and intriguing conclusion constitutes highly readable SF.
Stephenson also manages to be consistently wittier in the final section, from wry observances to larger asides, such as the sad and satiric tale of Tav’s Mistake, and the shadow it casts on human history. It is indeed, “unfair… for billions of people to focus blame on one representative of a culture who had died in a bad way five thousand years ago” (641). That story, however, demonstrates an understanding of historical memory, neatly satirizes our wired yet scientifically illiterate culture, and helps explain a technological limitation of an otherwise very sophisticated and technology-dependent culture. Stephenson’s novels have always served up such asides, and there is real pleasure in reading them.
Originality: 5/6 No one could dispute Stephenson’s inventiveness, even when addressing familiar SF tropes.
Imagery: 5/6 The technological and sociological speculations alone will draw many readers. Sometimes the imagery gets lost in the details.
Characterization: 5/6 I’m giving Stephenson an extra point for characterizing the future human races so effectively, and tying the characterization cleverly into their progenitors. The numerous tensions between members of individual groups work in context of the story:
…the Teklan side of the story was that Neolanders were dangerous ape-men brought into existence by a crazy Eve as a curse upon the other six races. The Neolander side had it that Teklans were what Hitler would have produced if he had genetic engineering labs, and that it was a good thing that Eve Aïda had had the foresight to produce a countervailing force of earthy, warm, but immensely strong and dangerous protectors(685)
Yet these many encounters also reflect on too-familiar human interactions in the real world.
The development of Kath-2 / Kathree could be its own novel, if the author chose to explore characterization in depth. The individual players are good, even when they veer into stereotype, but the novel needed more humanity to balance its historical perspective and technological description.
Emotional Response: 4/6
Editing: 4/6 Stephenson is an accomplished and brilliant writer, but the novel itself needed some editing.
Overall Score: 5/6 People who like the technical obsessiveness of the first portion may find the third a little cheesy; those who like the third may find the first ponderous. The second falls somewhere in-between.
I don’t know how plausible humanity’s survival would be under the circumstances depicted. The book, however, supports Eve Julia’s contention that there is “real value in the ability to envision possible futures” (554).
In total, Seveneves receives 33/42