Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

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Reviewed by David Harris

The first thing to say about this book – and it’s the first thing you will notice – is that it’s long. Massive. An 861 page whopper. If you find that daunting, it’s understandable, but let me try and persuade you to try it!

For me, nothing Stephenson writes can be too long. He takes the space he needs for the story, no more: the length isn’t due to padding, it lets the characters and plot and themes breathe and develop. Seveneves in particular, though, deserves that length. The second thing to say about Seveneves is that in it, the world ends, and (almost) everybody dies. That’s not a spoiler – it is established early on that this is going to happen, and the focus of the story is then the reaction to this.  It’s like one of John Wyndham’s apocalyptic thrillers: there is no possibility of averting what’s coming, the point is to work out how the human race can survive it, and how they must adapt to do so. And that is a serious subject that deserves to be treated at length. Here we have a planet full of people knowing that they will soon die, and a small group knowing that they may live. How will that play out? How will those who may be saved react to seeing their loved ones consumed? How will it all affect the surviving human race centuries, even millennia, on?

The threat to Earth is from the destruction of the Moon.  Stephenson suggests a couple of mechanisms for this (a singularity left over from the Big Bang, exotic matter, alien action – my money’s on the latter) but the “why” isn’t important, we just have to take it as given that the Moon fragments into a cloud of enormous rocks.  Jostling against one another, these break up into even smaller pieces in a runaway process, which fall to Earth (the “Hard Rain”). This rain of destruction doesn’t just destroy directly, but heats the earth, making life impossible. And it lasts 5000 years.

Fortunately, a small group of humans is already. literally, above all this, in the International Space Station. And doubly fortunately, we get a couple of years’ warning of what is to happen. So there is a (short) time to prepare – for the combined space science and industrial resources of Earth to design a lifeboat and begin launching people to it. This part of the story is, for me, the most impressive, the science and engineering worked out in credible detail – as well as the inevitable tensions between different schools of thought, different nations, governments and private interests. At its heart – that is at the heart of the story and of the ISS – are two women, Dinah MacQuarie and Ivy Xiao and I enjoyed the way they are portrayed here, the way their friendship is allowed to develop even as the rest of the world tries to frame them as rivals (in an age of social media even the destruction of the Earth and the plans to overcome are an issue of controversy in cyberspace).

The drama, then, in this first section – about one third of the book – is the reaction to the inevitable destruction: saying goodbye to all that has been, to friends, lovers, family, while building something for the future. This comes to a climax in that rain of fire, witnessed by Dinah’s father at his remote mining camp in Canada and by Ivy’s fiance before his nuclear sub dives beneath the ocean.  In between we have the heartrending “Vigil for the End of the World” from Notre Dame in Paris where musicians play continually until the sky, literally, falls in.

And of course there is also selfishness, chicanery and attempts to carry the rivalries and flaws of Old earth into the future.  In a grimly credible scene, Ivy is replaced as Commander of the International Space Station because… well, because she’s not a man.

Stephenson builds up a lot of momentum with this story which he carries into the next section, where the orphaned human race – several hundred of them – must survive.  It’s very much a story of space derring-do, with some surprises, especially from the continuing vein of old-Earth politics that has infected the Cloud Ark. At the end, in a scene of almost religious weight and significance, the survivors make plans for the future and choose the fate of their descendants

There is then a jump – those 5000 years! – to see what the choices came to, with earth being recolonized but humanity, in the meantime, comfortable settled in a space “habitat ring” around the planet. I’ve seen some reviewers confess to difficulty with this jump, and of course one does then have to pick up new characters, indeed pretty much a new story, the story of Kath Two, an explorer who teams up with a representative cross-section of the human races (the descendants of each of those ancestors) to investigate a mystery on Earth.

For my part, I found this fairly easy at the story level. The new characters are engaging and Stephenson lays enough plot trails in the first two parts of the book to reward the reader for spotting connections and consequences, while back some real surprises about how things turned out (I’ll just say that not everything in the future is rosy). My enjoyment was slightly diminished by a nagging feeling that the first two parts had only been written as a set-up for the third, and that the ending just couldn’t be substantial enough to justify that. However, in the end I think that Stephenson manages to pitch the later part of the story at just the right level – there is less science and more action in this part, which is mainly set on Earth itself – and delivers a thrilling conclusion. (It was also fun to see some signature  features from his earlier books, such as the beneficient secret society that thinks it has an inside track on history, recur.  I wonder if he might be setting up a sequel?)

To sum up, this is an excellent, enjoyable read. It is long – but by the end you’ll wish it was longer.

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David blogs at Blue Book Balloon. A former physicist, he is married to a vicar and lives by a village green sometimes used to film Midsomer Murders, but has, against the odds, survived so far. David works in tax but promises he isn’t going to bring that up here.

Neal Stephenson, Seveneves (Borough Press: London, 2015). ISBN: 978-0-00-813251-4, 861pp., hardback.

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