Neal Stephenson doesn’t shy away from big concepts, long timelines, or larger than life events. His most recent novel, SevenEves, begins with the moon blowing up. Readers never find out what blew up the moon, because all too quickly humanity discovers that the Earth will soon be bombarded by a thousand-year rain of meteorites — the remnants of the moon as they collide with each other in space, becoming smaller and smaller — which will turn Earth into an uninhabitable wasteland. Humankind has a 2-year deadline to preserve its cultural legacy and a breeding population. The solution is to make extended life-in-space a possibility. The first two thirds of the book follows a group of astronauts and scientists who are among those who will form the new colony orbiting Earth, waiting a few millennia for it to become habitable again. The last third shows us what has become of humanity after 5,000 years in space, as they begin their slow return to the surface of the planet.
From the first sentence of the book (“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason”), I thought this concept had brilliant potential to be both scientifically and emotionally compelling. But about 200 pages in, I realized that not much had happened yet … well, you know, other than the moon exploding. Further, I realized that I still didn’t really have a strong sense of the main characters. I flipped back through what I’d read and saw that for each single line of dialogue, there were about two dense paragraphs of exposition — essentially infodumping — usually geared towards explaining complex engineering or physics problems with which the human race was now faced.
Infodumping isn’t a dealbreaker for me, nor is a little educational material in my fiction. Some of my favorite facts come from fiction, such as the idea of a tesseract in A Wrinkle in Time, the curvature of space and time as explained in Michael Crichton‘s Sphere, the explanations of seventeenth-century trade and economics in Stephenson’s BAROQUE CYCLE, or literally anything about rabbits from Watership Down. But when I’m reading fiction, I also expect to equally enjoy other aspects of the prose, such as, for instance, character building, internal and external conflict, scenes, dialogue, or even just “events that are happening.”
The first 400 pages of SevenEves, on the other hand, functioned mostly as a lecture to the reader so that a) they could appreciate how hard the task of creating long-term self-sustaining space habitats is, and b) marvel at how Stephenson, a scientist himself with a background in computing, geography, and physics, had come up with workarounds for the problems inherent to the task. Part of me wanted to say, “Well, goody for you, Neal; you figured it out. Can we please get back to the task of creating a story now?”
One of the reasons I never connected to the characters is that Stephenson spreads himself too thinly by following a few different point-of-view characters, instead of one particular character. This strategy works for a lot of books, but in such an information-heavy novel, which already skimps on character development and scene-building, it would help to at least anchor the readers with one p.o.v. character. However, since SevenEves didn’t do that, I felt relegated to the surface of each of these character’s interior lives, instead of getting to know one of them more deeply. I wasn’t sure why Stephenson chose to follow the characters he did, either. One of them (a clear reference to Neil DeGrasse Tyson) didn’t contribute much of essence to the plot. While he was intelligent and relatively sympathetic, he ended up playing the role of a very highly-educated observer. His life and efforts neither helped nor hindered the plan for human survival. However, Julia, an appealingly Machiavellian former U.S. President who cheats and manipulates her way up to the space colony instead of dying on the surface, was not a p.o.v. character. I would have liked to hear her internal monologue, especially as she ended up playing a large role in the eventual outcome for humanity.
Around page 400, things really picked up and conflicts exploded — political, personal, practical — across the page. The second half of the book had a plot that I would even deign to describe as “rip-roaring.” As if the moon blowing up and destroying life on earth wasn’t enough, after a few years in space, the survival of the human race is put up against odds that are practically insurmountable. The last third of the book occurs 5,000 years in the future and we get to see how humanity has met those odds, succeeded, and (most thrillingly) evolved. And there are wonderful surprises waiting, too, that Stephenson has seeded into the plot from the beginning. The end of the book made me want to cry, not only because of feels (*sob* “Life really DOES find a way!” *sob*), but also because of the beautiful way in which Stephenson wove his ending together.
This does not, however, erase the fact that the beginning of the book also made me want to cry from frustration and anger that such a great idea had been squandered.
It pains me to say anything bad about Stephenson’s books. In addition to writing lots of books that I love, he wrote Anathem, my favorite book. And the ironic thing is that, for many readers, SevenEves may not feel that different from Anathem, which also has lots of infodumping, in this case regarding philosophy and theoretical physics. Much of Anathem consists of philosophical lectures in the form of dialogue between characters. But the concepts Stephenson expounded in those lectures ended up being thematically central to the plot of the book, whereas in SevenEves, I felt like it was too much engineering talk for a book that was not really about engineering.
Maybe I’m being condescending to the practical sciences here. Why can one book be “about” philosophy, and another one not be “about” engineering? Perhaps Stephenson, and other readers, might argue that the book is about engineering: all of the human knowledge and ingenuity that is devoted to guaranteeing the survival of humanity. It’s for those readers that I’m loath to give SevenEves a low ranking. I believe that many people will love this book, perhaps with the level of fervor that I feel for Anathem. However, despite the impressive ending, I felt largely frustrated and let down by a sub-par execution of a fantastic story.
I must be developing an immunity to the Kool-Aid that Neal Stephenson serves his fans. Snow Crash and Crytonomicon are two of my favorite books, but I was lukewarm towards The Diamond Age and then hit a wall with Anathem. So when I heard he was coming out with Seveneves, and that the plot was much more like traditional “hard” SF than his earlier cyberpunk, steampunk, nanotech, cryptography, technothriller works, I wasn’t sure I’d like it. And after reading Kate’s review, what I read confirmed my suspicions. But really there’s only one way to know if you like a book or not — you have to read it for yourself.
Basically, when you have over 900 pages to work with, you can dedicate hundreds of pages to detailed world-building and still have plenty of time for complex characterizations and a very extensive plot. You’d think that was enough for any author, but we’re talking about Neal Stephenson here. His info-dumps can bring even the most dedicated geeks to their knees, and that is what his die-hard fans are looking for. I didn’t mind his info-dumps in Cryptonomicon, since they were interesting in their own right, but I was completely defeated by the esoteric mathematic and philosophical discussions of Anathem, which I found extremely tedious.
In Seveneves, the info-dumps essentially constitute the first 500-600 pages. Once we know that the moon has been destroyed and then surface of the Earth will be inundated with meteorites (in the first paragraph), Stephenson then decides that the best way to further the story is to describe in painstaking detail every single technological and engineering difficulty that humanity will face. The amount of research he has done is stupendous, and he clearly admires Neil de Grasse Tyson, who appears in barely fictional form. He throws a bunch of scientists and astronauts into the unwanted role of being humanity’s only hope of survival. Despite the book’s length, he doesn’t devote any time to the fate of the seven billion members of humanity who have been handed a death sentence. Instead, we are treated to chapter after chapter dedicated to problems of geosynchronous orbits, propellant limitations, tiny meteor strikes, artificial habitats, etc, etc.
For me, the first two thirds of the book were really heavy going. Even though Stephenson introduces a long list of characters, it’s hard to get into their innermost thoughts despite the dire situation facing them. As crisis follows crisis, the odds get more and more insurmountable. There are plenty of fascinating details, but the pace of progress is really slow. Finally humanity finds itself down to just seven women, or “seveneves”. With extinction looming, these women must make a momentous decision on how to survive. Their council sets the stage for the creation of seven races of humans that evolve from them.
Fast forwarding 5,000 years, the story finally brings us to the part that I was actually more interested in, the resettling and terraforming of the Earth after the meteorite storm. And when he does start to describe the new races of humanity, each descended from the original Seveneves, the scenario is well-described and such a contrast to the dire straits of the first two-thirds of the book. Here Stephenson is again in his element, giving us a well-constructed future society with complex interactions. There is a huge amount of potential here for a multi-volume far-future epic about terraforming the Earth along the lines of Kim Stanley Robinson’s RED MARS trilogy. The big problem is that we have already had to slog through 600 pages just to reach this point, and now have only 300 pages left to establish the new far-future scenario and actually incorporate a viable plot that can be wrapped up in that short span.
Unfortunately, just like in The Diamond Age, Stephenson again runs out of pages to deliver a satisfactory storyline after all the world-building. He hasn’t learned how to forward the story amid all the technical descriptions. I know he can achieve this as he did in Snow Crash and Crytonomicon, but this book felt a lot more like the existential torture of Anathem, which I couldn’t finish. In fact, the abrupt nature of the ending of Seveneves suggests ample room for a sequel, which is really irritating, since the least he could do is give us a stand-alone novel if it’s almost 1,000 pages long. I know there are plenty of readers out there who don’t mind multi-volume door-stopper epics, but I have 400 books on my TBR list, so I won’t be lining up to read the sequel if it does appear.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal (who does the first two thirds set right after the moon is destroyed) and Will Damron (who does the far-future portion). I’d have to say that Kowal is facing an uphill battle with a very exposition-heavy narrative that I already found boring, and she makes it much worse by doing a terrible job trying to make the male voices sound masculine by doing this silly low voice that sounds ridiculous, especially for the de Grasse character. Perhaps it’s easier for male narrators to do female voices, but this just sounded awkward. When we go forward 5,000 years into the future we also get a new narrator, Will Damron, which is a huge relief both due to the change in storyline and because he does a much better job.
People are different from one another, shocking. Whereas I am not particularly fond of red wine (my father says the taste comes with age), I have friends who love drinking it. The same happens with books, and so it is that I seem to have had a vastly different experience reading Neal Stephenson’s ode to Newton, Seveneves, from that of Stuart and Kate.
I should first qualify the statements I am about to make. I’m a college student, and I have chosen Physics as my niche. I am neither the smartest person in my class nor the most passionate about the subject, but my days are filled with more equations that spawn even more equations, concepts that make my head spin senseless, and phrases such as (plucked at random from my Atomic Physics textbook): “The striking feature of this result is that the degeneracy of the two product functions a(1)b(2) and b(1)a(2) is removed by the electron repulsion, and their two linear combinations differ in energy by 2K.”* It’s easy to see then why I do not share Stuart’s and Kate opinion that Seveneves‘ extensive worldbuilding is a) problematic in its length, and b) unconnected to the story’s progress.
Credit has first to be given to Neal Stephenson for making it a pleasure to read technical matters that in less deft hands would have been painful to deal with. Throughout Seveneves I never had to stop to catch my breath because I felt overburdened with trying to understand what was being said, even if the beginning of the book’s second part felt harder to imagine than the preceding one. They were also, in my view, well-spaced throughout the text so that it never felt that I was in class and Stephenson was a boring teacher. Sure, there are descriptions, they’re somewhat technical, and there’s lots of them. Some of them might very well have negligible effects on the plot’s advancement, but for the most part I think they serve their purpose well, which is giving the readers the context they’ll need to understand why characters do what they do, and why things turn out the way they do. Getting to space is hard, and staying there is harder, even more so when you combine it with the conflicting politics, the conniving and scheming between factions, the sheer emotional weight of knowing the world is about to end. If some parts can be said to be superfluous, well, I think the benefit of the doubt should be given. Stuart and Kate’s opinion is that a lot of it is superfluous and detrimental to the story, but that was not my experience.
It’s also telling that both Kate and Stuart say they much preferred the story’s second part, because for me it was very much the other way. I downright loved that first part. I read it in glee, with a smile stapled on my face. I brought that behemoth of a book whenever I went because I wanted to keep reading to find out what happened next. I almost wish I could go back in time to read it once more in blissful ignorance of what’s going to happen.
Kate and Stuart’s experience seems to have been diametrically opposite to mine. Some people think Pulp Fiction a great movie. I think it sucks. Some people will not like Seveneves, and that’s fine, but I wanted to stress a point which Kate brings up at the end of her review, which is that while Seveneves might not work for some people, for others it very well might. Who knows, perhaps you will be one of them.
* This just means that much like a pair of magnets’ north poles repelling one another, the two electrons of the Helium atom interact with one another, so they won’t both have the same energy.
Well, I’m with you, Joao. Seveneves is epic science fiction and I loved almost every moment of it. I often get frustrated with Stephenson’s unsubtle attempts to educate us with his novels, but in this case, probably because this is the type of sf/futurism I’m particularly interested in, I welcomed it and learned a lot. Yes, there were parts that went on way too long, but I felt generous this time. That doesn’t always happen with Stephenson. It’s easy to get frustrated with him and I can understand why Kate and Stuart did. It’s notable that you and I are scientists, Joao. I have a feeling that explains much of the difference of opinion here. This is just our kind of stuff.
The audio version was excellent.