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Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Buy from IndieBoundIt may seem unusual for a man who has been so critical of science fiction’s recent lack of optimistic future visions to have gone all-out with an end-of-the-world novel. What is even more unusual is that, in spite of its apocalyptic story, Seveneves still manages to be an optimistic vision of the future. Welcome to Neal Stephenson’s world, where the unusual is par for the course. Taking thematic cues from present-day anxieties about eco-disaster and the world’s decreasing overall sustainability, Stephenson delivers the big-idea, hard SF magnum opus that the genre has been pining for since we lost guys like Hal Clement and Robert Forward. It’s a disaster novel to end all disaster novels, and even though it foregrounds the sad reality that some men (and women) just want to watch the world burn, it also makes the point that we have enough grit and determination to bounce back from literally anything if we set our minds to it. Even if it’s a task as daunting as rebooting the entire human race from a surviving population of only seven women.

Getting right down to business, Seveneves blows up the moon in its first sentence, and then spends the next two-thirds of its 850+ pages in a relatable near-future in which humanity has but two short years to prepare for the Hard Rain, when the shattered pieces of our fallen satellite crash down upon the planet, burning the very skies and rendering the surface uninhabitable for millennia. Our only hope seems to lie in orbit, where a few thousand survivors and a massive archive of frozen embryos might be able to ride out the catastrophe in habitats linked to the ISS, which here is an expanded version of its current self with a captured asteroid attached to one end.

At the forefront of the crisis are such figures as: celebrity science popularizer Dubois Harris (clearly modeled on Neil deGrasse Tyson), the first to predict the fate that will befall humanity and who helps to spearhead global survival efforts; Ivy Xiao, ISS commander; and Dinah MacQuarie, an ISS scientist in charge of a team of robots clambering over and digging into the captured asteroid. The world’s nations scramble to send representatives to live amongst a hastily assembled “Cloud Ark,” a collection of small orbital habitats that can dock to one another but also undock and maneuver out of the path of descending chunks of moon, which (at least this is the idea) obviates the problem of everyone in orbit dying at once if they’re all aboard a single giant habitat that gets struck. For about three hundred pages, Stephenson ruthlessly weeds out those readers who lack the endurance for the hardest science fiction, and devotes reams of text to the technical minutiae of orbital survival, what must be accomplished in a very short time frame, and how daunting it all is. But as in Andy Wier’s similar attention to techie detail in The Martian, these passages not only demonstrate that Stephenson has done his homework, they enhance dramatic tension by driving home the enormity of what the characters have to endure and how they have to endure it.

Once the two-year grace period has passed, and the global bombardment has begun, Stephenson shifts into some of the most riveting dramatic storytelling of his career. In addition to the threat from above, we are reminded none too harshly that even with complete species extinction at stake, there will be people who prioritize their own personal and political ambition over the good of all, mostly through the sheer narcissism of equating what's best for them personally with what's best for everyone else. The notion of society in a survival situation is pretty non-negotiable, and it's one of the novel's most unkind truths that even at the worst possible times, there will be those who foment discord and division rather than unity. Stephenson spares us the pathos a lesser writer might bring to a tale of human extinction and thus makes his story more powerful with an approach that, while it doesn't lack for compassion, is unsentimental and brutally honest.

As the title makes clear, the consequences of the human drama are as catastrophic as the wreckage of the moon itself. The novel’s midsection — culminating in the entire human race being reduced to eight women, one of them post-menopausal (this is no spoiler, as all the book’s promotion focuses on it) — climaxes in some of the most harrowing storytelling the science fiction genre has seen in a generation. And if the book had ended there, it would have been as close to perfect as a novel can be.

But it doesn’t. Stephenson goes on for another 300 pages, in a sequence that shoots us five thousand years into the future. The descendants of the “Seven Eves,” the surviving women of the Cloud Ark who went on to bear children following epigenetic experimentation, now number roughly three billion, living in a ring of orbital O’Neill habitats. The Earth’s surface has, for many years, been undergoing a re-terraforming and recolonizing process. The most interesting idea Stephenson explores in these passages involves the way in which not only seven distinct races have descended from each of the Eves, but how their political divisions line up with the personal antagonisms some of the Eves felt towards one another. The Habitat Ring, constructed from leftover bits of the old moon, is a technological marvel, but it’s also got its own equivalent of the Berlin Wall, with the Red communities (descended from the two women who are essentially the early story’s villains) separating themselves from the Blues.

This section of the book is no less intellectually rich than what precedes it. Dramatically, it’s far less powerful, though. We don’t have the same degree of investment in the characters, possibly because they aren’t suffering the extreme levels of calamity faced by the Eves. (Though I found myself kind of fond of a teenage boy calling himself Einstein.) Still, Stephenson makes their cultural practices and differences believable, and what this section of the story lacks in suspense and epic dramatic sweep, it makes up for in being more generous with that brand of dry humor that Stephenson’s fans will be familiar with from novels like Cryptonomicon and the better passages of the Baroque Cycle trilogy. What I enjoyed the most, and found most unexpected, was the way Stephenson pays homage to, of all things, epic fantasy tropes here, as the storyline involves a discovery on the Earth’s surface so momentous that it requires the formation of a “Seven,” a team consisting of one member of each Ring race, to explore it. You can’t get much more Tolkien than that. (Stephenson even has everyone meet up in a tavern, which I am reliably told is the opening to pretty much every D&D campaign there ever was.)

While there’s much to admire in these chapters, they made me wish Stephenson had saved all of them for their own sequel. As it stands, they feel like a tacked-on narrative coda, without the intensity and profound sense of dramatic consequence that so powerfully shaped the Ark sequence. And, as Stephenson’s longtime readers will know, he sometimes has this habit of ending his novels in a way that feels like he got up to pour himself a cup of coffee and forgot to sit back down again. This book is no different, ending literally in the middle of a conversation that was just getting interesting.

But it’s a testament to just how amazingly right Stephenson gets everything he does get right that these aren’t much more than niggling flaws. With some of the most accessible and direct storytelling of his entire career, offering ideas and visions that simply explode with ingenuity and a real sense of awe, Seveneves is not only one of the major SF titles of its year but a much discussed and revisited title for years afterward. It’s a screaming meteor of a book, plunging right through the crust of humanity’s fickle failings to the beating heart at its core.