My former editor Andrew Wheeler used to delight in sending me books he knew would cause me great pain. He would have, I suspect, been smiling very cheerfully had he had the opportunity to send me Neal Stephenson’s sprawling Seveneves, because it combines Stephenson’s traditional weaknesses — intrusive infodumps, shaky plotting, resolutions that feel less like endings than the moment the author got bored typing — with a host of new ones, like an almost Jack McDevittesque grasp of deep time.
One day, the Moon explodes into seven large fragments and a host of tiny ones. Maybe it was aliens. Maybe it was a passing primordial black hole. Maybe it was an author who couldn’t be bothered to come up with a plausible scenario. The important thing is that scientists soon realized that a process analogous to Kessler Syndrome would turn a handful of large fragments into a vast cloud of smaller pieces. Enough of these fragments would impact the Earth to scour the planet clean of all life.
The good news is that this will not happen immediately (or this would have been a very short novel instead of the behemoth that it is). The bad news is that it will happen all too soon, in two years or so. Everyone on Earth is doomed.
Everyone on Earth. Everyone off Earth, on the other hand …
Space colonies should be able to survive the coming bolide storm. Unfortunately for humanity, while this is set far enough into the future that the ISS has been expanded somewhat, human efforts to colonize space are still tentative. Somehow, in the two years between the Moon’s Giant Space Kerblooie and the Hard Rain that is to come, the spacefaring nations need to massively scale up human presence in space.
When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. The Cold War, dubious space solar power schemes, and hilariously stupid lunar noble gas mining proposals failed to inspire nations to invest the huge amounts of money needed to build even rudimentary space colonies (not to mention convincing voters to accept the inevitable worker deaths while building the infrastructure). The slender possibility of saving humanity from its coming doom proved a more effective goad. Somewhat more effective.
When the Hard Rain comes, the population of people in space is still but a handful. Their living conditions are unpleasant and their toolkit barely adequate (if that). Things might just work if they pull together … but they don’t.
Five thousand years later, the descendants of the survivors will still be paying for mistakes made in the days immediately after the Hard Rain.
There is just so much to dislike about this book that I am not sure where to start. “Exploding moons don’t act like that” is probably as good a place as any, I suppose. For his plot to work, Stephenson needs for there to be a significant delay between the Giant Space Kerblooie and the Hard Rain. This requires some fine tuning for the Giant Space Kerblooie (henceforth GSK): basically, you need to apply enough delta vee to all the bits of the Moon to blow it apart (about 2.4 km/s) without giving any of the fragments much extra delta vee. You only need about another kilometre per second to send objects into a transfer orbit from Lunar orbit to the Earth. Any more delta vee and dinosaur-killer-sized ejecta would have arrived on Earth within days of the GSK. So whatever caused the GSK, it was implausibly uniform in its effects 1.
Of course, the real reason the GSK worked the way it did is this is yet another example of what I call a backswing novel: a book in which the majority of the human race is exterminated in order to give the protagonist more room to swing a sword. In this case, it’s to force space colonization. Those cities didn’t materialize because in the real world there was and is no sensible and sufficient reason to build them. Destroying the Earth forces people to move into space in a way they probably won’t bother to do any time soon.
Having had my WSOD savagely beaten before it was finally shot in the head, I admit I was a less charitable mood than was perhaps fair. I noted quite a few details that rang false to me. For example, are submarine reactors really a good inspiration for space reactors? Would the Hard Rain really desiccate the Earth? Boil the oceans, sure, but would the water then escape into space?
Stephenson books tend to be bloated, poorly organized, and (ironically, given the book’s insistence that survival in space means crushing social deviance) undisciplined. This is no exception. For example, Stephenson loves to pause the story to infodump. While I grant some people like that sort of thing, not all infodumps are created equal. I question whether it was really necessary for the author to explain, as he does on page 237, what one in twenty means.
While the first (and largest) section of the book is about the effort to colonize space before the Hard Rain, there is a second part of the novel, set 5000 years after the Event, which seems to exist so the author can explore what might in another context be called racial realism ; the entire population of spacers is descended from several small, distinct founder populations. Five thousand years of reproductive isolation, variation, and selection (natural and otherwise) has given rise to a racial caste system, under which knowing any person’s race gives a lot of information about how they are likely to behave. I can assure anyone worried about subtext in this section not to worry: there’s no subtext. It’s all right out in the open.
There are many different types of intelligence,” Luisa said.
Ivy gave a little shake of her head. “I’ve seen all of that stuff about emotional intelligence and what have you. Okay. Fine. But you know exactly what I am talking about. And you know it can be propagated genetically. Just look at the academic records, the test scores of the Ashkenazi Jews.
There’s no particular reason the far future bits couldn’t have been interesting. Even if one doesn’t buy into the models Stephenson is using, being an SF fan means being willing to stand by while a sobbing biology is pushed out the airlock, sans suit. Hardened fan that I am, I kept being yanked out of the story by details that make me question whether Stephenson has any idea just how long five thousand years is. Five thousand years from now, Spacers apparently speak a language closer to our English than our English is to Old English. I am no linguist but that seems somewhat improbable.
I did appreciate that he managed to fit portentous moralizing about the evils of Facejournal, Livebook, and other social media into the far future section. That’s the nice thing about apocalypse: it gets the kids off the twitter 2 and focuses them on proper activities, like building massive bits of infrastructure.
There is a lot not to like about this novel: the contrived scenario, the flat characters, the bloat, the dubious science. But the book did have two praiseworthy features, the first of which is that this is one of the rare books to acknowledge that in a crisis, people will for the most part attempt to contribute to mitigating the crisis. The second is that despite the impression I got when I was about two thirds of the way through it, it is in fact finite and if you keep reading long enough, eventually you will be finished. You can save quite a lot of time by doing what I failed to do: ignoring this book and reading a more rewarding work.
Seveneves is available from William Morrow.
1: In fact, even a fairly modest impact on the Moon can kick debris off the Moon onto the Earth in impressive quantities. The lack of any massive meteor storm is cited as evidence against the idea that lunar crater Bruno formed within historical times.
2: This obsession with the evils of social media also turns up in John Varley’s Slow Apocalypse. It may be a generational marker, the way SF of a certain vintage had intrusive Damn Dirty Hippies rants.