BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Mankind has two years to save the human race from the end of the world.
PROS: Interesting concepts; well thought out science; epic in scope.
CONS: Excessive info-dumping and world building drag down the story.
BOTTOM LINE: A good story overall, but one that ultimately feels like it would have benefited from being shorter.
Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Seveneves, is a book that might easily be classified as apocalyptic fiction, but such a label would mislead readers who might be looking for scenes of wonton death and destruction. While it’s true that the book does feature devastation that renders the Earth uninhabitable by humans, the focus seems to be less on the damage and more on mankind’s frantic rush to save as much of humanity as possible. It’s more survival-in-space story than it is dying-on-Earth story.
Seveneves starts off with nothing less than the destruction on Earth’s moon by an unknown Agent. While the world postulates what could have caused such a catastrophe, it’s not long before a popular physicist named Dubois Harris (“Doob”) surmises that the mysterious destruction that resulted in several large chucks of orbiting moon rock is just the beginning of worse things to come. Within two years, the debris from the moon’s destruction will multiply as collisions occur and the orbiting debris will begin falling to the helpless Earth below it, rendering it uninhabitable. Even worse, there is no way to stop this extinction-level event. The only way to save the human race is to get them off the planet. Thus a plan is devised to launch as much of humanity as possible into Earth orbit, anchored around the already-orbiting International Space Station.
It is this monumental effort coordinated by all the nations of the world that is the central focus of the first two-thirds of Seveneves. The setup has several things going for it, the most paramount of which is the drama permeating the impending destruction of Earth. Systems are devised to choose survivors and the face of society changes nearly overnight. When the destruction of the world is imminent, gone are long-term plans and selfish ambitions. Or at least, that’s what the story would have us believe. Maybe I’m more pessimistic than most, but it was hard to believe that, facing the end of the world, nations would come together so quickly on as monumental an effort as a coordinated plan to save the human race. The road to survival was not without its complications, to be sure, but the plan nonetheless succeeds amazingly well considering the circumstances. Ships begin appearing in space, at first to prepare for the oncoming onslaught of “lifeboats”, then the ships themselves as they assemble into the “Cloud Ark” that eventually holds the whole of humanity.
The harder parts of the survival plan, it seems, occur once the fortunate few survivors are in space and they must adjust to their drastically different lives. Stephenson uses the opportunity to lay out the rigorous details of how such a plan could work. It’s obvious he’s put a lot of thought behind it. Pessimism aside, the plan itself does not completely break suspension of disbelief. In fact, it produces many wonderful scenes of Big Ideas and character drama. To the former point, readers get to witness scenes of extreme asteroid mining, space walking, and orbital mechanics; to the latter, readers get some nail-biting moments of tension as factions form and subversive malcontents put their nefarious plans into action.
All of this is delivered in a narrative that is engaging and informative, though it often has a habit of wandering three steps back to discuss the long and unnecessary history of some aspect of the scene that shouldn’t really matter. For example, at one point one main character meets another. Stephenson then delivers a long dissertation on the history and manufacture of weapons in his world, only to finally return to the main meeting scene and not have it matter one bit. This pattern — plot element/infodumping sidebar/return — is employed to the point of distraction. To be fair, it often worked from a world building perspective (more on that in a bit) but that framework should not have been as noticeable as it was. There’s a sense one gets that the novel could have been significantly trimmed down. All that said, the first two-thirds of the book tells an interesting story filled with fantastic ideas, just like science fiction should be.
The last act of Seveneves jarringly jumps readers five thousand years into the future where we get to see the long-term fate of humanity. It kicks off with the offspring of humanity’s survivors, now numbering three-billion people and organized into seven races. Well, I says “kicks off” but in reality, it stalls for about 150 pages while Stephenson indulges himself in a gratuitous amount of world building. I never thought I say this about a book of science fiction — a genre that prides itself on the world building which is the source of much of my enjoyment from it — but it was just way too much. There was nothing really happening otherwise other than characters moving about in an empty foreground. If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that world building is only good insofar as it supports a forward-moving story. Thankfully, when things did begin to happen — in a scene reminiscent of the cave scene at the end of 1963 version Planet of the Apes — it was enjoyable by comparison. Stephenson was back to his usual bang-up job of wowing readers with fantastic ideas in a story whose scope is nothing short of epic.