By Neal Stephenson
All Posts Contain Spoilers
It’s been a long time since a book has upset me this much.
I mean that as a compliment. Novels elicit a very few, predictable emotional states from me: intellectual appreciation, amusement, the fun of learning something new, and sometimes, when they are really excellent novels, anger or sadness at the unfairness of the world, the cruelty of people.
But it is rare that a novel makes me feel the way ‘Seveneves‘ has: dreadful, afraid, oppressed, a little grief-stricken, and, I think, even rarer that the novel should be End-of-the-World science fiction, a genre which normally moves me little*. Most apocalypse scenarios are far-fetched MacGuffins; they have very little emotional resonance in of themselves, at least for me. You are meant to care about the characters – the apocalypse is there only to put them in extremis.
But ‘Seveneves‘ is different. The premise of this novel is that, one day, one normal day, in our world in our reality, a rapidly moving cosmic event, perhaps a small black hole, causes the moon to shatter into seven large pieces. The pieces have the same center of gravity as the intact moon, and so remain in orbit around the Earth. As they begin to collide with one another and fragment, astrophysicists figure out that their collision and fragmentation rate will accelerate. Eventually, the pieces will begin to fall to Earth in an ‘Hard Rain’; they will super-heat the atmosphere, setting it alight, killing all life on Earth and boiling the oceans. At the time of the initial event, the Hard Rain will begin in approximately two years.
‘Seveneves‘ is the story of humanity’s preparation for the Hard Rain, its desperate attempts to put as many people on the International Space Station as possible, and the sequelae, in space, of the extinction of life on earth.
I’ve been trying to figure out why ‘Seveneves‘ is so effective. It isn’t because it’s perfect. Neal Stephenson has great strengths as a writer, and some weaknesses, most of which are on display here.
For example, he has trouble with endings, and the ending of ‘Seveneves‘ is emblematic: the book wraps up suddenly and anti-climactically after nearly 800 pages of vividly-imagined plot, as though Stephenson, after saying what he wanted to say, got bored and wandered away from his writing desk.
And not all of it is equally well-imagined. Stephenson loves physics and engineering: there are pages and pages of loving, fastidious descriptions of orbital mechanics and robotics programming, so long and so detailed that they come to feel almost punitive. No detail of physics is left unelaborated.
However, much of the second half of the book hinges on a small miracle of biology taking place, on a revolution in gene-editing technology which would require that genes work entirely differently than they, in fact, do work in real life. The future of humanity relies on, and cannot be understood without, this miracle, but it receives only a paragraph of Stephenson’s attention. He doesn’t even posit a mechanism of action – he simply asserts that genes work this way, and that scientists may manipulate them thus, with such and such results.
It goes like this:
“…the point is that I can get a digital record of its DNA. Once that’s in hand, it turns into a software exercise – the data can be evaluated and compared to huge databases that shipped up as part of the lab. It’s possible to identify places on a given chromosome where a bit of DNA got damaged…It is then possible to repair those breaks by splicing in a reasonable guess as to what was there originally…if it’s a disease – something on the books, defined in the medical literature as such – I will fix it…Once all that is done, each of us gets a free one…one alteration – one improvement – of your choice, applied to the genome of the fertilized ovum that will grow into your child. And your child only….So, Camila, if you think it would improve the human race to get rid of its aggression, why then, I will search through the scientific literature for a way to reach your goal genetically.” (p. 552- 562)
Maybe it’s because biology is my day job, but this unevenness bothered me. The point of hard science fiction (well, one of the points) is the science; to just gloss over the parts you’re not interested in so you can rush back to describing robot movements cheats the reader. This is especially glaring when they are crucial to the plot, when they represent far and away the most important scientific advance depicted in your science fiction book!
But this unevenness doesn’t blunt the emotional effect of this novel, which springs, I think, from two things:
- There is something viscerally upsetting about the disintegration of the moon. The effect on the reader of imagining a moonless earth is primitive and unsettling and super-effective. And Stephenson achieves it with very little fuss – there are no long passages of devotional description of the moon, no exploration of its place in our cultural imagination. The novel begins when the moon ends, and, like the old cliche, you discover that you had been unaware of what you had until it was gone.
- According to Stephenson’s premise, humanity has two years in which to confront its own annihilation. Some authors would have taken that opportunity to show a depraved humanity, a burning, anarchic world, man’s heart of darkness let loose. Stephenson does not, and the mostly calm manner in which his world walks towards its own destruction is more affecting than mayhem and evil could have been. Most people continue to live lives which very much resemble their old lives, but why? What meaning can your routines possibly have when, in the near future, you and everyone you love will die in flames? For that matter, what meaning do they have now?
I didn’t enjoy this book – that verb is inappropriate. In fact, I spent much of it in the grips of a morbid agitation, unable to relax or be cheerful. But I was completely glued to it; all my free time went to reading it. If you’re looking for a feel-good romp, this is not your book. But if you’d like to be freaked out, to work hard for the privilege of being unsettled, if you want to spend some time absorbed in a genuinely dark, movingly dark, future, this is your book.
*Although, now that I think about it, the only book which has unsettled me in this way in recent memory is, weirdly, also sci-fi: ‘The Reality Dysfunction‘, by Peter Hamilton, which describes a vision of the afterlife which made me want to run screaming into the nearest church.