Book review: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

seveneaves.jpgA while back, everyone started referring to Science-Fiction as Speculative Fiction: a genre that deals with the question of ‘What If?’, and in Seveneves we have a near-perfect example of this new thinking.

What if an unspecified event caused the moon to fracture into four pieces?

What if the Earth’s finest minds realised that the pieces would continue to fracture and, in two years time, begin a millenia-long bombardment of asteroids that would heat the atmosphere to the temperature of an oven, boil the oceans dry and make the planet unable to sustain life for five thousand years?

What if those same minds put in motion a desperate bid to preserve a tiny portion of the human race: convert the International Space Station into a command centre for hundreds of small habitats (arks) designed to support a colony of hand-picked, hastily-trained survivors whose descendents would, one day, return to Earth?

Yes, it’s an epic, and it just doesn’t cover the destruction of the planet, and the struggle and sacrifices made by the ark dwellers to survive; it moves forward five thousand years to speculate what humanity becomes as it evolves during the asteroid rain.

Seveneves is almost 900 pages long, and most of it reads less like a novel, more like a PhD thesis. The level of technical detail (the effects of low gravity on the human body, rocket propulsion, lunar composition, orbital mechanics, space medicine, genetics…) is probably the deepest I’ve ever come across in a sci-fi novel. The third-person narrative explored the effects of the coming armageddon in much the same way: I sometimes got the impression I was reading a rota of  psychiatric report rather than dealing with real people. Every so often the story was interrupted by several pages of scientific exposition/technical speculation, which, if I’m honest, I sometimes found a little bit tedious. After a few days engrossed in the book, I wondered if the author intended to write a novel or a manifesto for the survival of the human race.

But at the same time, the book contained pockets of real emotion. You do get a surprisingly deep sense of each character, and I felt a great sympathy for the sacrifices and choices they were being asked to make. The scene when the asteroid rain begins to fall and the arkdwellers are saying their goodbyes to their loved ones back on Earth… gripping stuff. Likewise, it was almost distressing to watch the survivors struggling to move forward, making the same social and political missteps as the (now extinct) human race had back on Earth.

The book jumps forward five thousand years and gives the reader a historically important snapshot of what the human race has become. This could have been a separate book on its own, and for me, it lacked the pace and sense of urgency of the first two parts of the book. It presented some fascinating ideas for the future of Humanity 2.0: how we evolved based on the decisions made by the original survivors thousands of years ago; how science and technology has moved forward (or not) and the future the people of New Earth face now that the asteroid rain has finally stopped. It was one of those books that I occasionally stopped reading to look up and think, ‘Yes of course, that’s what would happen’, and that is the brilliance of Seveneves: you are left with more than a strong sense that this could actually happen. Life-changing? Not quite, but it’s certainly given me a new sense of the temporary nature of the planet we’re living on.

Yes, there’s a lot of technical detail to wade through, but on the whole I think it’s worth the effort. Seveneves is a book that comes back to haunt you. Every time you watch the astronauts on the ISS, every time you hear about the discovery of new celestial body that may (or may not) be capable of supporting human life, every time you look up at the moon: you’ll stop for a moment, think of Seveneves and wonder… What if…?

A must-read for any sci-fi buff.

Eight out of ten.


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