Seveneves by Neal Stephenson [Library of Babel]

Seveneves is the latest from Neal Stephenson, and true to form is a whopping huge book-- 700-something "pages" in electronic form-- and contains yet another bid for "best first paragraph ever":

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. It was waxing, only one day short of full. The time was 05:03:12 UTC. Later it would be designated A+0.0.0, or simply Zero.

The rest of the book involves what follows on from that. Namely, the destruction of basically all life on Earth.

I should say up front that this was, on the whole, a very enjoyable book. In a lot of ways, it's what I wanted but didn't get from The Three-Body Problem. Stephenson writes some of the best infodumps in fiction, and this book is full of long discourses about various subjects-- the physics of whips, orbital mechanics, space travel, epigenetics-- that somehow manage to avoid being deadly dull. This is largely due to the fact that his characters are very well drawn, with clear personalities, and those personalities are reflected in the infodumping.

For a 700-plus page book, this also moves along pretty briskly, and engagingly. It kept me up late a couple of nights, and one morning after reading the just-before-the-apocalypse bits, I turned my alarm clock off when it started beeping, on the grounds that the world was ending, so why get up to go to work? It took a little while before I recalled that was just really immersive fiction.

So, I enjoyed it, and recommend it, and absent another year of stupid shenanigans would be very surprised not to see it up for a Hugo next year.

That said, there are some odd aspects to thing.

For one thing, it's really two books awkwardly pasted together. The first section, about the apocalypse following the destruction of the Moon and the efforts to save something of humanity in space habitats is a complete and fairly satisfying story in itself. Had they packaged this and sold it as a single volume, people would even say that Stephenson had managed a satisfying ending for a change...

The second section picks up in the very distant future, with (obviously) a completely different set of characters, and a very different plot. The earlier story obviously plays a huge part, but again, this could've been packaged up as a far-future sequel. The main in-story reason for putting the two together in one books (distinct from the marketing reason "people don't buy short books these days") seems to be that the second section is devoted to firing some guns that were ostentatiously placed on the metaphorical mantel in the first bit, but that's hardly an insurmountable obstacle.

As to the question of endings, the second part is much less successful in that regard than the first. It pretty much just stops, after setting up a couple more Big Questions that may or may not be hooks for a sequel (I don't know if he's said that he's planning a follow-up). Which is fairly characteristic of Stephenson, really.

Also characteristic of Stephenson is the tendency to lean very heavily on a handful of things that are either scientific "hot topics"-- epigenetics being the main example here-- or some cool thing that Stephenson apparently learned about between the last book and this one. In this case, it's the physics of whips, which gets a long-ish infodump early on, and then becomes central to the technology of the future in a way that seems a little improbable, but just oozes panache.

I also found it harder than usual to avoid matching characters in the near-future, pre-apocalypse section with real-world analogues-- my mental image of "Doc Dubois" is pretty much Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sean Probst is Elon Musk, JBF is HRC, etc. I'm not sure whether this represents a general flaw, or was just because the central folks here happened to line up with people I'm more aware of than, say, possible analogues to Reamde characters in the world of videogame development.

Finally, there's some not-all-that-subtle politics in there, but it's fairly easy to skip past, at least for me. Others might not find it so; if you're allergic to Stephenson's brand of techno-libertarianism, well, consider yourself warned.

Again, those quibbles aside, I enjoyed this quite a bit, and found it a very good antidote to the things that irritated me about The Three-Body Problem. If the open questions in the later section of the book were, in fact, hooks for a sequel, I'll happily read it; if not, I'll add it to the "Not Good With Endings" column, and happily read whatever he decides to write next instead.

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distinct from the marketing reason “people don’t buy short books these days”

Is the 300-400 page range considered "short" these days? That was a typical length for Terry Pratchett's books. Plenty of paperback mysteries come in around that length as well. I know that some of the later Harry Potter books were quite a bit longer, but I thought the fifth one (which was as far as I made it in the series) would have benefited from some judicious editing, and Rowling was by that point famous enough for her books to not be edited.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 04 Jul 2015 #permalink

I'm pretty sure you correctly identified the real-world analogues Stephenson was intending (I've only read the online preview, and even I said that Dubois is clearly Tyson).

By Will "scifanta… (not verified) on 04 Jul 2015 #permalink

In my mind's eye, JBF was Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but maybe I just jumped to the wrong conclusion. I didn't think the Tyson and Musk analogues were in any doubt.

I'd agree with your overall assessment, thought the last third didn't slow me down too much. I did however wish for an abridged version subtitled "You play Kerbal Space Program? OK, we'll skip the orbital mechanics explanations."

I liked it a lot, too. That was some really first rate disaster porn... And yes, the ND Tyson analogue was screamingly obvious from the first page. I thought it was kinda cute, really.

As far as the stitched-on last third, it's weird. It probably breaks all kinds of formal narrative rules, but somehow it mostly worked for me (set aside the ending; I think I've just become so acclimated to Stephensonian "endings" that I don't even cavil at them any more). I found I wanted to see what was the result after all that apocalyptic stuff. So maybe I should have found it structurally bothersome, but I largely didn't....

I don't object that strongly to the last section-- as I said, there was at least one gun placed on a mantel in the first act that needed firing at some point (I'm a little dubious about the _second_ mantel-gun that got fired, but whatever...). The transition was a little awkward, though, and it might as well have been a book-length sequel with an actual ending.

I meant to mention in the positive features that I appreciated the fundamental optimism of this story. It would've been somewhat more in tune with the current mood to have this be a crapsack world where everyone just dies, but I like the fact that there is a far future, and it's mostly better than the present.

"...people would even say that Stephenson had managed a satisfying ending for a change…"

So it's not just me.

I can't wait to get hold of this one - although it doesn't sound as good as Anathem.

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 05 Jul 2015 #permalink

I thought JBF was Palin - right age, child w Downs Syndrome, etc.

I wanted to like this book, but the second half just obliterated my suspension of disbelief. I'll avoid spoilers, but all three big populations in the end just seemed absurdly implausible to me on multiple levels. I also kept expecting one more returning group, based on the setup earlier in the story - that group making it was at least as likely as the other three. I'd put this below Anathem but above the draggy parts of the Baroque Cycle.

By Douglas Natelso (not verified) on 06 Jul 2015 #permalink

How does it compare to the alternate universe version written by Robert Charles Wilson? And I don't know/remember who made the joke but I've always liked the explanation of stephenson's fiction as "he's 3/4's done with the book and his editor calls and asks him if he's done. he replies 'not yet, but I'll have it for you tomorrow."

By brian ledford (not verified) on 06 Jul 2015 #permalink