Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

From the jacket:

What would happen if the world were ending?

A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space.

But the complexities and unpredictability of human nature coupled with unforeseen challenges and dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remains…

Five thousand years later, their progeny – seven distinct races now three billion strong – embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown… to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.

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This book. Wow. I enjoyed it even more than I thought I would when I initially picked it up. Stephenson has created the most thought out and detailed piece of speculative fiction I have ever read. The characters he creates are immediately familiar and sympathetic, and I found myself missing them and wondering what became of them even after the story had taken me five thousand years into the future.

I’m going to delve into more detail after the jump, and discuss some finer plot points and talk about what worked for me and what didn’t. If you’re the kind of reader that likes to start a book with as little knowledge of it as possible, I recommend waiting to read on until you finish it.

The action starts with the first sentence on page one:

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.

The human ability to come to terms with and even normalize catastrophe is astounding. A mysterious agent causes the moon to blow up leaving seven distinct pieces, and less than a week later there are talk shows, internet sites, and smart phone apps dedicated to the phenomenon. Names have been created for the largest fragments based on their appearances, including Peach Pit, Potatohead, Mr. Spinny, Acorn, Scoop, Kidney Bean, and Big Boy. Life has continued on in relative normalcy, until Scoop and Kidney bean slam into one another exactly 7 days after the event, causing Kidney Bean to split in half. It becomes clear that the pieces are going to keep colliding with each other and will soon cause a phenomenon that scientists have coined The White Sky. Soon after that, all of those fragments are going to fall down into Earth’s atmosphere in the Hard Rain, killing everyone and everything remaining on the planet’s surface.

Dr. Dubois Harris, Doob to his friends, is the scientist, and well known television commentator who makes the discovery and inevitable announcement of the end of the world to NASA leadership and high ranking government officials. By his calculations, the inhabitants of earth have about two years until the Hard Rain begins. Finding a way to maintain life outside of the Earth’s atmosphere will be the only way to ensure the survival of the human race. After several different scenarios are discussed, they decide the best hope for survival is to build a Cloud Ark around the International Space Station. The ark will be a large grouping of individual habitats with the ability to hold a couple of thousand people at most.

It is about this point in the book where I imagined chaos taking over. Mass hysteria, governments failing, wars breaking out, people looting and killing each other. While there are a small amount of backlash and panic, humanity for the most part remains calm. People from all over the globe pull together in the common goal of continuing the human race, knowing that only a very small number of them will have the chance to go live in the Cloud Ark. Here again, Stephenson adeptly captures the human ability to turn even the most terrifying of outcomes into the status quo.

For the next 250 pages or so, Stephenson describes in vivid detail every aspect of what it takes to live in space, and the efforts that go into surviving on the Cloud Ark. We are introduced to so many memorable characters including two of my favorites, Dinah and Tekla. Dinah is an American scientist who specializes in robots and their ability to mine asteroids. She is living in the space station on an asteroid mining expedition when the moon explodes. Tekla is an olympian and cosmonaut who is sent up shortly after the event to work with the other inhabitants of the ISS to help establish the Cloud Ark.

An incredible world is created, and everything is considered, including government, military, religion, privacy, security, and even reproductive rights. Humanity is basically starting from scratch. All social constructs are gone, no governments, no military forces, no social classes. However, the inhabitants of the Cloud Ark haven’t forgotten any of those things, and what life was like bound by their controls. Here Stephenson does a remarkable job realistically portraying how quickly people fall into familiar roles even when nothing dictates it. I reveled in these details and was unable to put the book down for long stretches at a time. He also goes into an incredible amount of scientific detail, going on for pages about orbital mechanics and cosmic radiation. I am a huge sci fi geek, and normally enjoy getting into the scientific nitty gritty (i.e. The Martian). I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of the science described in Seveneves was over my head, and it was so prolific, that I found myself skimming over large portions of it. This is one of the reasons that the book did not earn a perfect five crown rating.

The other reason is in the last 300 or so pages. This felt like an entirely different book, and even his writing style and character development seemed to change. I am grateful for the detail Stephenson put into building this new world, and filling in the history of several millennia. He considers evolutionary theory, epigenetics, psychology, and race, to name a few. However, despite all of that detail, it felt very rushed and left me wanting more. I am the type of reader that likes to have all of the questions raised during the story to be answered. And here, Stephenson doesn’t let me down. He does tie up all of the loose ends he created, but does so in a way that fell a little bit flat for me, and just a little bit too neat.

Final thoughts: Overall I loved this book, and I plan on recommending it to all of my fellow sci fi loving friends. It managed to be incredibly adventurous and fun despite the heavy subject matter. It also left me wanting to read more of Stephenson’s work, and I’ve added Snow Crash to my Amazon booklist.

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Favorite Characters: Dinah, Tekla, and Doob

Memorable Quotes:

And yet people went on thinking this way, kind of in the way that someone who has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness will go on getting up and going to work every morning, not so much out of habit as because the knowledge of the impending doom makes them wish to assert an identity.

But Henry wasn’t a parent, and he didn’t understand that when you were, almost nothing was more satisfying than seeing your kid sleep.

Then she felt shock and shame over the fact that she was thinking about coffee while her planet was being set on fire.

Apparently the part of the brain that identified things as funny kept running as a background process even when its contributions were useless.

As it turned out, imagining the fate of seven billion people was far less emotionally affecting than imagining the fate of one.



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