I binged Neil Stevenson’s new[ish] novel, Seveneves, in the last 4 days while I should have been doing other things. I’ll call it my holiday. It isn’t my favorite of his (that would be Cryptonomicon followed by Snow Crash), and it isn’t my favorite genre piece, let’s call it long-perspective hard SciFi, but it’s damn good, and extremely fun. I have some thoughts that may be worth sharing.
[SOME SPOILERS, I’M AVOIDING BUT CAN’T MENTION THE LATTER THIRD WITHOUT]
The book is roughly split into thirds, the first starting with “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason,” uses that as prologue and describes what humanity tries to do about it, the second being what happens immediately after the Earth is rendered uninhabitable because the bits of the moon fell on it, and the third… is 50,000 years later looking at how the situation played out. This makes for repeated and incredible fast world building, particularly in the third section. I’d absolutely read more things in the setting, it left lots of openings.
In proper Stevenson fashion, the two winning parts are the literary playfulness, and the bits of obscure knowledge that find their way in to the premise. As for the latter, an inordinate part of the story involves the physics of whips, rotating chains, and related phenomena, rooting the narrative into the tradition of advances-that-become-useful-long-after starting in the 1870s. It also encodes a great deal of only-slightly-distorted detail about current robotics, space technology, orbital mechanics, genetics, and bits of HAM Radio culture among other things – usual nerdbait fare.
A couple things are bothersome, though maybe not bad.
- Most characters are transparent archetypes. This starts to seem like a problem, but if you’re reading a book from someone who named the lead in his most famous novel “Hiro Protagonist” expecting him not to employ tropes subversively, you’re doing it wrong. The strange thing is that the main bit of subversion (that becomes much much clearer as the book progresses) is the fact that the characters are literally surrogates for populations. It’s still grating at times.
- Many characters are transparent surrogates for current popular figures. Dr. Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris is Neil Degrasse Tyson down to the details. Sean Probst is Jeff Bezos (with a little bit of Elon Musk thrown in, but the book was apparently conceived on a visit to Blue Origin, so it really is Bezos). This may not age well.
- It uses stereotypical “girlpolitik” (my word, not his, as analogy to realpolitik – the way that women tend to interact is a couple degrees out-of-phase with how men tend to interact, “sweetie”) as a sort of proxy for the mystical feminine. If you read the jacket reviews before you read the book, you know where it’s headed, but it’s pretty fucking ham-handed.
- The “Their semiconductors never get as good as today’s” bit mixed with the prevalence of small, long-running robots in the far future make the EE portion of my brain object. He gets the “good robots are dumb and predictable” thing that is often ignored for story, but misses wide on energy storage density. It’s about right in the earlier parts, and even makes note of it a couple times, but by the latter part becomes sort of embarrassingly bad.
- A few things about society conspicuously don’t change. Much of it is pointed and intentional, but I did at one point have a moment of “How did/could/would that kind of mercantile tradition have survived.” It may have been notable to me just as a function of how few pieces of long-view SciFi treat that as an invariant.
The literary nods are amazing and I’m sure I’m catching only a tiny fraction of them, both in terms of references to traditional storytelling modes and such (“The Epic”), and to specific stories, tropes, etc. A couple of what I suspect are riffs on other SciFi are worth noting:
- The single piece of fiction it most deserves comparison to is one of my very favorites, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. The comparisons are obvious in that they are both heavily sociopolitical hard SciFi, with an extremely long view and post-earth perspective. I still think Mars is a better treatment in almost every way, and they do cover a staggeringly similar set of points, but Seveneves may be more fun. An important detail on that comparison is that while Seveneves is long at almost 900 pages, Mars is epic at about 1700 pages not counting an additional 3-400 pages of related short stories, so Robinson had some extra room to work in, and also more room for long forays that I’ve heard other people call tedious. I suspect the group that tries to take off for Mars in the second section, who are then dropped from the narrative and presumed dead, may be a direct reference. The fact that their vessel was named Red Rover then Red Hope is possibly a different set of references…
- There is also a natural comparison to Battlestar Galactica (in particular the recent, good one) in the rag-tag fleet of space-borne survivors from the end of civilization sense, and even with particulars like the big support ship/many smaller ships dyanmics. Also in the “now that major character has died in a stupid minor incident, moving on”/”Oh, this background nobody is important now” narrative tendency. Seveneves also makes a few overtures at BSG’s “population on the whiteboard” motif, then dismisses it as things become too disorganized and horrific.
- I can’t help but draw comparison to some of Ben Bova’s Grand Tour and related novels, though that may simply be because those are my references for fiction about humanity’s early reaches into the solar system, and asteroid mining in particular.
- Ymir’s steam-driven orbital adventuring can’t possibly have been written without a nod to Larry Niven’s The Smoke Ring and The Integral Trees.
- There are some really cute nods to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. I was a little slow to pick them up because it’s been a long long time since I read those, and I’m sure somewhere on the internet someone who as done so more recently can explain this in more detail. In many ways, Foundation is a precursor to the subgnre, so this is entirely unsurprising.
- Some of the far-future plot bears slight resemblance to Philip José Farmer’s Dark is the Sun, though perhaps not as closely as the others. This one may just be the combination of far-future post-apocalyptic Earth with the traditional adventuring fellowship narrative. This is also something I read at least a decade ago, so there may be some memory fuzz involved.
If you’ve never read anything like it, it’s by far the most accessible item of it’s genre I’m aware of (which is, uh, a rough field), it’s an awesome experience the first time you think that way, and Seveneves isn’t a bad novel on its own merits. If you have read things like it, there is a different kind of fun in how it reflects the rest of the genre. It’s not quite light enough to be light reading, but may be the closest to that Stevenson has written.