“The Moon blew up without warning and without apparent reason.” That’s the first line of Neal Stephenson’s new 850-page novel. That’s one hell of an opening. It all builds from there and we follow the aftermath and humanity’s struggle to survive, up to 5000 years into the future. Also starring Neil deGrasse Tyson, Elon Musk and Hillary Clinton under different names.
Once in a while, Neal Stephenson suddenly dazzles the world with a novel of epic proportions and visionary weight. Whenever this happens, fans of literature and science fiction rejoice. The first time this happened was with Cryptomonicon (2005) a gargantuan work of historical fiction and elements of science fiction, and the second time it was the utterly unique Anathem (2008). Both are among the very best science fiction of the past decades. Now, he has returned with a third giant work: Seveneves. It is big; it is daring. Will it also be as good as the others?
Seveneves starts off a bit like an Arthur C. Clarke novel. After the initial bang that sets the story in motion, there is a heavy focus on events and on the escalation of danger and excitement. The humans are all a bit underdeveloped. They are instead the conduits to relate all the exciting events to us, the readers. So, we have Ivy the astronaut who observes the Moon from the International Space Station, and we have Dr. Harris, the Neil deGrasse Tyson of the story and who is in a position to tell the US president all that is going on. He has the ungrateful job to tell the Chiefs of Staff that humanity is essentially screwed.
It is all very exciting and cinematic. Like the opening scenes of a Roland Emmerich movie, but a more literary version of it, the tension is mounting. And then we learn that the breakup of the Moon will lead to a flaming meteor shower that will sterilize the Earth, and will last more than 5000 years. On the positive side, Earth will get beautiful rings like Saturn. But what will we do? Dig ourselves in, or escape into space? It starts out in the near future, and Stephenson uses a lot of contemporary jargon like twitter, blogging and Wikipedia. I wonder if this will make his book feel dated decades from now.
A large part of the novel is about near-future space adventures in and around the ISS. Humanity only has years to lift up as many people as they can into space and construct a habitat for them, and Stephenson painstakingly follows through all the mistakes and hard-science complications. In this, Seveneves is part of a current popular trend of near-future space stories, like the films Interstellar, Gravity and The Martian. Stephenson did a lot of research and he wants to share it all with us, and his novel is far more than a book-version of a Hollywood summer blockbuster. But also like Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey, it has an extended epilogue that is a bit “out there”.
Excessive is the word for the amount of technical detail about building up space habitat. This has some effects on storytelling, of course. On the downside, this hard science makes for impersonal and dry reading now and then, and there is less space in the story for character development. On the upside, it really impresses on you the enormous challenges that humanity has to overcome to survive. It has a cumulative effect in this sense. Like in Andy Weir’s The Martian, the endless technical struggles of Mark Watney have the same effect. It’s also very impressive and mind-expanding stuff to read.
I liked how many characters showed an understated heroism, sacrificing themselves for a purpose without much fuss. It is quite a positive story in this regard. And sure, his characters are horribly underdeveloped, like little flabby fetuses of characters. But that doesn’t mean that the novel didn’t make me feel things. I both loved and hated the Madam President as a character. I was in awe of the technological adventures that he puts us through. And the sheer audacity of the whole premise of the novel works like a magic spell that kept me reading. He could have crossed out a technical sentence here and there, but I honestly wasn’t that bothered by the focus on science.
Then we come to the final third of the book, which is almost like a completely different novel. And the transition is an odd one, because suddenly all the tension is gone. For two-thirds of the book, humanity was struggling hard to survive. And then that central conflict is solved when we jump 5000 years into the future. So what now? Stephenson has to introduce a new story with new characters and a new conflict. There are lots of mindblowing ideas in this part, but getting invested in a new story this late into the book is just too much to ask. The energy has all been expended. It would have worked better as a loose sequel, touched up and published as a part 2. I can’t help but feel deflated and wrung out after the stellar 550 pages that came before.
I considered dropping points from the book, because the final third is so tedious and asks so much of you. There is no tension at all, only endless description. The ideas are good, but it doesn’t work. The score of a 9 is in memory of the first two-thirds.