You must read SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson: Here’s why

sevenevesNeal Stephenson is a challenging and erudite author. He is the writer responsible for Snow Crash, one of my favourite books, along with classics like The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle and Anathem. Lauded, celebrated and awarded – Neal Stephenson has many laurels. When SEVENEVES hit shelves around the world Barack Obama, then POTUS and leader of the free world, earmarked it for his summer reading. When the POTUS dedicates time to kicking back and reading a Sci-Fi novel, you know that it isn’t an ordinary book.

Synopsis:

What would happen if the world were ending?

When a catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb, it triggers a feverish race against the inevitable. An ambitious plan is devised to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere. But unforeseen dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remain…

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. 

A writer of dazzling genius and imaginative vision, Neal Stephenson combines science, philosophy, technology, psychology, and literature in a magnificent work of speculative fiction that offers a portrait of a future that is at once extraordinary and eerily recognizable. He explores some of our biggest ideas and perplexing challenges in a breathtaking saga that is daring, engrossing, and altogether brilliant.

Impressions:

SEVENEVES documents nothing less than the end of life on Earth. The knowledge of the end is the premise of the book. Scientists, governments, political leaders and the human civilisation face the certainty of destruction and begin to plan – pragmatically, chaotically, and desperately. Neal Stephenson has had this story in mind for a while, but it was only recently that he put it to paper and shaped it into what we know today.

SEVENEVES is a very old project; I first started thinking about it when I was working at Blue Origin, probably circa 2004. The kernel around which the story nucleated was the space debris problem, which I had been reading about, both as a potential obstacle to the company’s efforts and as a possible opportunity to do something useful in space by looking for ways to remediate it.” – Neal Stephenson

This book details the struggles and the adversities of an impossible situation. We see, despite this knowledge, political squabbles and state posturing and territoriality: people are still people. The prospect of being on the surface of the Earth as it vitrifies isn’t enticing to anyone, so cooperation eventually wins out. Some groups are faster to adopt a practical approach to the situation. It makes for interesting conflict. There are more than enough plots, secrets and betrayals to stain any hope of an idealistic and selfless undertaking while the clock ticks down, though. This is dense, heady and entertaining speculative fiction. Neal Stephenson made the conscious choice to keep the book set within local space, and this was one of the things that I appreciated most.

“If we managed to travel to a “nearby” star–a preposterously difficult undertaking–we probably wouldn’t find much. The same level of effort expended on or near Earth, however, gives vast scope for possible adventures.” – Neal Stephenson

While there are plenty of books that presume the existence interstellar travel, and speculative technology achieving faster-than-light flight, I can’t think of many that address immediate, realistic and pragmatic concerns of life in space now. Definitely not in the same way that SEVENEVES and Neal Stephenson tackle it. It creates a realism that resonates with our world; it’s something that I’ve found lacking in speculative fiction that is in a future far divorced from our own.

The scope of the book is huge. The cast of characters is understandably heavy. The book primarily surrounds the crew of the International Space Station, and those who join them there – along with their families back on Earth and certain political leaders. Facing the certainty of the end of life on Earth, those who hope for the survival of civilisation look to space.

Neal Stephenson doesn’t shy away from the difficulties and logistics of permanent, sustainable habitation for human life in space. It is a huge concern and he takes it head-on. He has the chops for it. His research into the topics that gestated the story is explosively relevant. SEVENEVES is harried by the concerns of debris, sustainability, and of life being stabilized in orbit around a planet one can no longer call home. He also juggles the innumerable hazards of space: the cold, the heat, the radiation and the general horror of it. What follows are logical, sensible and believable solutions to knotty and insanely complicated issues. In space literally everything can kill you. People must be very clever, very resourceful and very brave to make it work. It is a book built on a solid foundation of science and research. We aren’t leaving Earth and the solar system behind; the people of SEVENEVES are trying to hold on to what is left. SEVENEVES is about survival.

“As I began thinking about how to develop that into a story, I made up my mind that I would keep it close to Earth–or at least, within the solar system–and that I would avoid the use of faster-than-light propulsion systems or other technologies for which there is no known physical basis.” – Neal Stephenson

For a large cast Neal Stephenson really excels at fleshing them all out and providing growth and an arc of development. You care about them. You will worry about them. They have flaws. Space is a harsh place and with the planet doomed; if they fail, everything ends. You want them to succeed. The conflict is tense and the antagonists are infuriating and frustratingly cunning and calculating. Some are so short-sighted and ignorant that they will have you tearing out hair and clawing your face.

The book is big, clocking in at just under 900 words. It is a tome in the tradition of Neal Stephenson’s table crushing, door stopping epics. This is a good thing. There is so much to love. Some of the shifts in narrative disappointed me at the time I read them, but please know that there is a very good reason for everything that happens in SEVENEVES, and that the conclusion could not have been anywhere near as satisfying without it. It is only after you finish it that you can take stock of everything that occurred. You will be glad that you did.

Conclusion:

This book is an epic. It is a blockbuster of a novel. Some of the best science fiction I’ve read in a long time. It is incredibly smart and ambitious and the realistic approach Neal Stephenson takes to a complex and almost unknowable situation is staggering.

There is also a great deal of mystery. Consider the cause of the fall of earth, the events that lead up to it. There is some sleight of hand in this book. Some things that we should question, things we should worry about, are lost in the clamour of the chaos. Immerse yourself in this book, breathe it all in and thank me later.

You can find Neal Stephenson’s take on the origins of SEVENEVES (Which is the source material for the quotes above) here.

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