Seveneves (2015)Neal Stephenson
Reviewed by Trevor Agnew
Amazing Survival Epic
Neal Stephenson is brilliant with words. Seveneves has 861 pages of them, and it’s not enough. He is also skilled at creating characters who stick in your mind, even as they face challenges beyond comprehension. Stephenson is also superb with ideas. The first sentence of Seveneves is a perfect example: “The Moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.”
Everything that happens in this massive novel – and a great deal happens - stems from that seemingly simple sentence. Ricocheting remnants of the Moon will soon be raining destruction down on Earth. A Hard Rain of meteorites will “merge into a dome of fire that will set aflame anything that can see it…Glaciers will boil.” Can the International Space Station be converted into a human ark, a rallying point for a fleet of rapidly assembled arklets? Can the resulting Cloud Ark of tiny interconnected ships survive by “making things out of asteroids,” until Earth is habitable again, thousands of years in the future? Did I mention that Stephenson thinks big?
Earth’s population faces its assured destruction, while scientists, engineers and politicians try to achieve their triple aim of preserving Earth’s genetic legacy, human knowledge and some humans. The cast is a large one, with about forty main characters, many of them female, and all of them interesting. In orbit they dodge Moon debris and improvise systems to avoid annihilation.In this huge saga, Stephenson has planted dozens of genuine surprises; moments when something unexpected but plausible occurs. I have been avoiding mentioning these so that readers can enjoy the little bursts of astonishment as they reach them. Nevertheless, it is difficult for a reviewer to avoid some spoilers. Part Three of the book begins “Five thousand years later…” so it can be revealed that life survives but not in the way that was planned.
Of course, nobody from the first part of the book is still alive, but as the book’s seemingly cryptic title suddenly explains itself, the new generation of humans reflects the personalities of their ancestors. As the Fifth Millennia unfolds, three billion people are living on nine thousand habitats geosynchronously orbiting Earth in the form of a linked metal ring. By now the reader is so familiar with the technology used to create the Cloud Ark, that there is the delight of recognition when familiar mechanical systems are seen carrying out unexpected new functions.
Once again the human race faces a complex challenge. This time the question is how will they return life – human and otherwise - to Earth. Inevitably things do not go quite as planned and there are more big surprises in store. Some of them are tragic. Some of them are actually very funny. Nothing in Seveneves is predictable except the sense of wonder that it generates.
Seveneves has to be the most intellectually satisfying science fiction novel of the year, if not the decade.
Note: This review first appeared in Your Weekend magazine, Fairfax NZ newspapers