A review of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves

On Bad Voltage we review things: normally technology products, but occasionally other stuff that we like. In the most recent show I reviewed Neal Stephenson’s recently-released book Seveneves, and I thought I’d excerpt the review for here to give it a more permanent home for people who want to read it.

.oOo.

Neal Stephenson isn’t good at endings. Anyone who’s read any of his stuff knows this. He is good at ideas, and they’re what his books are about. The Diamond Age wasn’t about its plot, it was about nanotechnology. Anathem was about Platonic epistemology. And Seveneves is about orbital mechanics.

Basically, the moon blows up. Nobody’s very sure why. Because this is sci-fi rather than a Michael Bay film, the moon isn’t instantly vapourised into nothingness; all the rock is still there, so instead of a moon you’ve got a cloud of boulders the size of the moon, drifting around where the moon was. Then a popular scientist bloke on Earth, who is called Dubois Harris but really ought to be called Duneil DeGrasse Tyson, points out that all those rocks that make up the moon are going to come out of orbit and land on the earth. Specifically, earth is going to spend five thousand years being bombarded by rocks from the sky, which will cause some problems. Specifically specifically, it will destroy everything. Everybody’s dead, everybody is dead, everybody’s dead, Dave.

So the plan is set to stick a few thousand chosen people on the international space station so they survive and humanity continues to exist, in the two years before rocks fall and everyone dies. That’s the first third of the book. There are some quite emotional scenes of people singing in St. Paul’s Cathedral as the bombardment starts; Stephenson glosses over but makes you aware of the unbelieveable Niagara of politics which is going on back on Earth to decide who gets to live and who doesn’t. The second third of the book is the story of these last remaining humans up in space, and this is where the orbital mechanics comes in; loving, pages-deep detail is devoted to how the international space station rotates its angle of perigee and moves to a higher plane of rotation or something. I have no idea whether this is true or not, but I assume it is. In American Psycho (the book, that is), Bret Easton Ellis went into huge stupid detail about the cravats and suits and pocket squares that the characters all wear, but secretly if anyone had actually worn the things he described they’d have looked stupid… because Ellis knew that everyone reading would just gloss over the actual brand names and have a picture in their heads of a bunch of jumped-up 80s yuppies. It is possible that what Stephenson describes is actually the space station doing insane loop-the-loops, as some sort of extremely erudite joke on the reader destined only for the astronauts among us. This is not helped by how the International Space Station gets re-christened “Izzy”.

Anyway, those of you who are imagining that this becomes some sort of peace-and-flowers Star Trek world where everyone comes together would probably be better off reading something else. It’s basically Lord of the Flies but in space. Now why didn’t I see that coming? Oh, wait, I did. It’s all quite believeably told, mind you, even if I just couldn’t bear to actually read a chapter or two in the middle where a venial ex-President incites a schism. And we end up with there being only seven woman left from the cast of thousands, and everybody else is dead. Dave.

The third part of the book is… five thousand years later. Humanity has recovered and built cities in space and is returning to the earth… and is divided into seven separate tribes, based on which of the seven Eves they descended from. It’s all rather Brave New World in feel, assuming that Huxley had stopped every two pages to lovingly describe how a space elevator works. And then it ends. Anathem had a proper ending, so Stephenson is getting better at this stuff, but Seveneves backslides a bit.

It’s all rather 60s sci-fi in approach. Back when the star of the story was some cool new idea you had about space, like solar sails or geosynchronous satellites or whatever, and the ridiculous lantern-jawed spacer hero was really only there to stand around and explain the cool physics. Seveneves is like that. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll like this. If you like Stephenson, you’ll like this. If you like space engineering, you’ll like this.

The Bad Voltage verdict? If you like things like this, you’ll like this thing. Especially if you already know what a perihelion is.

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