Book review: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_sevenevesI am still looking sideways at the moon, making sure it is all there, after finishing this epic space-borne read from Neal Stephenson. I have read pretty well everything Stephenson has written, and if there is anything I have learned from it, it is that he has an uncanny sense of what the future holds. Unsurprisingly, he is currently Head Futurist at Magic Leap, a 3D wearable visual technology start-up. I wonder if the staff on the International Space Station have a copy each of Seveneves, just in case?

This is not just another post-apocalyptic novel. This novel takes you from the moment that apocalypse comes onto the cards, thanks to the Moon breaking into seven pieces, through to the dawning of a new race of women and men, once all is said and done.

The characters are selected to carry the science, and there is a lot of it in there. Science is the holy grail. Dinah is the first person we encounter, and it is through her story we are introduced to the International Space Station, Izzy for short. She lives there with 12 others, as the resident robotic scientist. She has a large team of robots which she is programming, as the moon explodes, to work out how best to mine the asteroid tied to the front end of Izzy, which is called Almathea. The second voice we encounter is Doc Dubois, an astrophysicist and TV personality, who is watching as the moon explodes, and is the person who, a few days later, has to inform President Julia Bliss Flaherty, that the world is going to end imminently.

Quite a large proportion of the first two-thirds of this book is taken up with the narration of astrophysical logistics. If this is your thing, you have certainly come to the right place. I found myself intrigued, but occasionally in need of a nice clear diagram, as gravitational physics is not my field of expertise. It looks as though there are some diagrams in the e-book edition.

For all that, the story makes for compulsive reading, and the thought experiment is fascinating. It takes in the psychology of being responsible for the future of the human race, the impossibility of saying goodbye to just three or four among the 7 million people who are inevitably going to die, and the logistics of creating a floating world – a Cloud Ark – based around a space station originally only designed to hold, at its maximum capacity, tens of scientists.

World leaders coordinate a world-wide drawing of lots, to select two young people – a man and a woman – from each country to be sent to space, so the diversity of the world is maintained when the earth can be re-populated. One of the first people sent to Izzy upon the disaster is Moira, a geneticist, and a specialist in maintaining heterozygosity in black-footed ferrets through artificial gene splicing. Her role is to be the caretaker for the future generations of every life-form on earth, which are to come from her store of DNA sequences, and embryos, as well as from the ‘Arkers’ – those who are chosen to be part of the space community.

The meaning of the title of the book only becomes significant in the third section of the book, as we encounter New Earth – 5000 years after the Moon’s dissolution, which caused the ‘hard rain’ which destroyed the earth – through the actions and voice of Kath Two. Kath is ‘Survey’, a member of the space community sent to New Earth to check how re-seeding has gone, and see how habitable segments of the Earth are. The technology described in this part of the book is fantastical, and the breadth of Stephenson’s vision of the space-based future is awe-inspiring.

The story ends rather suddenly, and after burning through the final section in a matter of a day or two, I was left wanting more. This is no mean feat when you have been carried by the sheer power of the author’s storytelling through 850 pages. I even read the acknowledgements, and learned that Stephenson had the idea for this novel circa 2006, while working part-time at Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ private aerospace programme.

Seveneves is long, and complex at times, but extremely compelling. I recommend it for fans of Stephenson’s work, and anybody who wants the hard science (fiction) on what might happen if we were faced with a future in space. If you want an introduction to Stephenson’s work, try Diamond Age: or a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, and follow it up with Cryptonomicon.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

by Neal Stephenson
Published by The Borough Press
ISBN 980008132521