Seveneves: Modern, Classic SciFi
A review (with some spoilers)
I grew up reading the Big Three science fiction writers: Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. As a young nerd, I loved that these science fiction writers emphasized the science part of science fiction, rather than the science fantasy we usually see today. Neal Stephenson harkens back to this truly scientific style of science fiction in his most recent book: Seveneves. In this review I will give you an idea of what this book has in store for you, without spoiling too many of the important plot points.
Neal Stephenson has always been great at weaving in real information (scientific and otherwise) into his books. In Anathem, Stephenson explores philosophical concepts such as Platonic realism and nominalism. In The Diamond Age, he explores computability and human-computer interaction. In Seveneves he explores everything from orbital mechanics to epigenetics, with a level of depth and rigor that left me feeling like I had learned something meaningful. An unfortunate side effect of Stephenson’s rigorous treatment of so many scientific concepts is that it really slows down the pace of the book. Much like Tolkein’s meandering passages about pieces of trivia little to no relation to the story, Stephenson compounds the length of this 900 page tome by spending pages on things that don’t significantly further the plot. Some (like The Guardian’s Steven Poole) may find this tedious and boring, but personally I found it engaging and enlightening. Ultimately, whether you enjoy Stephenson’s verbosity or find it contrived comes down to personal preference.
Seveneves begins with the line “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” This event is the impetus for everything else that happens in the book. As the plot progresses, we find out that the breaking apart of the moon will lead to what is termed the “hard rain”; the moon fragments rain down on the earth, destroying all life on the planet’s surface. The plot of the first section focuses largely on the International Space Station (nicknamed “Izzy”), which stops being simply a testament to mankind’s intrepid will to explore the heavens and becomes humanity’s primary hope for survival.
In this first section, Stephenson makes the reader fall in love with characters such as Dinah (Izzy’s brilliant robotocist) and Ivy Xiao (the commander of Izzy when the moon explodes). One strong theme in the book is the diversity of well-developed, complex female characters — ranging from the badass Russian cosmonaut Tekla Ilushina to the sometimes psychopathic President of the United States Julia Bliss Flaherty. Although Stephenson’s previous books sometimes fell short with respect to female character development, in Seveneves he creates a world where the women have even more character complexity and depth than the men.
The second section of the book further expands the character list and follows their hardships aboard the the ISS. In it, Stephenson explores the fictional power struggles which inevitably arise as a result of the limited resources and conflicting personalities aboard Izzy. By the end of this section, the crew gets wittled down to a mere eight women as a result of cosmo-combat, starvation, and radiation. Seven of these eight women are fertile, and become the Seven Eves that the title refers.
The final section is set approximately 5,000 years after the other two. The earth’s surface is finally livable and humanity (now evolved into genetically distinct races) has begun repopulating the surface. While the previous sections switched between multiple points of view, this one is exclusively from the perspective of Kath Amalthova Two. Kath is a Moiran; a human who has been genetically engineered to undergo epigenetic shifts in times of crisis. In addition to discussing epigenetics, Stephenson uses this section to discuss topics such as terraforming and how knowledge could be preserved over millennia. Critics point to this part of the book when they argue that it Stephenson spends too long developing the scenery as opposed to furthering the plot.
Overall, this book really hits it out of the park. Stephenson is my favourite modern science fiction writer and Seveneves does not disappoint. If you’re looking for some epic world building, detailed-yet-understandable explanations of scientific concepts, and awesome female character development, Seveneves is the book for you.
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If you have any questions or recommendations for books to read and review, feel free to comment here or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, look out for my next review: “How To Not Be Wrong: the Power of Mathematical Thinking” by Jordan Ellenberg. Thanks for reading and have a great day!