Neal Stephenson’s SEVENEVES
A book review by Dennis D. McDonald
Reading SEVENEVES is like peering over the shoulder of an exasperating but brilliant story teller who, annoyingly and repeatedly, takes his good sweet time getting to the point because he knows that's the right thing to do.
Neal Stephenson is such a storyteller. The unwary reader may be put off. But in the case of SEVENEVES the positive FAR outweighs the negative.
The technical detail may seem overkill at times but usually is worthwhile. Stephenson also takes his good sweet time getting his characters and their vehicles from Point A to Point B.
To a great extent, that is one of the key points of a book which spans so many years. Where less technically inclined writers might have glossed over the details of, say, the time required to change the plane and shape of the orbit of a mass orbiting the sun given severe fuel limitations, Stephenson make such details key elements in the story as he convincingly addresses the realities of limited resources versus the future of the human race.
Stephenson obviously likes to work through such details. He respects his readers too much to gloss over them. I like that. He makes you think.
That said, I’m not completely sold on all the elements of this book, even though it’s obvious that Stephenson has labored mightily to make everything as real as possible. Some gripes:
- The Characters. I don’t really feel anyone was adequately described in realistic or physical terms, with the possible exception of Teckla and Julia. The other main characters I felt were like technically qualified chess pieces being moved about the board in the service of the story (and the author’s ideas about space travel, genetics, politics, robotics, and evolution).
- The Nanobots. I have a hard time believing that software and AI technologies will advance to the level of the semi-autonomous ‘bots upon which much of the story depends. Perhaps I am most skeptical about their ability to capture and store energy while moving about as described.
- The Mission. In a few short years, would all the governments of the world, knowing the world will end in 2 years, really be able to plan and execute a massive program to launch into orbit thousands of humans and all the resources they will need to survive on a massively augmented International Space Station? Despite Stephenson’s marvelously convincing description of the process by which so many humans are orbited and provided with sustainable (albeit cramped) living quarters, I can’t believe such an effort would succeed -- even though its failure would doom the human race to extinction.
- The Machines. The number and variety of technologies and machines that need to interoperate and survive for many years off the surface of the earth are legion. Repairs will need to be made in orbit and substitutes found when critical pieces fail, and fail they will. (I had the same problem with the long-lived space machines of Benford and Brin’s HEART OF THE COMET.)
But, hey, this is all “science-fiction,” right? Do we really have to hold it up against the standards of “serious fiction”?
Yes, we do. I think that SEVENEVES, while it has received many complaints for its techno-detail and its final far-future part 3, is a very successful piece what I call “speculative hard science fiction.”
Stephenson is, when all is said and done, a world builder. In SEVENEVES he builds a future that is so filled with well-thought-out details that it overcomes – or at least convinces the reader to overlook -- the limitations I mentioned earlier.
I also find this 800+ page novel from 2015 satisfying because, as with the best speculative fiction, it relentlessly ponders two key questions:
- What if X happens?
- When X happens, what happens next?
Stephenson repeatedly answer these questions both imaginatively (an understatement, in my view) and without insulting the intelligence of the reader.
In summary, the novel may not be perfect. But there is substantially more than enough “meat” here to keep the serious reader going for a long, long time.
Book review copyright 2018 by Dennis D. McDonald