John Gilbey delights in a vast, technologically charged tale from a science-fiction supremo at the top of his game.
- Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson writes big science fiction, literally and figuratively. Weighing in at some 900 pages and stretching nearly 5,000 years into humanity's future, Seveneves is no exception.
It traces an epoch in which humankind and the environment change profoundly. The bulk of the novel is the lead-up to, and immediate aftermath of, a stunning cosmic event that leaves humanity teetering on the edge. The remainder describes a renaissance with only faint echoes of what we recognize as human culture.
The cataclysm is the destruction of the Moon by a mysterious agent. As Earth is assaulted by a rain of debris from the shattered satellite, the vast majority of the human population faces oblivion. The core of the story relies on current, or currently anticipated, technologies — weaving a plausible tale of how a tiny number of survivors, the “seveneves” of the title, might secure a future for our species. Stephenson imagines the rebirth as a division into seven races, based on the genetic profiles of the founders. The future cultures have both old and new social problems, but also fresh insights and resources with which to address them.
The epic injury to Earth looms in the very first sentence: a masterful attention-grabber. Stephenson maintains tension and energy, as well as a remarkable technical complexity, both literary and scientific. I repeatedly found myself sketching parts of the dramatically scaled mechanical constructs that enable later stages of the story — such as whip-like machinery to capture high-flying gliders and transfer them to Earth orbit — to judge whether they were feasible. They were.
Comparisons with other sci-fi epics are inevitable. The Culture series by Iain M. Banks carries similar social and sexual complexities, massive terraforming machinery and off-world habitats, and shares Stephenson's delight in clever characterization and off-beat humour. Arthur C. Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise (1979) embodies related technical solutions, and has a postscript that makes a temporal and socio-biological leap of the same scale. Olaf Stapledon's classic Last and First Men (1930) paints a similarly portentous picture of genetic manipulation, cosmic cataclysm and the potential future forms of humanity — albeit with a massively larger scope and extending forwards for millions of years. But what distinguishes Seveneves for me is Stephenson's handling of the characters. There is an almost Malthusian detachment in how he introduces, builds, then violently dispatches characters who in novels with less robust reasoning would be saved by a clever plot device.
This is hard sci-fi in a real and welcome sense, ruled by unremitting physical laws, unlike the negotiable rules of the action thriller. People die because their deaths are inevitable, and many pass unremarked because the disaster's scale is so vast. Their sacrifice is tied to the theme of engineering the survival of the human race. Science fiction often suffers from a disparity between the impressive scale of the scenery, and the size of the characters and how they are developed. Stephenson balances these aspects well, avoiding cookie-cutter scientists and the all-too-common characterization of technologists as brilliant but conflicted renegades.
I did find myself mulling over the casting for the film that is sure to follow. Someone needs to talk to Morgan Freeman's agent, that's all I'm saying. And an almost throwaway early scene is never quite resolved, making it clear that there is significant scope for sequels. I very much hope that Stephenson is working on them.
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Gilbey, J. Science fiction: After the cataclysm. Nature 521, 159 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/521159a