by ALEX CARNEVALE
by Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson’s new novel begins when the moon breaks up into a number of pieces for no reason anyone can discern at the time. It is suggested that God is the instrument of the moon’s destruction at one point late in the novel. “But without the theology, the scripture or the certainty,” Stephenson has one of his finest characters, a man named Ty, say. This is typical Stephenson hemming and hawing, for in his heavily-researched novel writing, he is always seeking a slightly different approach than the first that comes to mind, without resting firmly on any one choice.
One of Stephenson’s protagonists in Seveneves is heavily based on Neil deGrasse Tyson. It is he, the somewhat racistly named Doc Dubois, who theorizes that the explosion of the moon will also mean devastation on the Earth’s surface in a planet-decimating event he terms the Hard Rain. Other scientists confirm the Doc’s diagnosis, and Earth’s population begins to cope psychologically with its death sentence. “Why were the doomed people of Earth’s surface not going completely berserk?” Doc finds himself thinking.
The answer is in renaming death to something better. Naming things is Stephenson’s obsession, a literary cliché that he explodes by overwhelming his readers with an encyclopedia of terminology culled from social media and hard science. When properly assembled, the resulting ménage forms what amounts to a new language of acronyms, abbreviations and catchy nicknames. It would be completely ridiculous if you did not sense Stephenson had invested a vast amount of his personal ingenuity in creating these handles.
These lengthy passages of narration and description can become a bit overwhelming at times, but Stephenson prevents them from becoming overly technical. At times the characters seem lost in the sea of terminology, but Stephenson alleviates that sensation by having some of the very best described versions of people as well as machines. His main heroine is a robot specialist named Dinah working on the ISS, and her scientific pursuits and raging sex life get most of Neal’s time.
Stephenson prides himself on never ignoring what is happening in the world around him, now, today. As such his novel concerns the last survivors of the human race, and they are mostly women. Dinah is not a woman of a century ago, she is a woman of the century to come. Distinctively there is something effortlessly and individually female about each of the Eves who seek to rescue humanity from the destruction of the Hard Rain. You sense that Stephenson has spent about as much time researching writing women well as he has delving into how asteroid mining might realistically fuel successful human habitats.
The action of Seveneves takes place on the International Space Station. The president, a Berkeley educated woman named Julia Bliss Flaherty, develops a program to send Earth’s scientists to the ISS with their expertise and a genetic archive. Along with this crew of technicians, she also plans for representatives of most Earth nations to be shepherded into space in arklets: small habitats revolving around each other in Earth orbit.
It is a bit of surprise when the residents of the ISS realize that the president herself, in violation of an accord which forbade world leaders from joining the expedition, has hijacked her way up to the structure. Quickly Julia, or J.B.F. as Stephenson needlessly refers to her almost as a tic, realizes that she has no authority or particular skills. President Flaherty goes to work consolidating her own power, and her paranoia threatens to undermine the mission to establish the ISS inside of large asteroid. This struggle is by far the best part of the novel.
Neal’s grasp of the science involved is absurdly meticulous, and the text of Seveneves tells is everything we want to know about how such a mission might operate and thrive should God decide to eliminate the moon. In his finest novel, Anathem, he displayed promising, B.F. Skinner-esque insight onto how such collections of humanity might operate under divine pressure. The one place he never thinks about going is actual theology, which is because this novel is itself presented as a pseudo-religious text intended to replace the Bible that we have.
The war that develops between the different factions on the Ark unfolds a bit awkwardly, because Stephenson runs out of interest in his main characters. About 2/3 of the way through Seveneves, we flash forward 5,000 years into the future. Stephenson spends thousnds of words painstakingly detailing the ring network hovering above the earth, and explaining how it houses the millions of citizens produced from the genetic stock of the remaining Eves.
War is still going on, of course, and the survivors of the Hard Rain meet the survivors of the ISS with both intensely surprised by the other. There is a newness inherent in every conflict Seveneves so painstakingly describes, as if it were the first time such events had ever been committed to print. Even though Neal’s books are at times impossibly long, it always feels to me like he is just getting started.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
“Obvs” – Jamie xx (mp3
“Just Saying” – Jamie xx (mp3)