Seveneves; or, Hard Scifi is Hard

Here’s how it went down: I’m scanning through review copies on Edelweiss as is my wont, looking for the next great read, and I see the new Neal Stephenson book listed. Boom! I hit Request! Only after I hit the button do I think, “Oh, but I’m not even a big fan. I’ve only read Anathem, after all.” I have a friend who loves most of Stephenson’s books like crazy, and I think I momentarily got his enthusiasm confused for my own enthusiasm. At that point, I take a longer look at the cover image. First I think the title is Seven Eleven, which is a chain of convenience stores and purveyors of fine slushy beverages. Then I think it says Seven Eyes, possibly because of the giant eyeball. Finally I realize it says Seveneves. I realize I didn’t even check to see what it’s about. Also, I realize it’s 880 pages long and that I have 20 other books to read for May…literally. Finally, I think, “Do I really want to do this?” and listen to the deluded inner voice that replies, “Sure! You want to read more hard scifi, and anyway, it’s only 880 pages. How long could it take?”

Game on.

SevenevesSeveneves by Neal Stephenson

William Morrow, $35 hardbound, ISBN-13 9780062190413, May 2015

I complain about the end of the world constantly and, in my opinion, fairly. The prevailing trend in my usual go-to reading area–young adult speculative fiction–has been apocalypse fiction for some time now, and I’m saturated. Enough with the alien invasions, zombie viruses, and totalitarian regimes gone mad already. What I wouldn’t give for the vampires I used to bemoan to make a comeback. Had I acted less hastily and read the blurb first, I never would have requested Seveneves.

Thank God I’m hasty.

Right off the bat, the moon explodes. Or implodes. No one agrees. Anyway, the moon dramatically bursts into several pieces. At first, everyone’s reaction is, “Oh gosh, what a surprise! How interesting,” but astronomers and mathematicians quickly realize that the pieces of the moon will collide and make more pieces, which will then collide and fragment further, and the debris will continue to multiply and spread until it finally rains down upon Earth in a mass extinction event termed the Hard Rain, leaving the planet uninhabitable for thousands of years.

Yikes.

Countries hastily pool their resources into a single task: turning the International Space Station into an Ark that will preserve human life, culture, and history for centuries upon centuries until reclaiming Earth becomes possible. The astronauts and cosmonauts on the ISS will never come home, never see their families and loved ones again. Ivy, the commanding officer, will never marry her fiancee. Dinah, who designs and programs robots for asteroid mining, will never see her father again. The powers that be will expand the ISS through the addition of “Arklets,” each filled with randomly selected teenagers and young adults who will be humanity’s future. The best and brightest scientists will also join the ISS crew, leaving everyone they ever loved behind to face certain death. Dr. Doob, a popular scientist in the vein of Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson, takes a frozen embryo he and his new wife created, but he must leave his wife to die.

It’s. So. Sad.

While every scrap of life on the planet waits for the sky to fall, the intrepid few aboard the ISS improvise ways to make their grand experiment viable, giving Stephenson ample opportunity to put the “hard” in “hard scifi.” If you want to know more about creating chains of robots, using comets as propellant, the benefits of attaching an asteroid to your space station, keeping a small gene pool diversified, or how to sustain a society on algae, this novel is for you.

However, no one can accuse Stephenson of ignoring the human element, and for those of us who tend to glaze over after the second page on subspace communications, he provides a cast of diverse, brilliant, and strong-willed characters who earn our love by beating the odds in impossible situation after impossible situation. Except, you know, the ones who don’t beat the odds and instead die horribly. If you want to know more about the perils of politics in small spaces, what radiation can do to the human body, how to store corpses in space, or how fast a spacewalk can turn deadly, this novel is most certainly for you. One of Stephenson’s greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to logically follow a situation as he believes it would play out, shooting not for drama but for a terrible realism. Here, he imagines how personalities would mesh or clash with often horrifying results in a small community of people trapped together in space, who would die and how, what heroes would rise and what villainy they would create, and whether long-term survival could be attained. The result is one heck of a tense ride that keeps its pacing despite its page count.

I won’t lie and say I followed all of the science. I didn’t. However, I obsessed over the story and spent over two weeks sneaking it into free moments and plowing through blocks of it during the odd spare hour. I developed a deep suspicion of the moon, and I lost any sense of romance about life in space, as this story makes a solid case that life in space blows. I worried when I had to stop mid-scene and would sit in meetings at work thinking, “Dinah might die! What if she can’t get home to the station?!”

Final verdict: Come for the robots, stay for the humans, but watch out for meteorites and sudden character deaths.

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