Wow, this book. There are a few technical elements that initially justified me wanting to leave off the fifth star, but the sheer audacity of the story and the fact that I cannot stop thinking about it a month later make Seveneves one of my favorite books of the year, and certainly the most thought-provoking.
Effortlessly checking off a list of “stuff I want in a sci-fi novel,” Seveneves is technical and speculative, extrapolating from cutting-edge current science to detail seemingly inevitable future technology. Equally imagining the progression of astronomy, physics, and genetics, Stephenson obviously did an astounding amount of research and took care to keep the science plausible. Which, some of you may be wondering, where is the fun in that? After all, much of the classic sci-fi skipped right over practical considerations before giving us the ansible and psychohistory. And that’s all great for sci-fi that takes place really, really far in the future, but for stories that begin while humans are still comfortably settled on Earth and carrying out only moderately sophisticated experiments aboard the International Space Station, it’s nice to see an author devote substantial brainpower to bridging the gap between reality and fiction.
Seveneves is nearly 900 pages long and is an act in two parts. We open with a catastrophic event that is, first, just a spectacle, before being recognized as an impending disaster. Somehow, the moon blows up, leaving behind large fragments of moon rock. It is predicted that, eventually, enough collisions between these fragments and other space dust will result in a meteor shower that, as it falls to earth, will create enough friction in the atmosphere to superheat it and turn the entire Earth into a firey hell-pit for a sufficient amount of time to completely wipe out humankind.
Opting for optimism, Stephenson has the human race more or less coming together to select representatives from every nation, to build enough spacecraft to transport and house them, to submit sufficient embryos and other genetic material to create a Human Genetic Archive, and to figure out how to keep humans alive in space for thousands of years, all before the sky kills us all. It’s inspiring, but of course there are issues technically and socially, and the book is measured and considerate in its contemplation of humanity in crisis mode. The one area in which Stephenson doesn’t seem to care to develop a definitive plan for the future is politics; the book is pretty openly disdainful of organized governments and politicians. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest it promotes a kind of intellectual oligarchy, since the intellectuals in question have little interest in also taking on the mantle of formal leadership, but Stephenson has scant kindness for those who antagonize the scientist heroes and create harmful power struggles due to their own pride and intellectual inferiority complexes.
The second act of the book resumes some five thousand years after the initial crisis, where it is evident that humanity has survived and prospered. To give away much else here would be a crime, but suffice it to say that, much as we might expect, our follies are equal to our achievements in Stephenson’s imagining. Indeed, the melancholy of our survival is that we continue to suck a lot of the time, quite frankly.
With all of this praise, then, why did I hesitate to give Seveneves five stars? It kind of comes down to structure and wishful thinking. As I mentioned, this novel is close to 900 pages in length, but it easily could have been longer and I would not have minded a wit. I understand that there was a poignancy into combining both sections into one book, to underline our successes and failings and how we are much the same millenia later, but it was still jarring to jump from the first part, which was in no way resolved, into the second, and then spend significant portions of that story on infodumps that retroactively filled in the gaps. It was information I wanted and needed to know, but there is an entirely separate and distinct plotline that takes place in the second part that seemed rather rushed because so much of the setup was backward-reaching. All of this goes to say that whether this book should have been even longer, or even if it could have been two books, I found myself wanting more time with all of the characters.
Overall, Seveneves is a remarkable achievement, and worlds away from the first (and only) other Stephenson I’ve read, Snow Crash. I liked that book a lot, but it was frenetic and a little immature; this story is careful, comprehensive, thoughtful, and above all, engrossing. I enjoyed every minute while reading, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of contemplation on it since.