Two Halves Not a Whole: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson Book Review

Readers of this all too-infrequent blog will know that I am a huge fan of Neal Stephenson’s work, especially his seminal cyberpunk work Snow Crash as well as his more esoteric fare like Anathem. You’ll also note that I was not a huge fan of what I saw as the wasted potential of his last book, Reamde. I approached his latest novel, Seveneves, with some hesitation. I knew almost nothing about the plot beforehand so I had no preconceived notions about what kind of book it was.

The Brief

To boil it down to its most simplistic elements, Seveneves is a novel about the end of the world as we know it from a hard science fiction perspective, and more correctly, about how to achieve the survival of the human race in whatever form is possible given current technology give or take a decade or so of progress. The moon is struck by some unknown force, shattering it into seven pieces. Though humanity at first watches this in awe, they soon realize that the remaining pieces will continue to collide with each other and fracture into more pieces and within two years, all those pieces will rain down upon the earth, creating a doomsday scenario similar to the asteroids that struck the earth and killed all the dinosaurs by making the environment uninhabitable. The governments of Earth band together to rescue what they can, utilizing the ISS space station as a sort of ark, preserving genetic material and culture and most importantly, suitable breeding pairs for propagating the species while in orbit for the 5,000 or so years it will take for the earth to be habitable again. The first 600 or so pages of the novel are taken up with this story, while the last 250 follow the descendants of those survivors as they make the return back to the surface.

While I’m hardly one to go into the viability of the science part of the equation, I will say it all seemed fairly reasonably thought out and Stephenson spends an inordinate amount of time explaining how a lot of these things work, almost the point of feeling less like a novel and more like a dissertation on the concept. If you’ve read his mathematics lessons in Anathem, none of this will be that much of a surprise and your enjoyment of it is going to largely depend on how much of a science geek you are. I personally thought it was a bit overdone, but surprisingly not that boring.

I can speak to the writing, however, and I must note one part that really irritated me to no end. The character of the President of the United States, Julia, is troublesome. Of course, I read this during the 2016 election and all through reading this book, I could not help but picture Hillary Clinton whenever I read her dialogue. Worse, I couldn’t help but picture a really terrible shallow caricature of Clinton, almost to the point of mustache-twirling villainy. None of the other characters bothered me as much, and my own obsession with the election may have clouded my judgement somewhat.

Despite that, the first 600 pages makes for a compelling novel and had Stephenson chosen to end the novel there, I’d have been satisfied. Unfortunately, the author’s problems with endings rears its ugly head again. The entire last section of the novel, the part set 5,000 years into the future feels half-baked and leaves an unsatisfying conclusion. At least half of this section is just spent on world-building for this time period, to the point where when we get to the inevitable conclusion, we can’t even care about the characters we’ve been introduced to, as we haven’t had a chance to get to know them. I’m not entirely sure why the author didn’t just write another book as a sequel instead of trying to mash the two together into one whole. Given more space and time, I think there could be a story there, but as a conclusion to this book, it’s weak.

If you like Stephenson enough to forgive his weak endings, this book is much more enjoyable than Reamde, though not quite as good as Anathem thanks to that ending.

April 23, 2017 at 3:40 pm | Books | No comment

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