Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

(This isn’t exactly a review, as I’m trying to be fairly relaxed and brief in my thoughts here. I always have trouble writing up my thoughts on books, and am trying to make it easier.)

I don’t usually read hard science fiction (I generally don’t read all that much sci fi in general), but Neal Stephenson is an author I’d seen a lot of talk about over the years, and his latest novel Seveneves was getting some positive buzz, so I went ahead and got it.

Seveneves is about what happens after the moon breaks up. How it happens doesn’t really matter to the story – it’s an unexplained phenomenon, a mysterious Agent that strikes the moon and breaks it into several pieces – because this is a story of how civilisation might survive the catastrophe. It’s a near-future setup, not quite our current day; this is a world where we have captured an asteroid and attached it to the ISS (a development that allows it to survive falling debris from the former moon), and where genetics and robotics technology are both a little more advanced. But apart from those few things, it attempts to tackle how humanity might find a way to survive in orbit when they know the earth is about to become uninhabitable.

There’s a lot of technical detail in this novel, going into how every part of this survival scheme works, backing everything in real science. Because of this Seveneves can be a little dry in places, but I was surprised by the way Stephenson was still able to make this a compelling read. It’s an extreme survival story, with a lot of science, a little politics and some action, and though dense it moves along pretty well. The main appeal of the book is not so much characters as it is the presentation of problem and solution, and the worldbuilding that results. (That isn’t to say there’s a lack of compelling characters; that would be untrue, and selling the novel short.)

That worldbuilding takes full control in the final section of the novel, which is set five thousand years after the initial disaster, and shows humanity as it is beginning to return to the earth’s surface. I found this the least enjoyable part of the story, to be honest, as it often felt like its purpose was to show off the fantastic technologies Stephenson had extrapolated from the earlier parts, and the unusual ways he’d come up with for humanity to develop. I found the ending itself a little abrupt, as if he had finished giving us the tour of all the ideas he had come up with, and that was it. I’m being a little unfair to the book there – I can see the intent; it ends on a note of hope, at a point where the reader can see a the potential future of the earth and wonder on how it will work out – but since the actual plot of the final section was slow-moving and somewhat predictable, the thought that it was only there to showcase the author’s worldbuilding was forefront in my mind.

All in all, I did enjoy Seveneves – the ideas were fascinating, and Stephenson knows how to keep the infodumping readable and occasionally compelling. I still feel like I’m selling the book short; it’s the work of a skilled author after all. If you’re at all interested in the ideas of how humanity could survive in space, this is a book worth reading.

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