I've always been a big fan of Neal Stephenson. His writing style and wit make him a unique voice in speculative fiction and I knew I was going to read Seveneves as soon as it came out. Kudos to the publicity folks at William Morrow for sending out a survival kit for the coming end of the world along with the book. Selected to represent our nation to propagate the human race in outer space after the Earth is destroyed, the kit contains goodies such as a barf bag, a self-filtering water bottle, mylar blanket, tequila, and more! A very nice touch that really made you want to get started with the novel ASAP!
From the synopsis, it appeared that Seveneves would be another crazy, erudite, complex, and totally fucked-up novel like only Neal Stephenson can write them. Problem is, although good, this book wasn't exactly what the author has accustomed us to in the past.
Here's the blurb:
From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Anathem, Reamde, and Cryptonomicon comes an exciting and thought-provoking science fiction epic—a grand story of annihilation and survival spanning five thousand years. What would happen if the world were ending? A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space. But the complexities and unpredictability of human nature coupled with unforeseen challenges and dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remain . . . Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown . . . to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth. A writer of dazzling genius and imaginative vision, Neal Stephenson combines science, philosophy, technology, psychology, and literature in a magnificent work of speculative fiction that offers a portrait of a future that is both extraordinary and eerily recognizable. As he did in Anathem, Cryptonomicon, the Baroque Cycle, and Reamde, Stephenson explores some of our biggest ideas and perplexing challenges in a breathtaking saga that is daring, engrossing, and altogether brilliant.
Along with Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, Neal Stephenson's witty narrative trumps pretty much that of every single writer out there. The man can come up with prose that is simultaneously thought-provoking and will make you laugh. Indeed, it is usually impossible to read one of the author's works and not chuckle every couple of pages or so. And yet, for some reason, Stephenson elected to forgo his habitual style and tone and went for something altogether different. Hence, the first two parts of Seveneves, comprised of 566 pages, feel as though they were written by Kim Stanley Robinson. And though I love Robinson, it felt decidedly weird to read something that was so unlike what I had come to expect from Stephenson.
Like other readers and reviewers, I was expecting to read a panoply of accounts of disparate people's reactions to the impending doom of mankind. I was expecting civic unrest on a massive scale, and martial law as the social order began to unravel everywhere around the world. Simply put, I was expectating the first portion of Seveneves to be sort of a sociological study of how mankind would cope with the inevitable destruction of all but a few human souls. Not unexpectedly, Stephenson chose to focus on the more technical aspects of spacefaring and how the few survivors would initially establish themselves and then hopefully thrive until they would return to Earth thousands of years later once the planet became habitable again. I guess that Stephenson has a better opinion of the human race than I, which is why I couldn't quite believe that the two years leading to the catastrophe that would bring mankind on the brink of extinction were more or less chaos free. Basically every natural disaster of the last decade or so has engendered violence and looting. And yet, the author's portrayal of the months leading to what will come to be known as the Hard Rain was so peaceful and organized as to be contrived beyond belief. This, coming from such a talented author, was a bit of a disapointment.
With the book's main focus on the events taking place aboard the International Space Station, everything which is happening back on Earth is kept in the background for the most part. This, in the end, was the novel's biggest flaw. Not a deal-breaker, but it did take a lot away from the overall reading experience. Seveneves has a wonderful premise, but assuming that billions of people would simply accept their fate so peacefully takes away a lot of credibility. By electing to focus on what was being done in orbit as mankind prepares for the worst and refusing to tackle the issues that would certainly occur everywhere around the world, it felt like a cop out.
In terms of rhythm, the pace is uneven throughout the book. The first two parts are filled with scientific stuff and info-dumps as various characters are called upon to find ways to make life in space a possibility. Exploring the various facets of this space ark project is interesting, but the narrative often feels like a science documentary and it can be quite boring at times. For that reason, Seveneves can occasionally be a veritable chore to read. The last part takes place five thousand years later, as mankind is ready to return to Earth. This portion of the book is written in Neal Stephenson's usual style and it feels like a totally different book, written by a different author. Much better as far as the pace is concerned, it also features a bunch of interesting men and women, and makes for a much better reading experience.
In the end, the first 2/3 of Seveneves is pure hard science fiction that ultimately fails to deliver because it portrays humanity without its flaws. However, the last 300 pages or so are more akin to Dan Simmons' Hyperion and are a blast from start to finish. I wish Stepheson had spent less time focusing on what was taking place aboard the International Space Station and had instead focused a bit more on mankind's return to our planet. That last part is a real page-turner!
Overall, Stephenson's latest remains an interesting read. But what could have a been a great novel turned out to be merely a good one. Without the third part, Seveneves would have been a major disappointment. It's the Seven's secret mission and its aftermath which save this novel. But in a way, it just might be a case of too little, too late.