Seveneves | Neal Stephenson | 2015, Pb 2016 | Borough Press | 880p | Review copy | Buy the book
On a day that started like any other but became known as Day Zero, an unidentified ‘agent’ blew up the moon. Upon impact the moon broke up into seven pieces, the Seven Sisters, that continued to orbit the Earth. For a week, everyone’s biggest fear was the identity and nature of the unknown agent. Could what happened to the moon happen to the Earth? But then Doc Dubois, celebrity astronomer and TV scientist, woke up with a shock – the biggest threat to the Earth wouldn’t come from a repeat of the moon’s fate, it would come from the moon itself. Dubois must inform the world of its approaching annihilation, of the Hard Rain that would fall, that would destroy life on Earth, in less than two years.
The International Space Station, ‘Izzy’, immediately becomes the focus of Earth’s attention as its leaders attempt to pacify the world’s population with the promise that although they might die their species will not. Izzy will become the hub of an Ark, lots will be cast, a few thousand people will be saved, the DNA and embryos of many other species and humans will be stored aboard. There is hope. Even though most have little cause to do anything but despair.
Seveneves is an extraordinary, magnificent novel. Within its 900 pages it contains an astonishing and meticulous depiction of mankind’s efforts to survive, day by day, bolt by bolt, as the Space Station is transformed. We grow enormously close to its crew, especially Dinah, an expert in robotic technology, and Ivy, the Station’s commander, but there are others, including Dubois, and the numbers grow as more and more people are rocketed to the Space Station, attaching new habitats. Many of these early arrivals are mere sacrifices, giving their lives as they work tirelessly, endlessly, to build habitats that others may live in. Humanity cannot survive without extreme heroism on the part of many. Sometimes the maddest of ideas turn out to be the best of solutions – mankind is evolving fast to survive.
Two thirds of the novel follows in enormous detail life, sometimes barely a life, aboard the Space Station as well as the other vessels and habitats that work towards the survival of the Ark. Hundreds of pages are devoted to this, no detail is too small, nothing too little not to worry the crew and scientists. There are countless problems to overcome. But the detail never becomes too much. It is absolutely fascinating. This is hard science fiction and it is done brilliantly – the tension never eases, the human drama increases, everyone trying not to look at the Earth they have left behind. This effort to detach emotionally from Earth’s fate is powerfully moving and is never lost amongst the science. The goodbyes are dealt with quickly but how could they be done differently? This is too huge. The trauma is too great. Survival is in the detail.
The final third moves us on five thousand years and from this point on the novel shifts in another direction entirely. Now the author directs that attention to detail to describing the future of humanity. This section strongly contrasts with what has gone before and it does take some getting used to but it does succeed, largely because of the lavish descriptions of the new worlds and technologies and its treatment of the bioengineering that has transformed mankind. The play of the book’s title means something here just as it did at the beginning with the moon’s Seven Sisters. There are some huge ideas at work in this final section, some of which also take us right back to the start. I found the ending completely satisfying.
For me, the first two thirds of this novel is nigh on perfect science fiction. If you were to give me a checklist of what I wanted from SF then this would tick most of the boxes. The plot seemed made for me – end of the world, space stations and space ships, heroism, weakness, action scenes that take the breath away and ideas and visions that make the jaw drop. This had it all. My only issue with this part of the novel was that one baddie in particular seemed too conventional and familiar. But this was more than compensated for by the other characters, not least of whom is the incredible Tekla. There are so many strong women in this book. I appreciated every one of them. Dealing with loss is something that everyone in this novel must endure and as the book goes on the pain of this only increases.
Seveneves is the first Neal Stephenson book I’ve read. I was attracted to it by its themes and promise of hard science fiction. I love SF brickbooks and Seveneves proved irresistible. This is a saga to lose oneself in. It is rich, layered, alive. Its detail is absolutely fascinating and complements perfectly the scenes of high drama. The meticulously presented ordeal of surviving day by day on the Ark contrasts with the later section’s elaborately developed and grand view of mankind’s future. Seveneves is a triumph – I cannot praise it enough.