I’m not typically drawn to the business of writing book reviews, and I’d hate for this to be the start. So let’s just call this a book “celebration”, spawned by my immense – possibly even fawning – admiration for Neal Stephenson’s most recent book, Seveneves.
I’d audiobooked Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon during some long, tedious hours spent using super-neat laser scanners to digitize archaeological remains in a creaky old lab festooned with dusty cabinets and rusty steam pipes, and was considerably impressed. Sprawling and thoroughly researched, Cryptonomicon provided food-for-thought and compelling entertainment in roughly equal measures, so I was intrigued when I read an early review for Seveneves that suggested Stephenson was tackling nothing short of the apocalypse.
The novel opens with the violent destruction of the moon, an event that will cascade into the eventual death of earth. It’s a pretty drastic event, and makes for an excellent hook. At first the sudden destruction of the moon (never fully explained, but possibly the work of a high-speed impactor) is greeted by the novel’s protagonists – mostly scientists and engineers, dynamically and idiosyncratically portrayed by a man who has clearly spent a fair amount of time hanging around scientists and engineers – with a sense of wonder and curiosity. But it quickly becomes clear that one of the more salient consequences of the event will be the incineration of everything on the earth’s surface, including humanity.
Thereafter, the story – told in three parts – deals almost mechanistically with the likely ramifications of a situation in which life on earth becomes untenable. It should go without saying that no one can predict what would actually happen in a scenario like the one at the core of Seveneves, but Stephenson does a good job of making the reader forget this little caveat and think that he not only can, but has. This is rock-solid speculative fiction, and the plot – especially in the first two thirds of the book – is driven by a practical assessment of the challenges humanity would face in evacuating earth, and how those challenges might be met within the bounds of the scientifically and technologically possible.
- What type of vehicle is best for navigating a space filled with an increasing amount of fast moving debris? A swarm of small, semi-autonomous capsules perhaps?
- How do you avoid getting toasted by cosmic radiation? How do you manufacture fuel? Maybe capture a comet as a partial solution to both?
- How do you grow enough food to sustain even a small population? Genetically modified crops and hydroponics, supplemented with a bit of human flesh when times get tough?
- Where do you go when the planet on which your species evolved and has perpetually depended for survival is unlivable? Start anew on Mars? Shelter in a large chunk of the moon’s newly exposed iron core?
- How do you govern a population under conditions in which survival necessitates a restriction of what have come to be viewed as natural human rights? Who gets to make these decisions?
Seveneves is not, to be clear, a story about the mass migration of humanity from the terrestrial to the celestial realm. In a very real sense, it is about the destruction and reconstruction of humanity. The world’s sharpest minds come together to solve the aforementioned problems, and the solution they come up with is a long shot at best. Only about 1500 people make it off the earth before its surface is consumed in an inferno that will last millennia and render it unlivable for even the hardiest of extremophiles. In space, they face a vast array of challenges posed by the realities of life in an extreme environment, compounded by humanity’s perpetual tendency to create new problems as a byproduct of the interaction between people with different ideas, beliefs, and opinions about what is best. Stephenson doesn’t shrink from depicting the hardships humanity might face in attempting to survive in space, and the result is often brutal and harrowing. But it is never anything less than compelling.