I have an enormous amount of admiration for Bill Gates. Legend has it that he was so dedicated to his craft when first created Microsoft, that the cleaners would frequently find him asleep under a desk in their office. He worked himself to the bone in his quest to put a Personal Computer in every home in the world. He is the personification of why the free market system works. It is to our great benefit that he is now focused on ameliorating poverty and eradicating some of the numerous diseases that kill an unnecessary amount of our species. Gates is one of the great human beings of our time. Some years back, I began following him on Twitter and noticed his intermittent posts on what he was reading. So, when he put up “Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson, and I saw that it was a science fiction novel (I am a huge fan of the genre), it was a no brainer.
I must preface this review by acknowledging that it is virtually impossible for me to do this book justice. The scope, originality, plot, character development and the world that Stephenson created are beyond the capacity I have to convey how incredible the whole thing is.
“Seveneves” is divided into three parts but the story is essentially split into two halves. The first begins with the moon blowing up. Earth is given two years to survive before the “White Sky” demolishes everything. So beginneth a gripping, supersonic, turbo charged odyssey through space at hyper speed. The second story (part three) starts five thousand years after the end of the first one. I found it difficult, at first, to adjust to the second storyline as I had invested so heavily in the characters and story in the first half. I was swiping the virtual pages like a man possessed as the first half reached a truly stunning denouement. Bang! You are five thousand years in the future. It was like that terrible Tuesday after an especially wild weekend, that is how infused I was in the opening story.
The number one thing for me about “Seveneves” is the world that Stephenson imagines. Specifically, the structures that underpin the universe. The concept of the Cloud Ark and the idea of thousands of small ships coagulating into one large one is pioneering. Moreover, how The International Space Station gets bolted onto a giant iron asteroid – the “Amalthea” is also bold, visionary and truly thrilling. The notion of the multi-coloured “Eye” with the “Socket” docking on Earth and the “Iris” being a transport system left me dumbfounded. Jaw dropping stuff. It took me multiple readings of the start of part three to really get my head around the concept of the Eye (and some rather bashful Google searches). When I did, it was incredibly rewarding. This might just be the future. Like all great Science-Fiction, it is a fantasy world that we can realistically foresee and buy into. I did not know the book was accompanied by pictures when I read it first (they were at the end of the digital version that I read on my iPad), so if you have not already read the book, check them out as you read about the complex architectural constructions. I looked at them all after I finished reading it!
There are myriad ethical questions raised by Seveneves. How to choose who went to the Cloud Ark? Was it as simple as picking our best and brightest? Should we have nuked the Venezuelans for thinking differently? Also, the whole area of epigenetics is one that I must admit I had not really thought about it before reading Seveneves. I love the notion of it. Can we be multiple different people in the same lifetime? I read it after Bowie died in 2016 and it made me think that surely he was a human case in point? At the end of part two, when the last remaining members of humanity are deciding how to genetically code and modify future generations, were the right decisions made? I do not have the answers. Above all, Seveneves makes you consider matters that we have not encountered as a species.
I am intrigued by the way our successors, five thousand years in the future, viewed the Twenty-First century social media habits. The story of “Tav’s mistake” and how he acted like a brain-dead lemming just relentlessly posting away, not realizing that his every move was being watched was revealing. The notion of society setting up a discipline of “Amistics” to see which technology was and was not required for our existence in the future was also intriguing. Like Replicants themselves, Social Media can be a benefit and a hazard. It is essential, yet wasteful. I try to think of it in terms of a cost benefit ration and reduce or increase the amount of time I spend online depending on what I get out of it. I write that as I link this review via Word Press to my Facebook and Twitter…
There are no nuclear weapons in the future. The last gun is preserved as a monument to a more barbaric time in the past. Can this future be now, please? Skip the White Rain, mind. It does seem like it will take this generation to get as close to the precipice of complete annihilation before we begin to even question our ability to kill and maim each other. For example, why not ban guns worldwide? Is that really such an out there idea?
Most, if not all, the characters that save the human race are female. The seven people who decide how to genetically populate the earth are women: they decide our future.
The theme of democracy is strong. The idea of the new constitution in space being different to the one on Earth and how quickly democratic institutions break down is encapsulated by Markus suddenly thinking he is some sort of God, “I didn’t want to be king of the universe. Nevertheless, now, I am”. When he stations guards outside his door, the transformation is complete. Some human traits remain the same even hundreds of thousands of miles from Earth. It is fascinating to watch politics seep into space. Think of Julia Bliss Flaherty when she begins turning people against each other in search of furthering her own aims, “The perception of neglect by the powers that be on the Izzy leads to a bit of a chip on the shoulder attitude”. This as she operates in the shadows, cunningly attempting to further her own vision. I naively believed that, with the human population at a historic low, that the remaining people would work with our survival in mind. Maybe I do not understand humans at all.
I read Seveneves as a vision of how we have destroyed the Earth. Granted, we never really know for sure who or what the “Agent” is. However, the novel is a stark reminder of the dystopian future in store for us if we do not treat our planet with respect.
Seveneves left a deep impression on me. Like a lot of great novels, it works on many different levels. I currently find myself desperately imploring all my family and friends to read it. It set a small, inner recess of my brain on fire with its bold, admonitory vision of our future. A bonafide science fiction classic.