I have an enormous amount of admiration for Bill Gates. Legend has it that he was so dedicated to his craft at Microsoft that the cleaners would frequently find him asleep under a desk in their office when they came in to start their shifts in the morning. He worked himself to the bone in his quest to put a Personal Computer in every home in the world and is the personification of why the free market system works. Luckily he is now focused on ameliorating poverty and eradicating some of the numerous diseases that kill an unnecessary amount of our species and my guess is that he will do more than a lot of collective governments. 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 completely unique.
“Seveneves” is divided into three parts but the story is essentially split into two halves. The first began when the moon blew up and Earth was given two years to survive before the “White Sky” demolished everything. The second story started five thousand years after the end of the first one and I found it difficult to adjust to the second storyline after I had invested so heavily in the characters and plot in the first half. I was swiping the virtual pages like a man possessed as the first half reached a truly stunning denouement then, bang! You are five thousand years in the future.
The highlight of “Seveneves” is the world that Stephenson imagined. Specifically, the structures that underpinned the universe. The concept of how the “Cloud Ark” was comprised of thousands of individual ships having coagulated into one gigantic one was pioneering. Moreover, how The International Space Station was bolted onto a giant iron asteroid, the “Amalthea”, was 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. Like all great Science-Fiction, it is a fantasy world that we can somewhat realistically foresee. 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 I Pad), 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!
Seveneves raises a plethora of ethical questions. Crucially, was the decision making process to decide who would get to go on the “Cloud Ark” an ethical one? Was it as simple as picking our best and brightest? Was it justified to use nuclear weapons against Venezuela? The sphere of epigenetics was not one that I was familiar with before I read “Seveneves”. Can we be multiple different people in the same lifetime? At the end of part two, when the last remaining members of humanity were deciding how to genetically code and modify future generations, were the right decisions made?
I am intrigued by the way our successors, five thousand years in the future, viewed our twenty-first century social media habits. “Tav’s mistake”, when he acted like a brain-dead lemming as relentlessly posted away, not realising that his every regurgitation was being carefully observed and manipulated, is an excellent observation on where we are currently at. The very notion that a society set up the discipline of “Amistics”, to decide which technology was and was not required for our existence in the future was also thought provoking.
There are no nuclear weapons in the future and 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? Imagine the type of world that we would have if this were the case.
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. Men ruled the past. Women will rule our future.
Stephenson critiqued democracy in “Seveneves” with the lightning speed at which the new constitution in space deteriorated into Markus suddenly believing that he was God, “I didn’t want to be king of the universe. Nevertheless, now, I am”. When he stationed guards outside his door, the transformation to autocracy was completed. Politics in space became an important factor too. Think of Julia Bliss Flaherty when she began 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”. She operated in the shadows and cunningly attempted to further her own vision. I naively thought, with the human population at a historic low, that the remaining people would work with our collective survival in mind.
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. We do not need to. “Seveneves” 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. It set a small, inner recess of my brain on fire with its bold, admonitory vision of our future and remains a gripping, supersonic, turbo charged odyssey through outer space at hyper speed. A bonafide Science-Fiction classic.