Review: Neal Stephenson “Seveneves”

I have always been an admirer of Bill Gates. Not just for nearly single-handedly putting a personal computer in every home. His efforts to rid the world of numerous diseases and eradicate poverty are inspirational. Some years back, I began following him on Twitter and noticed his intermittent posts on what he was reading. I had never really thought of him as a sage on what is a good book. He is. So, when he put up “Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson, and I saw that it was a science fiction novel (I am a big fan of the genre), it was a no brainer. Before you read on, you should know that there are some spoilers in the below.

I must start by saying that it is virtually impossible for me to do this book justice. The scope, originality, plot, character development and world created in Sevenenves are beyond the capacity I have here to convey how mind-bendingly brilliant the whole thing is.

Seveneves is divided into three parts but the story is essentially split in two halves. The first begins with the moon blowing up. Earth is given two years to survive before the “White sky” demolishes everything. So begins 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 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. Then, bang: we are five thousand years in the future. I felt like I had come down off the highest high – that is how infused I was in the opening story. That said, I quickly got sucked into an even more intricate world in the future.

The number one thing for me about Seveneves is the world that Stephenson creates. Specifically the imagined structures that underpin the universe. The Cloud Ark and the idea of thousands of small ships creating one large one is pioneering. The International space station being bolted onto a giant iron asteroid – the Amalthea. These concepts are bold, visionary and genuinely thrilling. The notion of the multi-coloured ” Eye” with the “Socket” docking on Earth and the “Iris” being a transport system left me in awe whilst I read the book. Jaw dropping stuff. It took me multiple readings of the start of Part 3 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. Why not this rather than anything else? I did not know the book was accompanied by pictures when I read it first (I read it on my IPad) so if you haven’t already, 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? The whole area of epigenetics – 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: 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? Above all, Seveneves makes you think.

I am intrigued by the way our successors five thousand years in the future view early 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. The whole view of society setting up a discipline of “Amistics” to see what technology was and wasn’t needed in the future. I really hope we evolve in this regard. I say 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 the future be now please? Skip the white rain, mind.

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 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 almost complete. Some human traits remain the same even hundreds of thousands of miles from Earth. It is fascinating to watch politics seem into space too. 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 working on her own vision. I naively thought that with the human population at a historic low, that people would work with one goal in mind. Maybe I do not understand humans at all.

I read Seveneves as a vision of how we have destroyed 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 some small inner recess of my brain on fire with its bold, ingenious vision of the future. A bona-fide science fiction classic.


About Mick Gilbride

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