Every End is a Beginning: “Seveneves”,
a novel by Neal Stephenson – A review by Valentin Ivanov
The inquisitive spirit of the old golden-age science fiction is alive. There are still authors who write about hopeful futures, who study the human condition in fantastic circumstances, address the question how science and technology affects people, and most importantly, offer new insights on the old question how societies evolve.
Horror, fantasy and the post-apocalyptic fiction may be in vogue these days, but writers like Greg Egan, Robert Charles Wilson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Stephen Baxter, Robert Sawyer, Ann Leckie and Andy Weir create memorable new tales that challenge and stimulate the readers.
Neal Stephenson belongs to the same elite group of writers.
“Snow Crash” (BSFA and Clarke Award nominations), “Cryptonomicon” (Locus Award winner, Clarke and Hugo nominations), “The Baroque Cycle” (many Locus and Clarke nominations and wins for the individual volumes) and especially “Anathem” (Locus award winner, BSFA, Clarke and Hugo nominations) are mainstays of the modern hard SF.
It is hard to talk “Seveneves” without revealing much, but I will make an effort to tell why I think every SF reader should read it, rather then to re-tell much of the story.
* * *
“Seveneves” appeared in 2015. It was nominated for Hugo. With nearly 900 pages it is a massive novel, a work that other writers would have easily turned in to a trilogy.
In my view the length is justified – in the best traditions of Olaf Stapledon the novel spans many thousands of years and tells an epic survivor story.
I placed Stephenson among the positivists, but a novel with no conflict will be boring. And on the first pages he provides a spectacular SF-ional premise that surpasses even the most imaginative disasters that we have seen in the recent years – the Moon is destroyed in the best tradition of the 1950s SF. Whodunit is a big spoiler that I won’t reveal, and the way it is handled hints to a sequel.
The book, despite its size, was well worth my time.
Why? – First, I enjoyed the optimistic treatment of the human nature. Apparently, Stephenson defends the point of view that to understand how strong something is, one has to push it to the breaking point. Second, I enjoyed very much the richly drawn and fine-textured pictures of the future.
The novel is broken into three parts. The beginning tells about the first days after the disaster, when the humanity struggles to comprehend the scale of the problem it is facing. The second follows the first stages of the battle for survival, and the final section describes the long-term consequences.
On the starting pages Stephenson paints – somewhat misleadingly – a happy-go-to-space picture, but it quickly deteriorates to reveal the darkness – apparent to a careful reader – of the predicament that the humanity has fallen into. The author has not omitted to point out at the usual traps that our psychological self-defense mechanisms are usually leading us into. He is also quick to underline the inventiveness and the resourcefulness of those magnificent human beings (to miss-quote here a line from Chris Ecleston’s “Doctor Who”).
When the polish is removed the the smoke clears away, the reader sees the seven Eves of the future humanity. I will not reveal what this means, it is too much pleasure to discover the twists and turns page by page.
Later in the novel, Stephenson unleashes his imagination to paint a picture of the future humanity. I found a lot of pleasure in the details and even in the lengthy descriptions – the author spent a considerable amount of those pages offering us lavish views of the future home(s) that the mankind has build for itself in space and of the restored Earth.
To tell more would be spoiling.
I will just mention that unlike the psychological and somewhat confined first two parts, the ending is quite fast paced and full of action.
Stephenson’s characters deserve special prize. They are complex and convincing. At the beginning of the novel, when the reader needs to be introduced into the rules-of-engagement, the multifaceted protagonists help to make those unavoidable infodumps not just bearable, but interesting.
The dialog is full of jokes and various references that give the novel further depth and cultural context. More then a fair amount of the main protagonists are women and issues of gender are often discussed. Importantly, I never felt that those parts were forced to meet some criterion of political correctness.
It seems Stephenson leaves nothing to chance and makes sure that every sentence is used fully to convey more then one message. A question of applying the law and rules on the space station is not just about law and procedures, but also an issue of morals, ethics, freedom, history and preservation of history; survival is measured against the value of individuals’ lives and against the value in the wider context the society, and it comes with summaries of lessons learned from historical examples and with reflections on the responsibility for the future.
In this respect the dense texture of the novel resembles the technology of the Motes from “The Mote in God’s Eye” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle – these aliens use every piece of electronics in more than one circuit, to be more efficient.
As a writer, Stephenson is an exceptionally talented “mote”.
* * *
“Seveneves” is not a “beer novel” that can please every reader.
Enjoying it requires some effort and knowledge, but if you like the work of the writers I listed at the beginning, the chances are you may like this one too.
It brings us back to the roots of the genre, because it investigates the human nature in strange and unexpected ways and on scales larger than life – and I am not talking here about lifespans in year.
Most importantly, Stephenson stated his believe that the human kind can make from an ending a new beginning, and build something better. I find this and an wonderful sentiment!
I enjoyed the novel immensely and highly recommend it.
©Valentin D. Ivanov
Dec 23, 2017, Munich
Valentin D. Ivanov (born in the town of Burgas, Bulgaria in 1967) is a Bulgarian SF writer, essayist, reviewer and astronomer working at the European Southern Observatory, Garching bei München, Germany.
Previously, Valentin worked at the European Southern Observatory, mainly at the Cerro Paranal site, Chile. Among his primary research areas are the dynamics of star clusters, formation of stars, brown dwarfs, and exoplanets around such objects.
He had obtained his master degree in physics and astronomy at the University of Sofia in 1992.
He earned a PhD degree at the University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, U.S.A. in 2001.
He became a fellow at the European Southern Observatory, Cerro Paranal, Chile and since 2003 he has been a staff astronomer at the European Southern Observatory, Paranal where he is instrument scientist for the wide-field near-infrared camera VIRCAM mounted at the VISTA_(telescope).
In 2006, together with Kiril Dobrev, he has published a Science Fiction story collection in Bulgarian.
Valentin Ivanov and Ray Jayawardhana are two of the pioneers of the investigation of the planemos, a special cast of exoplanets.
They discovered the first double planemo Oph 162225-240515.
This discovery, came just before the debate about the 2006 planet definition, and posed the problem about the distinction between planets and low-mass stars (brown dwarfs).
Some of his English language SF stories, „Crossroads”, „How I saved the World”, „Job Interview” , “Unstable atmospheric circulation”, are online and also some of his reviews:
and essays :