Monday, October 24, 2016

Review of Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson’s 2015 novel, Seveneves, concerns an issue that will someday affect us all: the end of the world as we know it. Divided into three parts, it begins with the destruction of the moon by an unknown “Agent,” followed by Humanity’s realization that the moon will soon come down in a “Hard Rain,” obliterating all life on Earth. A desperate undertaking to launch as many people up to the International Space Station as possible begins.

Stephenson’s descriptions are fascinating, and we root for the characters, including astronaut Dinah MacQuarie and her father Rufus, a miner who remains on Earth. Stephenson fans will recognize these descendants from his other historical sagas. After a hair-raising struggle punctuated with many disasters, only seven female humans manage to make it to a haven safe from the falling moon’s debris.

Where it seems to go off the rails is Part 3, a full novel in itself. Verbose detailed descriptions try to catch us up on 5,000 years of history since the Hard Rain. We lose the connection we developed with the characters in Parts 1 and 2, and their descendants seem to be blanks. Human civilization now consists of 3 billion humans orbiting Earth, and the task to reseed and reclaim the planet is underway. The seven female survivors (“Eves”) have bred seven races of humans.

I felt that use of the term “race” does a serious disservice to the story. Race is an invention of the 17th Century. (Reflect that in 15th Century Florence, the city-state was ruled by a black member of the Medici family. Few cared a whit about his skin color.)

The genetic engineering of the children of the original seven Eves in order to repopulate the world is interesting, of course, but the eventual development of seven different “races” sounds like a step backwards. The idea was for the women to have viable offspring, right? This is the definition of species, not race. The Human species can interbreed. Stephenson seems to get around this a bit with the concept of “epigenetics." But, even if some offspring are able to express their genetic coding differently, that still doesn’t make them a separate species. Stephenson would have done better to have coined a new term instead of race. Older terms such as “nation” and "breed" no longer serve: Israeli Jews and Arabs are different nations, but they are still humans.

There seems to be a tendency for prolific SF writers to overripen, i.e., to trend ever rightward politically. As I matured I eventually had to stop taking everything seriously I read by Heinlein and Simmons and. . . (sigh). They started out rebelliously creative, but evolved into mining political tropes (or is it tripes?) and recent science news. (For example, was it necessary to include the recent discovery of Neanderthal DNA into one of Stephenson’s new “races”? David Brin jumped around similarly in “Existence,” instead of exploring one or two big ideas.)

Maybe I am being too harsh. But I view PD James’s 1992 novel, “The Children of Men” as an example of what I mean about exploring a single big idea. The plot is simple: Humanity has become infertile, and the last child has died.  Somehow one woman manages to become pregnant, and if we can protect her, she is our salvation. It’s a masterpiece.

Unfortunately, we don’t suffer the same uncertainty with Seveneves. We always knew that Rufus and the Diggers would survive the Hard Rain.

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