Nov 29, 2016

Otherland Speculative Fiction Book Club

Seveneves: a mixed bag

by Walter Phippeny

I love science-fiction, and in the last years I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to hard science-fiction and near future stuff. And I’m apparently not the only one. The Martian was a huge hit, and Corey’s The Expanse has seen enough success to become a TV series. Star Trek is great! But the amount of hand waving to make that universe work has become increasingly problematic for me. “We should be there in 8 minutes, Captain.” Really? Where could you POSSIBLY be in space that you’re 8 minutes from anything, even given faster than light travel? Star Trek is constantly breaking the laws of physics as we understand them with a line or two of technobabble. Space exploration is really neat and exciting, but a lot of the very basic problems remain unexplored in far future science fiction. So, it’s refreshing to read a story that addresses these problems head on and asks the question, “what would a solution to this look like?” When I heard about Seveneves, I was immediately drawn to it: near future, hard SF that goes into specifics.

At first, I thought it was going to be a colony ship story: a sub-genre of science fiction that deals with generation ships and the engineering challenges of traveling between stars in a single vessel over the course of multiple generations. And this book is not that. Through the story humanity never leaves Earth’s orbit. It’s more about how humanity could survive in space in a very near future where the surface of the planet became uninhabitable for thousands of years. It starts with the opening sentence that has become famous in science fiction circles: “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” Stephenson has said in lectures that he didn’t do any research into this at all; he didn’t crunch the numbers to see what would happen and that 5000 years for the new Earth-Lunar Fragment System to reach equilibrium was totally arbitrary. He just made it up to give his plot a reason for starting and to provide his cast of characters a two year buffer between the moon blowing up and the beginning of the apocalypse. Everything that follows, however, IS based in more realistic engineering.

Stephenson’s previous writing has been full of dry humor and asides. Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash have amazing vignettes that had nothing to do with the story, but were so hilarious that I found myself forgiving the author for including them. In contrast Seveneves is a much more serious work. The dry wit has been tuned out and replaced with direct, sparse prose and lengthy technical descriptions.

Though the tone is serious, the characters remain flat, and it’s hard to get emotionally invested in them. There are memorable moments were characters make sacrifices and hard decisions that leave the reader emotionally affected, but on the whole, we get the impression that the characters, instead of having rich internal lives and emotional states, are vehicles for the plot and world building. Stephenson has never been known for great characters, but now the crazy screeds and dry wit are gone too, leaving behind a cast of people who seem more like robots. For a narrative to be successful I have to be emotionally invested in the characters; if they seem like robots, then why should I care when they sacrifice themselves, or succeed at something?

Let’s take the conversation between eight women talking causally about spending the rest of their lives as “baby machines”. Now, Stephenson has always been highly aware of gender in his writing and has attempted to give us strong female characters that are not defined by the men around them. This book is no exception. The title, Seveneves, refers to the seven women who single-handedly reboot the human race and provide the basis for a vast space faring branch of the human species. But, it’s another example of his flat characters in this book that, as these seven women are sitting around a table, talking about dedicating the rest of their lives to popping out kids, they seem to be doing it with a detached sense of logic and analysis that misses an opportunity. No woman would take this situation lightly; this is a truly miserable fate. I think that we can safely describe pregnancy and birth as a “highly impacting” biological process on the human body; now imagine doing this once a year for the rest of your fertile life. Is the horror sinking in yet? We could linger on that for just a minute, but Stephenson is more interested in a debate on what genetic tweaks the women would give their off-spring. If you put your characters into a horrible situation, and they don’t even register the horror, well, I think you might have missed something.

The book is divided into two discreet parts: humanity’s reaction to the initial disaster, and then 5000 years into the future as the surface of the planet has become habitable again. If Stephenson doesn’t do characters well, this also extends into humans in general. In the second part, we get splendid descriptions of technological achievements 5000 years in the future, but the human, or cultural, development seems simplistic and falls flat to the point where I was constantly losing my suspension of disbelief. So, this is a common problem that science fiction authors run into: how to deal with evolution and development across massive time scales. They often get it very wrong by assuming too many similarities between the two time points. Let me provide you with a simple example. In 1000AD, this is what English looked like:

“Wé cildra biddaþ þé, éalá láréow, þæt þú tǽce ús sprecan rihte, forþám ungelǽrede wé sindon, and gewæmmodlíce we sprecaþ…”

And here’s the same sentence in 2000AD:

“We children beg you, teacher, that you should teach us to speak correctly, because we are ignorant and we speak corruptly… “

And that’s just 1000 years of linguistic evolution. Stephenson tries to hand wave this away by posing that the humans in orbit have precise digital records of their society from pre-disaster up to the present. Well, that’s nice, but highly debatable. The idea that information stored by digital means has some kind of permanence is an illusion. Information stored in a digital format is radically dependent on the technology that can read that format i.e. anyone can read a book, but only a very specific machine can read a 3.5” floppy disk; if the disk OR the disk reader become damaged than that information is gone. This is a real problem today! Will humans still be making DVD players 5000 years from now so that they can watch media from our era? Digital information storage is precise and easy to copy but it is not resilient; just ask anyone who went to restore from backup after an accident and found their backups were corrupted. So, I would argue that orbital humanity would not have a complete record of what had happened 5000 years ago; they would have some information, but not a complete record. When the orbitals, however, discover groups of humans on the planet who survived the cataclysm, now all ability to communicate is out. It would be a first contact scenario between two groups with 5000 years of divergent culture. This IS a really cool idea, but it’s simply too big for Stephenson to handle well, and he doesn’t.

And here we get to the crux of the problem with Seveneves: the difference between the conception of the work and it’s execution. Stephenson had a really big and fascinating concept in mind; it was very daring to take on something so big, and he wrestled with it for 10 years before publishing. Unfortunately, it was too big and too daring for him to pull off alone. Stephenson is great at telling us how astrophysics and space exploration work, but not very good at showing us the emotional landscapes of the character in his story; his idea of the sweeping epic and a world 5000 years into the future is impressive, but he can’t really deliver on that vision in all its complexity and resorts to simplifying and taking easy ways out. To be clear, I think that very few humans could pull this off alone; it would require a level of genius and understanding of humanity that few single humans have. And this is how I would fix this. Seveneves shouldn’t be a single novel written by one guy; rather it would have been better to make it a shared universe series, like Wild Cards, or a TV series with a stable of writers contributing to a series bible that Stephenson could provide. With Stephenson providing the main narrative bones, the story could be expanded and developed by writers who bring other expertise to the table. The idea that humanity suffers a major event that splits it into three divergent groups – those in orbit, those underground, and those under the ocean – is amazing. That these groups suffer only a few minor setbacks in communicating with each other after 5000 years of divergent evolution is another huge missed opportunity.

So, Seveneves is both a success in some areas, and a failure in others. Its audience is without a doubt people who love engineering and deep-dives into how things work; readers who are looking more for character driven narrative will get frustrated with lengthy passages that go into technical specifications. In fact, the book could have used a lot more illustrations to aid in the technical exposition. Most technical documents have diagrams for a reason: it’s very difficult to imagine highly complex things in words alone. So, if you love engineering, then you will probably like Seveneves despite its short comings, and, if you don’t, this will be a miserable experience for you. To each his own. 

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