Seveneves by Neal Stephenson - What I Loved and What I Hated

So as the title implies, I just finished a fairly rapid read of Seveneves, prompted by Adam Savage mentioning it in one of Tested's videos. I cut my teeth on Anathem, which I found brilliantly unique and quite challenging. I also read Snow Crash earlier this year.

Let me say first and foremost that, for the most part, I found parts one and two to be brilliant.  I'm utterly in love. The premise of Human civilization counting down the days to their inevitable death is haunting. Equally engaging is Stephenson's Apollo 13-esque setup of taking all the spacecraft and technologies available to Humans currently (or perhaps a few years from now), throwing them on a table and essentially pronouncing to himself: "We have to keep the Human race alive for 5000 years in space with everything on this table." Through his characters and story, we can Stephenson himself working through this problem, and its fascinating to watch.

From my standpoint though, there are a number of problems with the book. Let me say unequivocally that I wouldn't be sitting here airing them if I felt "meh" about this story. It is an AMAZING story, there are so many places where I'm in awe of Stephenson's imagination and storytelling; which is why it's so irksome that certain problems stick out like sore thumbs for me. So I need to have a little rant about those things.


Tiny Robots Are Magic
This is the primary complaint of the scientifically-minded crowd, so I'll start here. Stephenson is notorious for his meticulous attention to scientific detail, devoting pages upon pages to how a particular device or set of physics works before allowing the plot to advance - and certainly, his descriptions of how the robots operate in swarms is fascinating. But he really glosses over what seems to be the big challenge of robotics: how to power the things. Presumably, in the universe of Seveneves there has been a massive breakthrough in battery technology? The robots of Seveneves seem more than a few years more advanced than what we have in many regards. It sometimes verges on a sort of Machina Ex Deus, if you will.

Politicians and Politics are Pure Evil
I know science and engineering types often have a justifiable frustration with all things political: fights over vaccines, global warming, GMOs, and other well-established science spill over into the political sphere and end up as insufferable arguments between those who KNOW and those who prefer ignorance and fear. As a proper Sci-Fi author, it's Stephenson's prerogative to air such frustrations.

But my goodness, Julia was such an evil and unsympathetic character that I began to expect at any moment that she would sprout a moustache and monocle before tying someone to a railroad track and cackling maniacally. Many of her actions make utterly no sense, casting her as impulsive, illogical, and reckless - endangering countless human lives to further an agenda of power. It's an extremely unflattering presentation of a career politician which erects a strawman, the purpose of which is quite obviously to say, obliquely: "Imagine how much better things would run if the scientists and engineers were in charge."

I am very sick of hearing this argument. Human beings are quite adept at drawing lines in the sand so that they may blame the other for all that is wrong in this world: STEM types are no exception, and their other is politicians. It's very easily forgotten how bad science and bad interpretation has lead to all kinds of ugly policy based in affirming biases like racism a sexism. We forget how recently prominent scientists (who shall go unnamed) have blasted feminism, or said that women in the lab are a bad idea because they inflame men's passions, or been accused by female colleagues of years of harassment and abuse. We forget that shills will skew science to the benefit of corporations or fringe groups. And when, in the book, Marcus declares martial law, starts training a goon squad, and declares the one expert on the constitution judge, attorney general, prosecutor, etcetera - it seems as if we meant to feel Julia's quite legitimate concerns about this arrangement are simply overblown.

The final nail in the coffin is in part three when Arianne betrays the group of seven - the message seems to be that Julians (and by extension, political types) are inherently untrustworthy. Likewise, Red seems to be better at the political side of first contact and political messaging, but there are also strong tones of an authoritarian society where propaganda is commonplace. So who runs Blue? Do they vote for their leaders? How does their government work? How does their society protect free expression? Stephenson doesn't appear to care. I find it unfortunate that Stephenson felt the need to portray an entire segment of society in such an unflattering light, and it remains perhaps the lowest depths of the novel for me.

Diggers and Pingers Are an Unsurprising Reveal
The principle of Chekov's Gun is that you don't place a loaded gun on stage unless you intend it to go off in the third act. Likewise, you don't put people under the ground and seas of your doomed planet unless you intend them to survive and come out during the third act.

The problem is that the third act is written as a mystery story. Who is this strange Human that Kath Two sees during her glider flight, right at the start of Act Three? It's pretty obvious it's one of the two groups that were set up in the first two parts of the novel: either miners or submariners. The obviousness of that is part of what makes part three so tedious to read. Stephenson teases along the readers with question marks when we already know the answer - which makes you want to yell, "Yes, yes! Get on with it!" That leads me to the last point.

Part Three is a Bit of a Mess
Parts one and two feel like a complete and cohesive story. Part three feels tacked on. It's a different time with different characters and a totally different environment/setting. It's interesting to see how people are getting on in the far future, but all the set up and conflict between blue and red is very rushed. It's difficult to feel attached to any of the characters, both because the end of the book looms near, and because it's difficult to assign them identities other than archetypes of their respective eve.

While I'm on that topic, the future feels horribly, HORRIBLY racist. In the 5000 years since the Seven Eves landed Izzy on Peach Pit, there has clearly been virtually no interbreeding, something which Kath Two reveals is frowned upon. Each race seems to be pigeonholed into certain careers and jobs based on their genetic predilection. What if a Teklan wants to be an artist or a teacher? What if a Julian wants to be a soldier or an engineer? Again, Stephenson's oblique answer seems to be that nature trumps nurture, and that races just do what they are genetically-predisposed to do. What a terrible, dangerous assertion.

Lastly, we end with a bitterly divided human race. This is a bit of a depressing end - implying that even in the far future, after suffering a catastrophe of such unprecedented scale, in which it was necessary for all the nations of the world to put aside differences and co-operate in order to preserve their heritage, that we end up worse than where we left off. Red vs Blue - Commies vs Freedom.

As I said in the introduction, I write this not because I disliked Seveneves. Rather, I loved much of the book so much that it's serious shortcomings come as a major disappointment to me. I hope that this post sparks a lively conversation (perhaps on reddit). But mostly, it's therapy for me, since I've been reading in a blitz for three weeks. Now that the book is over, I need some way of coping. (Hopefully, I have not committed Tav's Mistake ;)

Jesse Schooff