I’m reading Neal Stephenson’s new end of the world novel Seveneves in between my almost feverish bursts of writing – again, finally. I’m sitting here trying to decide whether I’m a Stephenson fan, and I guess I have to conclude that my relationship with his work is complicated. I’m a huge fan of Snow Crash, one of his earlier works. I followed through Diamond Age, and if I recall, I found it somewhat dry and sterile. I paid attention to his later, much more ambitious works, but never really mustered the energy to tackle them. They tend to be massive tomes. When I heard about Seveneves, what with apocalypse being one of my ‘things’, I decided to dive right in.
First of all, if there’s a guy with his finger more on the ebb and flow of technology than the author, they’ve probably got him locked in a think tank somewhere. The detail of his technical vision is staggering. It reveals an optimism about our ability to think, innovate, and solve problems that I really appreciate. He reveals the value of risk – huge risk – in seeking goals and threading the needle of survival, a value that I think we have lost as a culture. My understanding from reading about his work (that I never personally read), is that he can throw history and politics into the blender every bit as well as technology. Maybe his real skill, aside from encyclopedic knowledge, is in the interface of all the things that build the weave of our existence. How we got here, and where we could go… The man can get his geek on.
On the downside, I find it hard to connect with his characters. Some of the internal human pieces are missing. They are drawn well enough to associate with real people, and occasionally other fictional characters, but not quite well enough to stand on their own. Love exists, loss exists, but only symbolically, as if viewed from 10,000 feet. One character, sort of a Carl Sagan/Neil DeGrass Tyson/public spokesman for science guy, makes a special request to bring the frozen embryo resulting from a new (and presumably passionate) love – the woman must be left behind on a doomed Earth. When that embryo is destroyed by a technical failure described in amazing detail, he shrugs it off like a programmer watching the third round of errors in his code. The author does describe the character’s reaction to his own non-reaction in the form of a sense of duty in an emergency, but I find it hard to believe that the characters could uniformly continue to function through personal loss (not to mention the loss of the entire planet) without someone totally losing it. I’m not done yet, so we’ll see.
To be fair, this is a pretty normal depiction in the whole speculative fiction genre. The characters tend to be very smart, highly functional, and exquisitely well trained. And to be doubly fair, I do the same thing.
So far, I’d say if you like to mix your doom with your geek factor, this is totally worth a read. If you want a highly personal human experience of the end of the world, as told by one of the most highly regarded SF authors out there, you’ll probably find yourself trying to grind through it. On the other hand, if you want to learn how to mine an asteroid with robots and deal with orbital mechanics, this book is a fantastic head start.