Hugos 2016: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Once again, I’m attempting to read as many Hugo nominated works as I can stomach, review them here, and vote according to merit. Luckily, I have a really good library.


When I was twelve or thirteen, I read 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I didn’t like it. The first two thirds were okay, but then we hit the hallucinatory journey through the monolith, and although I lacked the appropriate vocabulary at the time, I thought it was a load of wank. My reading that year was equal parts Asimov and McCaffrey, and I didn’t have the patience for hallucinogenic metaphysical trips. (Spoilers: I still don’t.)

On the other hand, I adored 2010: Odyssey Two and 2067: Odyssey Three. I read my dad’s copies until they fell apart — there was something reassuring about them, with their spaceships full of multicultural, variously-degrees-of-stereotyped civilians and military officers. They were just simple enough for a young teen to understand, with occasional flashes of complexity that made me feel like I was reading proper literature. I even rented the 2010 film adaptation on VHS (it was my introduction to Helen Mirren, who played the commander of a Soviet space ship).

Which brings us to Seveneves.

(Spooooooilers ahead!)

The first two thirds are achingly reminiscent of the SF I loved as a kid — the simple characters, the vague gestures towards ethnic and cultural diversity, a dash of hard science, a handful of robots. It’s easy to see how Seveneves wound up on Vox Day’s Rapid Puppies slate — this is the kind of old-fashioned SF he likes to claim doesn’t exist anymore.

It’s also easy to see how so many people went, “Huh, oh yeah, I nominated that/thought of nominating that, too” when his slate was announced. I wouldn’t be surprised if Seveneves would have made the shortlist without VD’s “assistance”. There’s a lot to like about it.

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. It was waxing, only one day short of full. The time was 05:03:12 UTC. Later it would be designated A+0.0.0, or simply Zero.

What an outstanding first sentence! I loved it.

And it was followed straight after by a few lines that typify my problem with Stephenson’s writing style: it’s simplistic, crammed with useless factoids and exposition. He loves assigning things — concepts, objects, chunks of what used to be the moon — nicknames, then reducing the nicknames to acronyms, then stopping frequently to remind us what the acronyms stand for and where the nicknames came from and why.

There’s also … well.

Ivy, one of the many women driving this book, is the Chinese-American commander of the International Space Station at the moment the moon blows up. We are told many times that she is not regarded as an ideal leader in this time of crisis — not really American, not really Chinese.

Okay. That’s depressingly realistic.

What’s less likely is that a woman born in San Francisco would have anything but a Californian accent. There’s no call here to describe her three times has having a “singsongy” manner of speech. I mean, come on. This whole story is told by an omniscient narrator, and that narrator is kinda racist.

Also kind of … not very good with women. Ivy and her space BFF Dinah (She Learned Tech Stuff From Her Dad And Brothers) have a running joke where they make fun of a NASA PR woman who apparently forgot to apply her make-up. It could be a good point of characterisation, no-nonsense women in STEM fields who don’t have much time for performances of femininity, except I kept getting hung up on this one question:

How on earth do you forget to apply make-up? If you’re a habitual wearer, I mean, and a more-or-less-present-day PR woman would be. It’s like remembering to put on pants or shoes.

(I did once make it to work wearing eyeliner but no mascara, but we all know I’m a bit of a ditz. And — key point — not working in any kind of public relations-like field.)

That’s just one of the many moments throughout the book where I felt like Stephenson was struggling to write women. Little points where I just stopped and went, “…That just seems completely unlikely.”

This book is really long. 687 pages (that’s the Overdrive ePub file I borrowed from the library), and it felt longer. First the moon is destroyed, and then it slowly dawns on pop astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson Jerome Xavier Harris “Doc Doob” Dubois that, in just a few years, the Earth is going to be bombarded with former-moon-rocks and humanity is doomed unless we move into space.

This is set in the very near future, meaning that we don’t have the resources for a wholesale evacuation of the planet — instead, young people from each country will be selected, and a few will make it offworld, along with a whole lot of scientists and professionals whose expertise should be preserved.

Meanwhile, Elon James tech jillionaire Sean Probst realises the plan is doomed without adequate fuel, and sets out on a suicide mission to bring a comet to the growing ark; POTUS Hillary Clinton Sarah Palin femme!Ronald Reagan nukes Venezuela for Reasons; various stuff happens and it’s all … actually kind of interesting?

Somehow, despite the sketchy characters and entirely unnecessary lapses into exposition — seriously, I’ve made it through 24 years reading SF without knowing what Earth’s Lagrange points are and I didn’t need to be told now — I found myself engaged. Especially once the bombardment — the Hard Rain — finally began, and the Cloud Ark was on its own.

[Steph adds: Lagrange points are important and you should all know how they work, for science.]

Except…

Lots of very interesting things happen very quickly — most of which we hear about later, and briefly. In a way I was relieved — “space cannibalism” is a key phrase here — but also annoyed, because not only do we essentially lose most of the human race in a couple of sentences, but, when we finally meet a very important, pivotal character, we see so little of her that she’s even less fleshed out than the others.

BASICALLY, one thing leads to another, and the Cloud Ark breaks apart and then breaks down into civil war, most of which is conducted via Space Social Media, but with occasional bouts of Space Cannibalism. Aida, a young Italian woman, is the leader of the victorious faction, Team Eating People And Instagramming It, Probably.

Aida is … problematic. Firstly, she has bipolar disorder, which makes me seriously doubt she would have been selected for the Cloud Ark — I mean, this is a world where, rather than compromise and accept even one Venezuelan candidate (Venezuela having chosen candidates at random, meaning that they’re a bit shit compared with the carefully selected candidates of other nations), matters are allowed to escalate to the point of actual nuclear warfare. This seconds-from-now society is basically our own, and therefore quite ableist; it seems unlikely that one of the limited places on the Cloud Ark would have gone to a person with a serious mental illness.

Secondly — look, do I have to point out the Issues with portraying a bipolar person as an unstable, manipulative, homicidal cannibal?

Thirdly, when the dust has settled — metaphorically — and the sole survivors of humanity — the seven Eves of the title, plus one woman who is post menopause — are preparing to reproduce via genetic engineering and a hell of a lot of pregnancies, Aida objects to the idea that the genes carrying her illness will be passed on. Which is fine, except her arguments are shallow and unconvincing — you get the impression that Stephenson has read some disability theory, but hasn’t really taken it seriously.

Anyway, the second third ends with plans being laid for the recreation of humanity, with each Eve manipulating her offspring’s genetics for certain desirable traits — intelligence, leadership, strength and discipline, and so on.

(I feel like there really should have been eight Eves — with artificial hormones, which are available in this scenario, the older woman, Luisa, could have acted as a surrogate. But “seven eves” sounds a lot cooler.)

The final third of the book is set … 5,000 years later, as the descendants of the Seven Eves make a few surprising discoveries on the newly-inhabitable surface of Earth.

Now, I enjoy a good flashforward as much as anyone who watched Alias at an impressionable age, but this is where Seveneves lost me. Five thousand years is a LONG time. It’s the span of time that separates English from Indo-European. Five thousand years ago, the Sumerians were inventing writing and the Egyptians were figuring out the rudiments of mummification. Certain aspects of the human condition are universal, but if you came face to face with a living, breathing human of 3,000 BCE, you’d have a seriously hard time communicating with him.

But here, much is made of the close cultural continuity between the Eves and their descendants. There are reasons for this, but, um, I actually didn’t understand the stuff about epigenetics, and I think a lot of the other factors would be less significant than Stephenson thinks.

What we basically have is a few hundred pages of new characters, few of whom are as interesting as they should be, and some neat plot twists, all wrapped up in a heavy exposition blanket. It all reads like the set-up for an RPG — more than one reviewer has remarked on this, but it’s this guy who sets it all out — but it’s pretty bland.

Things we learn:

  • Stephenson thinks that “like horses on a carousel” is a perfectly cromulent simile for people who have grown up in space and never seen a horse or a carousel in their lives
  • “Old Racism” has been eradicated, but “exotic” is still a word that gets applied to humans
  • (The “seven races” descended from the Eves are all super prejudiced towards one another, and also to groups within their own race, which actually seems pretty realistic, but let’s talk about the bit where four of the seven Eves are white, eh?)
  • Australia features so little in this book that Stephanie and I assumed it was hit by a large bolide early on, and no one noticed because we weren’t around to shout about it, but 5,000 years later, people are using asteroids to create a land bridge between Cape York and PNG, and that whole concept is fraught with layers that Stephenson probably isn’t aware of. It just made me uncomfortable.

There’s a telling moment where the descendants of Dinah and the brave but passive-aggressive meant-to-be-a-thinly-veiled*-version-of-Malalah-Yousafzai-but-that’s-actually-pretty-insulting-Camila, Stephenson writes, “The elaborate Dinan code of chivalry obliged them to show special politeness to Camites, whom they identified as weak and childlike.” Stephanie and I had to stop and grumble about white feminism and toxic maternalism.

* No pun intended.

The final act has a nice glimpse of a YA-novel-that-could-have-been, about a relationship between a young man who, unusually, was born on Earth and never left, and a girl whose background is a massive spoiler, but her name is Sonar Taxlaw and that is amazing. Those two basically justified the entire existence of the final third for me.

To wrap it all up…

I gave Seveneves three stars on Goodreads, because I don’t think it was a bad book, just hopelessly flawed. Hugo-wise, I’m going to put it above No Award, but below Ancillary Mercy, which I also found flawed, but never dull. I almost wish Stephenson’s technical knowledge and the vast scope of his ideas could be matched with Leckie’s cultural worldbuilding, although the result would doubtless be unreadable.

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