Not with a Whimper, but with a Roar: Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves

Nevil Shute’s 1957 On the Beach remains the most powerful story I have ever consumed. So habitualised have we become to narratives of great heroism preventing impending disaster, that the absolute certainty, and finality, of On the Beach’s end of humanity left me thunderstruck. Once Shute has deprived the reader of the final hope, that radiation might rapidly dissipate in heavy weather, all that remains is for humanity to prepare for its death. Death that does not arrive in a sudden heartbeat, but approaches in a slow rolling cloud. To this day the memory of society, of people, preparing for the end of all life moves me greatly. There can be no more appropriate endorsement for a disaster novel.

The looming hammer of imminent nuclear war has receded from our lives since Shute wrote On the Beach, but Neal Stephenson has decided to remind us that our existence remains as fragile as ever. Shute’s world ended not with a bang, but with a whimper; Stephenson has our world end with a roar. Seveneves begins with the shattering of the moon. Within two years the fragments will bombard the earth, ignite the atmosphere, and begin a ‘hard rain’ that will last five thousand years. Seven billion people will die. All life on earth will be extinguished.

Neal Stephenson has decided to remind us that our existence remains as fragile as ever.

Stephenson however, is not Shute. He offers a clearer hope for humanity than swirling weather patterns, though it is no less desperate. Ever the optimist, Stephenson conceives of a unified human effort to expand the International Space Station, and hurl into space fifteen hundred humans to survive in orbit around the doomed planet. The plan is mad, designed more to give purpose to humanity’s final days than to offer any hope of long term survival.

Into this world of vain hope against impending doom Stephenson draws a memorable cast. Memorable perhaps is an understatement, some of Stephenson’s characters you may know already, because you have seen them on television.

One of my history tutors used to say that you should never write a history about someone who can argue back. Not only might the subjects take exception to your telling of history, but readers’ perceptions of the subjects, people they know if only by reputation, might clash with your own descriptions. I don’t think anyone ever told Stephenson that. He has both defied this rule, and gone well beyond it: he has written a fiction featuring people who can still argue back.

Amongst the cast of Seveneves are an American astrophysicist who has become a public science educator; an internet entrepreneur who spent his billions founding a private space company; and a young Pakistani woman who survives being shot in the head for her views then becomes a global advocate for female education. These three are instantly recognisable as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Elon Musk, and Malala Yousafzai. Yet of course they are not, because as soon as you find them on the page they become something else, a melding of what these real people have been until Seveneves, and how Stephenson decides they will act when introduced to his apocalypse.

Fortunately though not all Stephenson’s characters are hybrids of reality and fiction, and those that come only from Stephenson’s mind are well conceived, identifiable, and suitably complex. Nowhere is this truer than with Dinah, Seveneves central protagonist who watches humanity prepare for its ends from the now relative safety of the International Space Station. Dinah is an astronaut, a robotics engineer, and exactly the kind of protagonist you would expect from the mind that gifted us The Diamond Age’s Nell, and that holds the belief that the key to an interesting life is a subversive attitude towards the status quo. Dinah is smart, creative, and loyal to her friends and family.

I can’t tell you what Dinah looks like, though it’s possible Stephenson did describe her, because Seveneves is one of the many examples of modern science fiction to answer the question of what happened after the nadir that Footfall marked: it got better. In the doomed world of Seveneves the US President is, unremarkably, a woman, and she is certainly not physically described when we first meet her, though her personality is. Stephenson describes the close cut haircut of a Russian cosmonaut, but only so that he can point out that people who notice such things clearly have too much time on their hands. He goes so far as to tackle gender discrimination, being explicit in the injustice that Marcus, the first leader of the cluster of humans finding refuge in space, is picked by mission control over the equally qualified Ivy, because he is a man.

Stephenson describes the close cut haircut of a Russian cosmonaut, but only so that he can point out that people who notice such things clearly have too much time on their hands.

The surprising thing about Stephenson’s humanity is that most people accept their fate. They accept that they will die, and though there is a way for some to live, that way is not for them. With a determination I can only hope I could match in their situation, millions join the efforts to create a haven in orbit. Vessel after vessel is constructed and launched. Stephenson is not naive however, and does not forget the inevitable rise of ‘truthers’ who deny the imminent ‘hard rain’.

As the days wind down towards the ‘hard rain’ more rockets and people are flung into space, forming a cloud of small ‘arks’. As Stephenson’s designated survivors gather in orbit they leave behind them friends and family whose doom is inevitable. Where Shute focused on those preparing to die, Stephenson follows his characters and leaves the condemned behind. The final days of earth are seen only from four hundred kilometers above the earth’s surface. This is disconcerting, and at times makes the characters seem as emotionally distant as they are physically. But maybe it is appropriate from a group of people who must suddenly craft a future for humanity in the most inhospitable of environments, they can no longer think of those they left behind, and soon they don’t.

So long has the day been foreshadowed that armageddon is no longer shocking. It is however poignant, and it was here that the connection with On the Beach seemed apt. In the final hours people gather across the world to meet their end not cowering but creating. Musicians form continuous vigils playing on, the orchestra of this doomed ship, as the walls of the great buildings around them are shattered. They give a definitive answer to the question of what we leave behind, their final strings transmitted to space because art, even if no one hears it, matters. A few final messages escape the atmosphere before it ignites, and consumes the world in fire.

So tense does Seveneves become that I had to stop reading it in the evening as the stress was preventing sleep.

What follows is an even tenser race, the flight of the surviving humans from their precarious starting position to a point of relative safety. I will reveal little because here Stephenson is a master, and the turn of each page is a gruelling journey. So tense does Seveneves become that I had to stop reading it in the evening as the stress was preventing sleep.

At the point at which the title suddenly makes a terrible sense Stephenson could have ended. Had he done so, he would have written an award worthy scientific thriller. However either Stephenson’s curiosity got the better of him, or the above was simply the long prelude to the story Stephenson wanted to write.

When I picked up Seveneves it was described as featuring humanity returning to an earth that is now alien to them. This is the story that takes form in the the final third of the book. After five thousand years of survival, humanity is split into seven distinct races. The existence of these races is described, unsatisfactorily, as the result of genetic variation introduced deliberately by those first survivors. I say unsatisfactorily because for such genetic divergence to take hold multiple generations of genetic isolation would be required, which doesn’t seem to accord with the tiny reemerging population Stephenson describes at the end of the flight from destruction. This discrepancy is odd as the final third of Seveneves is otherwise overflowing with descriptive detail of the new civilization that has been built. The pace is also dramatically different and I found myself surprised that I was still reading the same book.

Into this remade world, with its vast orbiting human civilization descended from those few survivors, Stephenson introduces to us a set of new characters. His trick here is that the genetic variation within the human race has preserved and exaggerated the personalities of his earlier characters, so that each new character is familiar enough to quickly find a comfortable place in your mind. This allows Stephenson to explore what kind of civilization would be built by each of the archetypes of humanity his first characters embodied: disciplined; compassionate; rational; curious; creative; devious; and, unpredictable. Here is the greatest strength of science fiction, an examination of what it means to be human, of what defines our societies, and how we should live.

Post-apocalyptic fiction is so often about the building of entirely new societies once the past has been swept away. Stephenson’s new civilization however, is made with direct reference to the world that has been lost. His new societies have all of human history available to them, and the lives of their progenitors, from the first two thirds of the book, on films that appear to be played continually, even five thousand years after the event. This does not constrain Stephenson’s exploration of how we live, and I was particularly intrigued by the deliberate manner in which his societies embraced or rejected technology. The discussion on the adoption of technology is made most directly with the rejection of social media and ever more powerful technology in our pockets. Stephenson is explicit that the communication devices his future characters carry around would struggle to keep up my smart phone; a decision influenced by the lesson that social media had allowed corrosive ideas to spread through, and nearly destroy, the ark cloud preserving humanity. In Stephenson’s new world, the inhabitants hold a near religious adherence to the belief that every technology that opens up a new options for humans, amputates others. If we can speak more easily across the globe, it is only by sacrificing the ability to speak easily with those beside us. The message is a little heavy handed, but it neatly sidesteps debates on censorship and freedom of speech, and having seen the comments threads on YouTube, even I can understand not wanting to reinvent them.

Stephenson’s new civilization however, is made with direct reference to the world that has been lost.

I admire Stephenson’s writing immensely, but if I have one criticism, beyond the slightly too convenient links that tend to emerge between his characters, is that he always seems to end his novels too quickly. So vast and engrossing are the journeys on which Stephenson takes us that they deserve to build to a ringing crescendo. I find however, that his stories end abruptly, the final loose end quickly tucked away, without time enough to say goodbye. Seveneves is regretfully no exception to this, and after an exhausting journey of five thousand years it rushes too suddenly to a close.

The splitting of Seveneves into two distinct but linked stories, as if Quicksilver and Cryptonomicon were a single book, is an interesting one, and it will be a matter of personal preference as to whether it works for you. For what it’s worth, I’m glad Stephenson did it. For all the grand ideas explored in the future of Seveneves, it is at its core a very contemporary book. It is about our world, with people we already know, faced with an impending and unavoidable catastrophe that will require all of humanity to unite if the species is to survive. One only hopes that in the face of our own global challenge of climate change humanity, will respond as Stephenson dreams we will.

In the stable of Stephenson’s works, Seveneves makes the neat leap from the relatable Cryptonomicon to the bold Diamond Age. It is a book I recommend as an introduction into science fiction, beginning in the approachable present, and gradually reaching further into what makes the genre superb.