seveneves is another deeply engrossing book by Neal Stephenson. Midway through, though, I started realizing something interesting about Stephenson’s writing: he’s not writing about the characters; he’s writing about the events.
The basic premise is that the moon has broken up into seven massive pieces. Why this has happened is never explained, even to the characters in the story, and it quickly becomes clear that “why” is not the important question. The important question is “what next?” In two words, mass extinction.
As the pieces collide and grind together making a cloud of rubble that will soon rain down on earth it becomes clear that if the human race doesn’t figure out how to get off earth for what presidential science adviser Doc DuBois (clearly modeled after Neil Degrasse Tyson) figures will be around 5,000 years, there will soon be no life left. The main focus of the book is on the preparations and initial phase of this exodus.
Where most science fiction writers would be most interested in the society that evolves off earth, or the re-introduction of life to the planet 5,000 years later, Stephenson is most interested in what it would take to escape successfully. Everything else is really an afterthought.
seveneves is a science/history book. Both the science and the history are future science and future history, but nevertheless the focus of the story is what happened and less about the people it happened to. Sure there are people in the story and they do things, but they don’t do things to move the story along. The story moves along with them in it. This is not a story about human relationships, it’s a story about events.
Similarly, the science in seveneves really isn’t science-fiction; it’s just science that hasn’t happened yet. I noticed this in Cryptonomicon also. That was a story about what could have happened and it got me so interested in cryptography that I got a book on the topic (The math was beyond me). seveneves didn’t inspire me in quite the same way – I’m not planning to study astrophysics or robotics or fish schooling behavior – but it was fascinating in the same way that a really well written non-fiction book is. If you’re the type of person who liked watching Cosmos you’ll like this. What Stephenson really is is a science popularizer – of science that just hasn’t happened quite yet.
seveneves is a story about what could happen and, beyond, perhaps, the initiating events, it doesn’t require any suspension of disbelief. Nats and siwis are just instances of robot swarms. The genetic manipulations haven’t been applied yet, but they could be. Prepare to be fascinated by science.