June 6, 2016

Review: Seveneves

Seveneves Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is definitely for the hard science fiction, technical minutiae crowd. It spans thousands of years and concerns an extinction event that wipes out all life on Earth. It chronicles humanity's desperate attempt to transform the International Space Station into a "Cloud Ark" that will enable the species (and the digitally rendered DNA of Terran lifeforms it carries) to survive the extinction event, and return to re-terraform and repopulate the planet once again.

It's stuffed full of ideas that could have easily filled three or four 860-page doorstops. Unfortunately, Neal Stephenson is very fond of his infodumps, and those infodumps tend to get in the way of little things like, I don't know, pacing and character development. This is not to say that the infodumps are wrong, for the science nerds and physics students who can actually understand them. But I, for one, do not need pages upon pages of treatises and painfully exact explanations about orbital mechanics and many many other things to accept them into the story. I did read them, and they were interesting (I did finish the book, after all) but man they were hard to get through.

Still, there is tremendous power to Stephenson's writing in places, especially with the (blessedly brief) description of the extinction event itself. The event is horrifying, of course, and I don't recommend you read it right before bed; it will haunt your dreams. But one scene in particular, seen through the eyes of one of the main characters, saying goodbye to her father (via Morse code)...if the entire book had been like that, it would have blown me away.

Unfortunately, it's not. It's an unbelievably grim survival story, and almost all of the characters die--down to the titular "Seven Eves": seven women, who through parthenogenesis and genetic engineering, are all that's left to revive the human race. (I will say that this is the most scientifically dubious part of the entire book; I did a few searches, and what I read suggests to me that parthenogenesis is pretty much impossible.) After this, we take a five-thousand-year-leap into the future, wherein the seven races the "Eves" have spawned, now three billion strong, are working from their own tremendously advanced orbital habitats to make a barren Earth once again able to support life.

This last section is very much a love-it-or-hate-it sort of thing. It has better-written and more interesting characters, but the science seems to get more implausible with each passing page. Handwavium abounds, needless to say. And the ending, to me, was totally unsatisfying. There's no sense of closure or emotional punch; it just peters out, and cheapens the epic struggle that came before it.

Still, this was definitely a hard-science-fiction event, and I can certainly understand why it's praised and why it's been up for various awards. I don't regret reading it, but in the end, it's not my kind of book.

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