By Neal Stephenson
William Morrow. 880 pp. $35
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Reviewed by Scott F. Andrews
nolead ends Neal Stephenson's palindromic Seveneves demands your attention from the first sentence: "The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason." This opening may sound absurd, but readers can count on Stephenson to deliver credible science and satisfying narrative.
Not that Stephenson has anything left to prove. He's won just about every major award the science-fiction community offers. In Seveneves, we never find out why the moon blew up, triggering the incineration of Earth's surface, but it's evident why Stephenson chose this device. Forcing humanity into space now, rather than in a far-flung future, gives him a platform to examine every facet of our current and near-future technology and how we could apply it to surviving there.
Seveneves eschews the disaster-story clichés in which characters narrowly escape waves of fire or similarly overwrought destructive forces. Instead, his heroes survive with imperfect technology, cutting-edge research, and the courage to make unthinkable sacrifices.
In a narrative that spans five millennia and includes several dozen characters, it's Dinah McQuarrie, a robotics specialist from an Alaskan mining family, who emerges as the heart of Seveneves. Dinah begins the novel as a researcher aboard the International Space Station (or "Izzy"). She's endlessly resilient but still allows herself moments of vulnerability. She also controls a rogue's gallery of adorable robots. With the rest of Izzy's crew and its commander, Ivy Xiao, Dinah faces the unthinkable reality that she'll never return to Earth or see her family again.
While society unspools below them, the crew faces challenges from new arrivals. Among them is the cagey and ruthlessly practical president of the United States, Julia Bliss Flaherty (or "JBF"). The ensuing clash between science and politics is familiar to anyone who pays attention to American elections.
"We're not hunter-gatherers anymore," Ivy argues. "What keeps us alive is our ability to be nerds. We need to breed nerds."
JBF, however, values power over scholarship. She seeks to ensure humanity's survival on her own terms and at any cost.
The novel launches forward in time to a society metastasized from a handful of survivors. Here, Stephenson explores a wide range of bizarre but convincing tech, such as robotic ammunition and an enormous harpoon/whip that can drag you from sea level to orbit in moments. Regardless of their advances, this orbital civilization is a reflection of our own, fractured by seemingly unbridgeable ethnic and political divides.
Given the novel's terrific female cast and its emphasis on women's role in leading and rebuilding humanity, it's a strange decision to give the book's last word to a male character. Seveneves will also frustrate impatient readers. The novel takes every opportunity for meticulous detail, including a six-page sequence about how Izzy maintains orbit and regulates temperature.
Seveneves is an exhaustive catalog of the dangers in space: cosmic rays, "fuel fleas," micrometeoroids, coronal mass ejections, and on and on. It's also Stephenson's impassioned argument for the importance of heading up there and discovering ways to get better at it. Humanity may someday need that expertise. Not because of anything as spectacular as the destruction of the moon, but because of the real problems we face here on Earth.