Neal Stephenson (www.nealstephenson.com)
The Borough Press (www.boroughpress.co.uk)
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.
An unknown Agent has split the moon into seven pieces, which remain in the moon’s original orbit around the Earth. When two of the pieces collide, causing fragmentation, Dr Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris – Doob – discovers that in two years the fragmentation will reach a saturation point and will submit the planet below to a five-thousand-year bombardment during which all life will be destroyed. Using the technology available to them, the world’s foremost scientists and space agencies design a Cloud Ark centred around the existing International Space Station, a structure that will save several thousand people and, theoretically at least, allow them to become self-sufficient in space until the Earth is once again habitable. Five thousand years later, the human race is now seven distinct races, descended from seven Eves who survived the early years of the Cloud Ark’s existence, and the terraforming of New Earth is almost complete: Kath Amalthova Two, along with one representative from each of the other six races, is chosen for a secret mission to the planet’s surface where an incredible discovery has been made.
There is a sense of great anticipation and excitement at the prospect of a new, weighty Neal Stephenson tome. Mainly because the reader has no idea what to expect until they start reading (previous books range from Seventeenth Century adventures to cryptography, from eco-thriller to cyberpunk classic), except that there is a good chance that they will be entertained and enlightened in equal measure. Seveneves is no exception, and sees Stephenson enter the realms of hard science fiction, which he touched upon briefly in 2008’s excellent Anathem.
Seveneves takes no time in catching the reader’s attention (“The moon blew up…”) before spending some time introducing the core characters and concepts of the novel. Taking an interesting approach to the apocalyptic trope, Stephenson presents an escape route for humanity based solely on the technology that is available now. So don’t expect starships with hyperdrives or warp engines, but rather a loosely-couple collection of “arklets” that are centred around the existing International Space Station, or Izzy. As always, Stephenson has a keen insight into how technology actually works versus how it’s supposed to work. Using the concept of cloud-based computing technology as a basis for the Cloud Ark, he presents a picture of autonomous craft across which the human race – as well as the data and genetic materials required to rebuild the planet – is spread, so that if one craft is destroyed, very little is lost in the grand scheme of things. In the true spirit of necessity being the mother of invention, there is a more practical reason for this approach, which is to be able to avoid the bolides that will eventually be thrown their way from the moon’s remains. But of course, things don’t end up working as they were originally designed, so much of what the Cloud Ark should have been is effectively “de-scoped” in order to have a workable plan within the two-year timescales imposed by Doob’s calculations. “Done is better than perfect,” as any software engineer will tell you.
The Cloud Ark wouldn’t be anything if it didn’t have a human population on-board. As the book’s title suggests, this is very much a female-driven narrative with many of the central roles both “today” and “five thousand years later” filled by strong female role models: Dinah, the miner’s daughter who has been stationed on Izzy for a year before the moon blows up, using her robots to mine the huge chunk of rock and iron – once an asteroid – that has been attached to the space station’s forward end; Ivy, Izzy’s commander and a skilled pilot who will ultimately bring the remains of the human race to safety; Julia Bliss Flaherty, the US President who will become a thorn in the side of humanity’s remains in the years following the moon’s disintegration; Kath Two, through whose eyes we witness the birth of New Earth five thousand years after the destruction of Old Earth. There are, of course, strong male counterparts – Doob; Sean Probst, the owner of the mining company for which Dinah works, who goes on a mission of his own to find water for the Ark – but they tend to take a back seat to the novel’s women.
The first two-thirds of the book concern themselves with the three or four years immediately following Zero, and allows us to see the creation of the Cloud Ark through to the Hard Rain that wipes the face of the planet clean, and the desperate run to the Ark’s – and humanity’s – final resting place. The characters here are people we know, people with whom we can identify, people who we feel – for the most part – will make good ambassadors for the human race. And in the best tradition of Stephenson fiction, the narrative is liberally scattered with technical discussions and all the information we need in order to understand the situation on the Ark: how nuclear reactors work; what delta vee is, and how it is used to move between different orbits; a very brief introduction to orbital mechanics and Lagrangian points. It’s vital to understanding the story, and Stephenson presents the facts in a way that are easy to absorb and leaves us with the satisfied feeling that we have learned something new, and have enjoyed ourselves in the process. The story is infused with plenty of tension and until the two-thirds mark there is no guarantee as to the outcome or survival rate of the people who were lucky enough to make it off the doomed planet and onto the Ark.
The book’s final third is set five thousand years later, and the human race has re-established itself in a habitat ring that completely encircles Earth. Down on the surface TerReform are working to re-create the flora and fauna that once populated Old Earth from the surviving genetic samples. Stephenson takes time introducing us to the habitat ring, and to Cradle, the city at the end of a massive tether that has the ability to touch down on the planet’s surface. We also get a flavour of the political situation and it’s easy to see that little has changed on this front in the intervening period. Here the characters are less familiar, the descendants of genetically-modified children bred to have certain qualities depending on the wishes of each of the seven women – the Seven Eves of the novel’s title – on whom it falls to re-create the human race. But we still have plenty of time to get to know them (one third of this novel is almost three-hundred pages, which is a decent-sized novel in itself), and their peculiarities, as their mission to the planet’s surface progresses. Here we find the resolutions to a number of loose ends that Stephenson seemingly leaves dangling at the end of the book’s first section, and the results are as surprising as they are satisfying to the reader’s curiosity.
Throughout, Stephenson attempts to maintain some grounding in fact, ensuring that the science behind his inventions is as sound as possible, while still allowing him to manipulate the characters and their environments to suit the direction of the story. Seveneves presents us with a view of the apocalypse from the outside; these are people who have survived through escape, rather than through some freak immunity or well-constructed bunker system. His approach makes the travails of Ivy, Dinah, Doob et al thoroughly believable, and his characterisations ensure that these are people we care about, people we want to succeed not just because of the consequences, but because they are people we care about, people that we feel deserve some kind of break after what the author puts them through.
A weighty tome, yes, but Seveneves grabs the reader with its opening line and holds their attention for the five thousand year and almost 900-page duration. This latest addition to Neal Stephenson’s canon has all of the author’s trademarks – great characters, great premise, plenty of technical detail and a wicked sense of humour – and adds another string to a bow that already encompasses multiple genres and technical areas. Stephenson is a rare beast: a polymath with the ability to tell an engaging and entertaining story. Seveneves is an excellent addition to a body of work that includes genre classics like Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, old-fashioned hard science fiction in the style of Asimov, and shows, once again, that Stephenson is a writer to be reckoned with, one of our greatest living storytellers.