Thursday, July 16, 2015

Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

I loved this book.  I'm always eager to read anything Neal Stepheson writes, and Seveneves did not disappoint me.  The book opens with: "The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason."  How's that for an image?  Soon, astronomers and mathematicians predict that while some of the moon parts will remain in lunar orbit, as the pieces collide and break apart, the surface of the earth will be subject to a hail of moon rocks that will render the surface of the earth uninhabitable for millennia.  All of the resources of the earth begin to focus on one thing: the survival of the human race.

A small crew has been working on the International Space Station, which becomes the focal point of man's space-ward expansion.  The first two-thirds or so of Seveneves focuses on the trials of this first generation of off-world humans as they attempt to establish a livable, sustainable community in space.

Some things I love about Seveneves: Many books, sci-fi and otherwise, have been written about the end (or decimation) of human life on earth.  Many put the cause in the hands of humans, either through nuclear war or environmental abuse leading to an unlivable ecosystem.  Others write of an alien invasion.  Stephenson chooses neither the man-made catastrophe or alien invasion scenario.  Neither does he dwell on the cause of the moon's explosion.  No definitive answer is ever found for the cause.  The point is not the cause, but the response.

While surely he took some liberties with the science involved, and projected technology forward a bit, Stephenson's characters primarily rely on today's technology, or a very believable next-step expression of today's technology.  At times, Seveneves read like a non-fiction account of actual events.  (I mean that in the best sense of non-fiction.)  He focuses on orbital mechanics, on space habitat design, and on what day-to-day life would look like on an expanded International Space Station.  It's all very believable and realistic.

The last third of Seveneves takes place 5000 years after the moon is destroyed.  In these chapters, Stephenson's imagination runs wild.  He still keeps a solid grounding in the realities of physics and orbital mechanics, but his future world-building is pretty "out there."  The descendants of the earth-born humans have mined asteroids and mastered large-scale building in space.  I would love to see some renderings of the structures he describes!  My imagination reached its limits. . . .  They also continued to develop bioengineering so that they have reseeded the cooling earth, making it habitable again.

While his science and world-building are fascinating, I should not neglect to mention that he does tell a great, sweeping epic throughout.  Seveneves is full of relatable characters who draw the reader into the reality of seeing their home planet destroyed and figuring out what life will be like going forward.  It's the kind of book I didn't want to put down (although at nearly 900 pages, it's not a book you'll likely finish in one sitting).  Seveneves is not a book to read, it's a book to savor and experience.  I must say, I was a bit sad when the experience was over.  Like many of Stephenson's books, Seveneves deserves more than one reading.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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