Jul 142016

Seveneves_Book_CoverSevenEves, by Neal Stephenson

Synopsis: Present-day humanity has two years to evacuate as many people as possible before the Earth is destroyed.

Book Review: This isn’t really a story, insomuch as it is the fragmented pieces of a story buried within mounds of engineering. You will hear more about how chains and whips work in zero-gravity than you ever cared to. Unless you are of a very specific audience, you will skip over dozens of pages multiple times searching for some interesting event. Reading this book is like doing archeology – you have to spend a lot of time clearing away dirt and debris to get to the valuable stuff.

The frustrating part is, most of the good stuff really is good! When Stephenson bothers with plot or dialog, the story is interesting. But it’s so fragmented that you can’t even pull an entire story out of it. The archeology metaphor applies further in that it seems a lot of the valuable stuff has been lost over time, and you can guess at the pieces that are missing, but unfortunately they just aren’t there.

The only reason I got to the end of this book is because Stephenson has written really amazing things in the past, and he had a lot of my goodwill to ride on. This determination led me to see things I wouldn’t have if I’d just abandoned the book, which now I kinda wish I hadn’t seen.

Stephenson doesn’t seem to care about portraying other people realistically anymore. The characters that are engineers & scientists feel very similar (can you tell Dinah and Ivy apart? I can’t), and I suspect they have a lot in common with Stephenson himself. Everyone else is a monkey. The contempt for all non-engineers displayed in the book is surprising. Politicians are power-hunger moustache-twirlers happy to damn the human race to extinction if they can rule for a few years. The common people are blind sheep, easily falling for the most asinine and bald-faced lies, which only the engineers are impervious to. The entire book reeks of “You all deserve to be wiped out, because you were too damn stupid to put us engineers in charge!” As a fan of Atlas Shrugged, I recognize this bile. And sure, I’m a bit of an elitist jerk myself. But I at least do my best to understand why intelligent people could reasonably disagree with me, rather than portraying them all as fuckwits deserving of the fate they’ve brought upon themselves with their stupidity.

Also, Stephenson seems to have gotten very, very lazy. He tells us (via a character talking to the protagonist) that what we’re going to see is possibly the saddest thing we have ever seen. He then describes a scene which is, at best, a mild downer. Later on he tries to make us feel moral outrage by having every relatable character react with outrage and horror over an event… but the event itself is no big deal at all. Dude, you can’t just tell us we’re supposed to feel a certain way and call your job done. You must actually make us feel it!

He even gets lazy with technical aspects. At one point it looks like he decided to have a character up on the Space Station whom he previously hadn’t intended to have there. So he inserts the line “[he] had been sent up to Izzy a month before” with a one-line excuse for why, and then continues. Anyone with respect for their art would have taken the time to go back and write a scene in a previous timeframe where this actually happens. Simply deciding “oh, he should be here” and dropping him in with an excuse in the middle of the action is not how one does good writing.

SevenEves honestly just feels like someone trying to cash in on the success of The Martian, but without having any understanding of what made The Martian so amazing. Not Recommended.

2nd Book Review: There is another book included with SevenEves. It’s passed off as part of the novel, so it doesn’t have its own title or anything. SevenEves just continues with “Five Thousand Years Later.” However, it is a new book, with a different feel, new characters, etc. Again I think this is a case of Stephenson being lazy – he didn’t want to establish setting and introduce characters again. Which is unfortunate, because it means we get several hundred pages of text without characters we care about.

In fact, the second book doesn’t even have a plot. I wouldn’t even call it a book. It is a bunch of awesome concepts, that are in desperate want of characters and story to drive them somewhere.

Don’t get me wrong, the concepts really are amazing! I would have loved to read this if it had a storyline. The second book is of FAR more interest to me than the first book, because it’s actual science fiction! It has awesome speculative elements, strange cultural and social constructs, semi-alien characters. In contrast, the first book was basically EarthFic with a lot of techno-fetishism. It was barely SF, IMHO. Sadly, the second book isn’t a novel – it’s a RPG source book. Lots of cool setting ideas and concepts, no story. Again, Not Recommended.

An Aside: Does anyone else think it’s a terrible idea to name the book “SevenEves” and have a huge eye on the cover? It’s almost impossible not to see “SevenEyes” when you look at it.

Book Club Review: If you stick to just the first book, and don’t bother with “Five Thousand Years Later”, it’s actually not bad for a Book Club book. After the first couple technology wanks it becomes pretty easy to flip pages rapidly until things start happening again. The plot (when it’s present) proceeds quickly enough that one can skip over the simmering misanthropy without taking too much note of it. In the final pages of the book it does raise some interesting questions about how we should improve the human race, if it were possible to do so (but sadly, it doesn’t bother trying to address them, it just ends.)

In our meeting, a bit of time was spent discussing Stephenson’s views of humanity, and how radically unrealistic they felt. Speculation of that sort (“what would happen if everyone only had 2 years to live?”) is kinda interesting. But you don’t need to slog through a door-stopper of a book to ask them, and you can find unrealistic portrayals of humans in all sorts of novels.

If your book club isn’t specifically SF-focused, please avoid this. This is the sort of book that I hope people who don’t read SF never pick up. It plays directly to the stereotype of “Science fiction is just technology fetishists drooling over made-up tech, without care for characters, plot, or writing craft.”

If your book club is SF-focused… well… I still think you could do better. Get one of Stephenson’s earlier works, those are very good! Anathem was great (although, again, long). Snow Crash was fun as hell. I’ve heard great things about Cryptonomicon, and it’s on my list. But SevenEves… Not Recommended.

  3 Responses to “SF/F Review – SevenEves”

  1. This very much feels like another diamond age I get the feeling the author has a neice or a daughter and he is writing YA for them as he feels it should be. Strong female characters, science feels, modern realish world problems, optimism. I was in love with the book. When I have kids this is going on their bookshelf no question. You are right that it is as tight or as dynamic could be. This book is the future, and that makes me really happy.

  2. Guess what? I disagree entirely :) I think this is the best book of the bunch this year. Where to start…

    (1) I like my science fiction books to contain science. I’m funny like that. What you dismiss as “technology wanks” are the very things that make the story so good. Zero-g chains? Fascinating! Robot swarms? Awesome. Science Fiction should fundamentally be about science.

    (2a) “Contempt for all non-engineers”: Aside from Markus, Moira, Doc Harris (& family and schoolteacher friend), Ivy’s husband, Dinah’s father (& friends), Camila, Tekla, Luisa… Conversely, most swarmers have just had a year long crash course in engineering. If you believe the split is between Engineers and others, then you’re needing an awfully precise definition of engineer.
    (2b) There is a split between characters, but it’s on something else: Social orientation of participation vs dissent was my initial thought, or maybe the common good vs individual good, experience vs inexperience, or something else. It’s interesting that there is an obvious divide, but it’s not easy to pin down precisely what the divide is.

    (3) The first book isn’t “actual science fiction?” What? Moon explodes and humanity must build spaceships to survive isn’t science fiction?

    (4) The two books? I enjoyed them both :) We’ve a hard-SF struggle for survival and a softer-SF first contact story which feels like an old Arthur C Clarke book. No plot? First contact is the plot.

    (5a) “You all deserve to be wiped out”: Also as a fan of Atlas Shrugged, I get annoyed by this criticism. “Deserve” isn’t the right concept. It’s the idea that one’s actions and decisions have consequences, and some of those might be bad. It’s like saying does 2+2 deserve to equal 4?, or does the Earth deserve to orbit the Sun? Desert is a question of Justice, but the universe itself doesn’t deal in Justice, only society does – Insert that quote from HPMOR :). This is the other side of that coin.
    (5b) Simmering misanthropy: Can you provide a concrete example of what you mean from the book? My takeaway was a sense of optimism for Humanity that we can deal with big problems, even with our negative characteristics.

    • Hi Beerwulf! I am not surprised. :)

      1. They should be about science in a way, yes, but the science is (IMHO) supposed to be a tool. It is the thing that makes the world different from our world, and which allows the exploration of culture/society/character/ethics/whatever-you-wish-to-explore. A story about a future soldier should be about the soldier, and not about his gun.

      2a. Everyone you named is one of the Technocratic Elite. Basically – engineers, and people who think like them. The masses that made up the Swarm Ark were the contemptible “other.”

      3. It felt like an engineering problem tackled using modern-day tech. In that regard, I don’t see how it’s qualitatively different from (say) a Clancy spy novel. I know it’s kinda splitting hairs here, so I’m willing to shrug and let it be called SF. But it didn’t feel like SF to me. It felt like a modern thriller with an obsession with technology.

      4. A plot consists of a central problem, rising action, a climax, and a resolution. I’d argue the second book doesn’t have any of those.

      5a. Yeah, I hear ya. But there’s a difference between “showing the consequences of actions” and “painting the Other as caricatures who are set in opposition to all that is right for stupid reasons, and then showing them destroyed for this error.” The latter smacks of an author who doesn’t want to understand the Other, and merely wishes to portray those who don’t accept the inherent superiority of his in-group as idiots. At least Aurora had realistic factionalism.

      5b. Read any exchange with Julia after she joins the Swarm Ark. Page 351 for example. Imagine anyone at all being persuaded by her ridiculous rhetoric. Then consider that Stephenson wrote that the majority of the remaining human race – anyone not part of the Technocratic Elite – bought this completely. I can’t imagine such a result unless all those people are brain-dead sheep. I dunno, maybe Stephenson is just really bad at writing charismatic politicians? But then we get the same caricatures of the Red Tribe in book two, and the Diggers as well. It’s a trend.

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