Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson, is a great science fiction novel. It’s clear that Stephenson wanted to explore both the science of living in space as well as the societal implications of such. He deftly weaves both sides into a riveting page-turner.
The book starts off with a bang – literally. The moon blows up. This results in several large chunks orbiting the earth, in close proximity to one another. These pieces start banging into each other creating smaller pieces, which increases the frequency of collisions. A snowball effect of collision after collision occurs, leaving a huge amount of debris in what used to be the moon’s orbit. Scientists figure out that this debris will, within a couple of years, start bombarding the earth at such a rate as to destroy all life on the planet. Naturally, this causes a bit of a stir among Earth’s population.
This section of the book – the moon’s destruction and Earth’s response – can be thought of as a prelude to the main story, though some very important events occur which cannot be overlooked. The rest of the book has two main story arcs: getting as many people off Earth and into orbit as possible and surviving there, followed by (several thousand years later) humanity’s return to Earth.
Once scientists convince Earth’s leaders that the planet is doomed, the focus is on expanding the existing space station and saving humanity. (One of the main scientists is obviously a stand-in for Neil deGrasse Tyson.) There is a lot of good sociology/psychology happening here, as humans try to cope with the challenges of ensuring the survival of the human race. The only quibble I have with this section (before the final destruction of life) is that there is very little upheaval in daily life. Stephenson only mentions riots a few times, and even has functioning restaurants and hotels during this time. I ask you: if you were a hotel housekeeper or a waiter and you knew the world was going to end in a few months, would you really go to work? But this is a minor quibble, as most of this section of the book rings quite true.
Along with the social/psychological challenges facing humans, there are the scientific challenges. And in this arena, Stephenson shines. He’s clearly done his homework on the difficulties of living long-term in space. All of the science involved in getting people into orbit and surviving there is deftly woven into the story, and for anyone into the idea of living in space, this is a fascinating section of the book.
Once life on Earth is wiped out, the survivors struggle to get along and conflict arises as to the best option for long-term survival of the human race. Again, Stephenson nails the political/social/psychological aspects of these debates. I found myself nodding and thinking, “Yup, that’s exactly what would happen!” Through a series of disasters, the remaining humans in orbit are reduced to a very small number, (hint: what’s the title of the book?) and that ends the first section of the book.
The rest of the book takes place thousands of years later, when humanity has spread out into a chain of satellite habitats in orbit where the Moon used to be. It’s finally safe(ish) to return to the surface, and what they find there is somewhat surprising. This part of the book, while interesting, wasn’t quite the page-turner of the first section, mostly due to the lack of any impending doom. Nevertheless, it was still interesting, with lots of good science and sociology to keep the reader engaged. Unfortunately, as with many of Stephenson’s books, the ending lacked much punch. It seemed as if he came to a break in the story and was tired of writing, so he just stopped. There are many threads left hanging.
Despite these minor quibbles, Seveneves is a must-read. The characters are believable, the many plot lines are expertly woven together, and the result is a delightful page-turner that will satisfy fans of both “hard” and “soft” science fiction.