Synopsis: What would happen if the world were ending? A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space.
Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown . . . to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Themes Explored: science fiction, apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, genetics, reproduction, moon apocalypse, hard science fiction, NASA, International Space Station, death, destruction, family relationship, survival, prepping, end times, end-of-the-world, space exploration, evolution, genetic bottlenecks.
Review: What if the moon broke apart without warning? How would life on Earth change? How would society react? Economics, governance, the rule of law, privacy, security, and everything in between would change. After the moon explodes, some nondescript scientists figure out that chunks of the moon will pummel Earth within two years and leave the planet uninhabitable for thousands of years. In a bid to save humanity, world governments unite to get as many spacecraft as possible into orbit, where some select people can ride out the apocalypse and procreate. Seveneves goes into detail, sometimes excruciatingly so, about how humanity keeps going when the Earth turns into a giant fireball with no tides.
Some unexplained phenomena– probably a black hole – breaks the moon into seven large fragments. After a few months of “normalcy”, the moon chunks bash into each other begin breaking in half. A media-friendly astronomer named Doc Dubois, a slightly younger version of Bill Nye the Science Guy, calculates the rate of collision and decides to fall in love (not kidding). Based on these numbers, Dubois determines that a deadly storm of moon debris will rain down as meteorites on the Earth within two years. Dubois calls this upcoming event the “Hard Rain”. All life on the planet will die a fiery and painful death. Then the Hard Rain will pummel the world for the next millennia. All qualified humans get to go try their hands at space life and everyone else can either go underground or die.
Using the International Space Station-nicknamed Izzy-as a starting point, the governments of the world create the “Cloud Ark,” an intricate archipelago of satellites and modules–essentially tiny islands in the solar system–where the remaining members of humanity learn to survive. Imagine Interstellar mixed with John Carter of Mars and 2001 Space Odyssey.
When the Hard Rain eventually arrives, about 300 pages in, seven billion people die incredibly quickly. Then the narrative forgets Earth, which is now burning, and focuses on the cobbled-together space ark. In this spinning island in the sky, the last 1700-odd members of the human race need to figure out how to survive and procreate. Back on Earth, everyone is either dead or living underground like moles.
Stephenson’s focuses on every single aspect of the moon’s explosion and its aftermath starts becomes a rather overwhelming after awhile. After a point, you just want to skip ahead. Then the two-thirds of the book focuses on the physics and logistics of living in space: working, sleeping, procreating, and the dangerous of cosmic rays. Stephenson goes into great detail about perigees, apogees, the perils of six degrees of freedom-three for position,three for velocity- and all the horrors and brute facts of life in low gravity. If it cannot be recreated on the Ark, then everyone must learn to live without. A bunch of people in a cooped up space leads to a lot of disagreements, political tensions, and cannibalism once the agriculture sector part of the Ark fails.
The space station ends up being populated by the worlds most determined, overly talkative science geeks. Given the title of the book, the coolest characters are all women: Ivy, the unflappable station chief; Dinah, the robot expert; and Tekla, the sarcastic and overly combative Russian cosmonaut. When Ivy is replaced by Markus Leuker, things take a turn for the worse on the Ark. Stephenson does not spend enough time on the human part of the story, at least in the first half. Near the beginning, it is reported that Doc Dubois-the most developed male character-fell in love with a schoolteacher, but the reader does not witness this happen. When humanity is trying to build the Ark, a spacewalker is cast adrift and someone on the space station talks to him over the radio until he dies, but the reader does not witness this conversation. One of the female character’s boyfriend perishes in an act of sacrificial space piloting that helps assure everyone’s long-term survival, but she seems completely fine with his sacrifice and emotionally healed within a couple of days.
Due to a series of misunderstandings, unspoken expectations, and political maneuvering, nearly all 1700 humans on the Ark end up perishing. Only eight women end up surviving, only seven of whom are fertile. These seven women, the seven “eves”, end up procreating at an impressive rate and secure the survival of the human race. Given that this is science fiction, one of the surviving women is a geneticist. Each of the women are given the option of altering their gene code and creating their ideal human, hence the birth of seven “unique” races. This leads into the second half of the book, which explores life on Earth 5,000 years after the seven eves repopulated the space Ark.
By the time I made it to the 5,000 year time jump, I really just wanted the story to finish. The new seven human races make a more compelling narrative, in my opinion, than the first half. Even though I just spent half my life reading the first half of the book, the second half ends up rehashing all these events anyways. While I enjoyed the premise of the book, Stephenson spent way too long explaining the technical aspects of space life to keep me engaged with the narrative. All
Stephenson’s characters are vivid and terrified: they bicker, cry, and perform heroic deeds. But Stephenson chooses to spend all his time describing highly technical space gadgets instead of delving into the emotions of people who are literally watching the world burn. How would you react if everything you knew suddenly ceased to exist? For the rest of your life, all you will know is the inside of a rotating piece of metal among the stars while the Earth burns. Once you arrive at the snail-paced last third of the narrative, there are lots and lots of lavish descriptions of imaginary machines, city-sized orbiting habitats, giant pendulums, “sky trains”, and a merman city somewhere in the Marianas Trench. I skipped sixty pages in the middle of the book and did not miss anything important. After finishing this book, I wish Stephenson had written two separate books: one exploring the Earth leading up to and directly after the “hard rain” and the other one exploring the new civilization that sprung up after the planet finished burning. Both narratives combined together meant neither got the character development needed to actually care about the outcome. If you have eight-to-ten hours to devout to reading, this book will either fulfill your hard science fiction craving or lull you into a deep sleep.
Seveneves, Harper Collins, 2015, ISBN: 9780062190376