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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Book Review: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

What makes Neal Stephenson’s latest book, Seveneves, so exciting is how much it is like his previous books while still being so different. Most Neal Stephenson books explore the same themes: what makes a religion good or bad, the hacker psyche, and culture wars (not necessarily the ones that you’re familiar with). But like paintings in a well curated exhibition, each novel manages to be very different despite dealing with the same things.

Stephenson accomplishes the difference by changing the backdrops, and by painting these backdrops in awe-inspiring detail. He set his previous books in dystopian franchise-nation futures (Snow Crash), utopian nanotech futures (The Diamond Age), World War II (Cryptonomicon), and a planet of monastic philosophers schisming over the nature of Platonic forms (Anathem). In Seveneves, the setting is the end of the world, and what people do to survive it.

Unfortunately, the back cover (and to an extent, the title itself) give away what happens at the end of the world; and so reading Seveneves is an odd experience. The first two-thirds of the book deal with the plan to survive the apocalypse; but we already know that while there isn’t going to be complete annihilation, things aren’t going to go as planned either. But that foreknowledge isn’t too exasperating, because the hundreds of pages it takes to get to the end of the world are filled with descriptions of robotics, the physics of chains, orbital mechanics, and cosmic rays—all in details suited to introductory textbooks, but each made a plot point, and is deliciously interesting to the lay reader. Along with this, there are fictionalized versions of current-day celebrity scientists and entrepreneurs; and lots of echoes of earlier science fiction works: Gentry Lee and Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama trilogy; Carl Sagan’s Cosmos with its Cold War-style American–Russian focus, and faint traces of Nevil Shute’s On The Beach.

After lots of geekery, sex, violence, and horror, at the end of the second part, Stephenson shows seven women attempting to repopulate the almost extinct human race, and deciding to give their offspring traits that can make this goal successful. The third part shows the consequence of these decisions: the seven Eves’ offspring split into seven distinct races, and two warring factions. And while this part too owes a debt to classic science fiction, what it reminded me most of was tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons or computer games like Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, in which players choose a race or faction or civilization for their character at the beginning, and this determines what they can or cannot do for the rest of the game.

The connection to role-play and games, and the preoccupation with whether you can choose your race or culture, are themes that appear in almost every Stephenson book. His previous book, Reamde, was all about an online game, and had a sub-plot of its gamers refusing to accept the characterization set by the game designers and instead forming their own factions. Cryptonomicon saw its protagonist sorting himself and everybody he knew into Tolkienian archetypes. And most crucially, The Diamond Age showed the world dividing itself into cultural affiliation “clades", so that white Englishmen, African-Americans, and Koreans alike decided to become neo-Victorians—something that few historical Victorians would probably have approved of. In Seveneves, this is turned around—thanks to the genetic tinkering done by the seven mothers of Humanity 2.0, the way you look and the way you think now march in tight lockstep.

This is an uncomfortable idea, but Stephenson’s approach to it is playful, so that as a reader you’re left feeling that he is making a point not so much about race in the real world, as about the determinism that racists (and game designers) are obsessed with. Some passages are similarly playful about the very act of writing science fiction, with characters from the technically minded races despairing about their ability to create a well-accepted narrative. One of the frequent complaints about Stephenson’s writing is that it’s obsessed with details and messes up narrative pacing, and as much as I loved Seveneves, I too found the last part frustratingly short compared to the first two.

This playfulness, allusiveness, and eccentric pacing mean that while Seveneves will be worthwhile for every reader, it will be rewarding for anybody who’s already read, or is willing to read, the rest of Stephenson’s books; and to frequently reread Seveneves to catch all the foreshadowing, the word play, and the play of ideas.

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