Michael Maiello's picture

    Seveneves: A Short Review of a Long Book

    By sheer coincidence, I finished Neal Stephenson's Seveneves a couple of days before learning that two friends from college, including the former managing editor of The Daily Lobo, our independent school paper, were in town.  Back in the 1990s, the staff of our paper passed around copies of Stephenson's Snow Crash, a witty send-up of the cyber-punk genre.  We loved that book. 

    Since then, Stephenson expanded into his Cryptonomicon and his Baroque Cycle, emerging as an erudite author of science fiction style thrillers that entertained while they made you think.  He's a big issue writer with a vast mind full of multitudes.  In Seveneves a mysterious cosmic event shatters the moon into a field of debris.  This is the first line of an 860 page novel.  Some of the best early moments we spend in the company of Doc Dubois (aka "Doob" and definitely based on Neil Degrasse Tyson) who helps teach the people of Earth what life with a shattered moon means.

    At first, it seems that not much is different.  Big chunks of moon are given colorful nicknames like Mr. Spinny and Kidney Bean.  The moons former parts maintain their orbits around the moon's center of gravity, which continues its orbit around Earth.  Even the tides are barely changed as a shattered moon retains the mass of the original (though, it occurs to me, not the density, wouldn't that matter?)

    Eventually, though, the pieces begin crashing into one another at an alarming rate and Doob figures out, along with the rest of the world's scientists, that the stellar show is, in fact, an extinction event.  Within two years, particles will rain into the Earth's atmosphere, burning up but superheating the planet and killing all life on the surface.  A plan is hatched to move a miniscule number of survivors from around the world to what was the International Space Station, augmented by peripheral modules and an iron-rich asteroid being mined by robots.  Over the course of two thirds of the book, the population of humanity dwindles from 7 billion to 7 women on a space station after disaster on disaster strikes the 2,000 strong population of spacers.

    The last third of the book, which takes place 5,000 years later, shows the result.  With a lot of help from science, life finds a way.  It's a big, entertaining story, marred only by Stephenson's information freighting.  He has a lot to explain along the way about orbital mechanics, life sciences, food storage in space and politics.

    It's the politics I want to talk about here. For much of the book we are exposed to characters who are scientists, engineers and military types.  Dinah hails from a family of minors.  Ivy is an athlete turned astronaut.  Tekla is a military leader from Russia.  Doob is the bridge from hard reality to public relations. 

    I'm pretty open to the idea that apocalypse tales wipe the world away so that the author can remake things the way they believe things should be. That seems right out of Revelations.  If that's what Stephenson is doing, then Seveneves is a warning about the failures of politics.  This is Michael Bloomberg's apocalypse.  The troop of survivors are chosen in what's called a "Casting of Lots," but that really isn't.  Communities around the world send their best and brightest to compete for spots aboard the great space ark.  Venezuela doesn't get the memo and actually chooses its people at random.  The consequence is that none of its people make the cut.  Only the brilliant athletes get to go to space and even most of them don't make it.  When Venezuela rebels in the final days, threatening launching ships with stinger missiles, a U.S. nuclear submarine destroys the opposition.

    Oh, and at the last minute and in violation of agreements that world leaders and their families were not ark eligible, the president of the United States, an ambitious former technology executive named Julia, launches herself off the surface.

    The most interesting part of the book is how the technocratic leadership of the ark view Julia as less than useless and they attempt to shunt her off to the margins of their burgeoning society.  This turns out to be a huge mistake as Julia, who describes her charisma as her "super power," organizes a counter-culture that erupts into a civil war.

    The technocrats are unable to deal with this.  They see it all as irrational behavior.  One describes thinking like an engineer as being in opposition to "what people think they want." The scientists and military types are concerned with survival and efficiency. Politics is a luxury.  Though it is also unavoidable where people are concerned, no matter how small the population gets.

    I suspect Stephenson might be more comfortable with the scientists running things but he clearly knows that's a fantasy as indulgent as any. There's a lot to chew on in Seveneves, even if it does plod a bit.  The secret, I think, is the secret to Moby Dick, which is that you can zone out on some of the technical whaling stuff and re-engage with the story.  But what do I know?  I've never read Moby Dick.  Don't tell the technocrats.


    Look forward to reading it. As for your density question, if one assumes (big assumption) a uniform distribution of matter than the gravitational pull of an object depends on the distance to that object and its mass. Its density is irrelevant, as long as you are not inside the object (and again as long as you assume a uniform distribution of matter). I would imagine that initially the approximation of the exploded moon having a uniform distribution of matter would depend on the nature of how it was exploded. Given that it takes two years before matter from the Moon starts hitting us, I'd guess it's not a bad approximation.

    This is why I love writing things at Dag.  Thanks, VA!

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