Seveneves by Neal Stephenson book review: the end is here

Neal Stephenson tackles the end of the world in Seveneves

The mind can only absorb so much information. Unable to process a cataclysm of apocalyptic proportions, it focuses on small, mundane details instead, according to Seveneves.

After the moon explodes, the President of the United States breaks the bad news that we’re all doomed. Rather than listen to his speech, the celebrity scientist stood behind her wonders about the grey streak in the President’s hair. Later, one of a few hundred survivors living on a International Space Station worries about a planning meeting, while Earth is a raging fireball below.

Readers of Seveneves may understand this feeling of information overload as they struggle to penetrate the detail-heavy prose of this interstellar epic. ‘What do you expect from the author of Snow Crash?’ fans will say, but those uninitiated should be warned.

Seveneves follows 5,000 years of human history; from the feverish race to escape Earth and the difficulties of surviving in space, to the eventual return to the planet that was once home. While this is a familiar trope made famous by the likes of Battlestar Galactica, there are no starships or warp drives here. Set on a lifelike Earth humanity only has existing technology to adapt to living in space.

The fact that Stephenson was as an advisor for the Blue Origins asteroid mining company no doubt helped him write Seveneves. However, Stephenson has always been something of a polymath, so as well as elaborating on the engineering of the ISS, he writes knowledgably about cutting-edge theories in biology, robotics, and more.

Stephenson’s thorough research makes the plot seem believable, even as his speculations grow ever wilder as humanity adapts to living in outer space. It also helps explain the high stakes of the situation. However, these endless fact bombs can also be exhausting. When the author breaks out bullet points to detail the inner workings of a space habitat, the fun is sucked out of the novel faster than oxygen from a torn spacesuit.

Sadly, one area where he doesn’t get bogged down in detail is characterisation. Given the scope, this is forgivable to an extent. But the bulk of the epic is told from the perspectives of just two characters: Doc Dubois, the celebrity scientist, and Dinah MacQuarie, an astronaut on the ISS. Dubois exists mostly as a mouthpiece to explain what’s going on.

The tragedy of him escaping Earth while his loved one are left behind is pointed out, but Stephenson avoids the messy business of emotional goodbyes, by just having it happen ‘off the page.’ Dinah stands in for the everywoman on the ISS, surrounded by eggheads (despite her own qualifications in geology and robotics). However, neither of them experience any real development, and every other character is a cardboard cut-out (action heroes, unemotional technocrats, conniving politicians, etc).

It’s thoroughly consummate work, and meticulously researched, but ultimately light on story.