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Review of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves

I’m the kind of reader of Neal Stephenson who likes Snow Crash, Diamond Age, and Anathem but has never succeeded in plodding through Cryptonomicon (I tried twice!) and who has never even tried to read the Baroque Cycle, not being a masochist. I’m a reluctant fan. I wish he would  realize that just because the research he has been doing on the historical use of mercury in silver mining (say) is interesting to him, it isn’t necessarily interesting to everyone else.

His books can often be characterized this way, by the odd topics he shoehorns into them: Snow Crash contained a lot about the Sumerian language and various bits of esoterica from computer programming, Cryptonomicon had Enigma machines and the Theory of Computation, Anathem was ultimately about the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics mixed with Roger Penrose’s anti-computational theory of mind. The success of these books depends on whether or not the bits of trivia he is throwing at you begin to stick, whether they add up to anything — Does their interest become clear and does their inclusion attain a kind of inevitability?

Seveneves is concerned with orbital mechanics, the usefulness of swarming behavior in robotics, and the physics of tethers and chains — the latter of which Stephenson is determined to convince us is not only fascinating but shockingly under-studied. Somewhat surprisingly, this time around, it all comes together. The book works because ultimately it is about the nature of technology. The fun science facts are just the lens through which he examines that nature. The book is about the extent to which the human race needs technology to survive despite the fact that the technology itself is mostly mundane: ultimately the difference between a space tether and a loop of string is a few millenia plus the fact that former is a lot bigger.

The book is two stories in one. The first part is a defiantly retro “space cowboy” yarn, a disaster story in which a cast of characters has two years to set up a sustainable community in near earth orbit because the earth is about to become uninhabitable for five thousand years. It is a throwback to days when NASA was culturally relevant and space-walks and rocket launches were cool. In the Acknowledgements Stephenson mentions a staff member at Planetary Resources, an actual asteroid mining company he visited for research purposes, being pleasantly surprised that “someone was producing science fiction where the asteroid mining company was, for once, the good guys” and this pretty much sums up this portion of the book. It reminds me of hard science fiction from the 1970s, something like Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama but with Neal Stephenson’s typical geek-chic type characters.

The second part deals with the descendants of the first part and the first part casts a shadow on this story in interesting ways. There is a kind of inevitability to it. For example, at one point it is important for a particular character to know Morse code and given the preceding six hundred pages it is endearingly believable that he would. It makes perfect sense that a Morse code knowing tradition would have survived because of plot details in the space cowboy portion of the book and it leads one to think about technology as cultural transmission, as useful memes. Much of Seveneves is like this. It is a book in which over the course of a eight hundred pages a melodrama set on the International Space Station leads naturally to a genetically engineered neanderthal wielding a whip made out of tiny robots, which is what science fiction is all about.