‘Seveneves’ by Neal Stephenson is two-thirds of a really good book

The other day I finished the latest Neal Stephenson novel Seveneves, and the amazing thing about it is how consistent he is with everything he writes, at least that I’ve read.

Maybe 15 years ago I read Snow Crash, and my impression with that book have been the same as The Diamond Age, which is still my favorite thing he’s done, as well as Cryptonomicon, Anathem, and now Seveneves. Stephenson is a really good writer and researcher. He takes ideas from all kinds of disparate areas and puts them together in a way that is easily understandable and doesn’t feel slapped together, even if paragraphs or pages of info will be dumped on you throughout. The plot is going to get going quickly and give you a reason to keep turning pages to find out the next thing that’s going to happen, but ultimately, it won’t culminate so much as have a bunch of stuff just happen all at once.

That was forgivable with Snow Crash because it’s a fairly slim work, a breezy 400-something pages, and it accomplishes a hell of a lot in the short amount of time it has, not the least of which was inventing Second Life a decade early and the term ‘avatar’, which continues to be Internet parlance. It may just be because I was younger and delighted to no end that the antagonist, an L. Ron Hubbard stand-in utilizing Sumerian word-viruses, is from my hometown of Odessa, Texas, but I didn’t really mind the way the ending just sort of hit all at once and got explained as exposition.

When The Diamond Age did it, too, I was OK with it as well. Because it’s also not very large, 500-pages or so, and the rebellion had been set up ahead of time, and the Mouse Army was telegraphed from early chapter and characters all along. The suddenness existed, but was justifiable.

Then I read the giant, more than 900-page tome that was Cryptonomicon, and in addition to the present-based portions being underwhelming, the premature ending came just the same as before. Same with the equally massive Anathem. For that reason, nothing could convince me to give the 2,600-plus word Baroque Cycle a go.

A parallel problem is Stephenson’s seeming inability to write realistic female characters. Which is not to say that he doesn’t write really badass women: Y.T. from Snow Crash, Nell from The Diamond Age would fit that and serve as points of view. But their functions aren’t so much to be protagonists with relatable hopes and dreams the way major male characters seem to (having an ex they still have to interact with, trying to achieve personal happiness or career success). He does that with male characters, too, like Raven in Snow Crash or Jad from Anathem. But the ones behaving like actual human beings and showing growth beyond getting cooler are all male up to this point.

This is not intended so much as a criticism of him in Seveneves but a compliment, because Stephenson really does seem to have tried to address that possible shortcoming in his latest work.

This is a book that passes the Bechdel test long before anything even goes really wrong, just by having a female protagonist in Dinah and female commander of the ISS in Ivy. The latter also happens to be a Chinese American, and there’s a black Haitian-Canadian male protagonist, a completely non-sexualized lesbian relationship, and just a lot of unnecessary diversity in the characters.

And I say ‘unnecessary’ because it’s Western sci-fi. Even with a story that has a global scope and some hard sci-fi reasoning for favoring females, Stephenson could have gotten away with a lot more ‘default’ male protagonists and a lot less diversity without too much fuss (there are still plenty of cisgender, heterosexual white males doing important, heroic things in the story, of course).

Instead, it seems like he took that potential criticism into account. It’s not always well-done. There’s an instance where a character is introduced as being a gay Asian male from Toronto, but I don’t remember his name because within a page he’s been blasted out of an airlock to die. Now, this character learns something very important for the characters we are invested in and in so doing ensures the future survival of the human race, but it came across like a make-up for not having any gay males thus far. Another example shows up in the final third of the book, there’s a race of humans that have a fluid gender, or otherwise are largely androgynous, and these are the largest group of humanity, but aren’t ever given anything important to do for the plot, and this aspect isn’t discussed beyond a passing reference.

It isn’t perfect, but perfect is the enemy of the good, and this a book that is very good in its inclusiveness as it tries to tell a story about the whole human race, and when allowing for Stephenson’s imagination to run wild in the 5,000-years-on future, carves out space normalizing non-gender conforming people in a fictional society.

Seveneves does all of that better than many contemporary genre works, but it’s not about that. It’s still a Neal Stephenson book, so it’s partially/mostly about showing you how smart Stephenson is. It does that really well, because he’s a very smart dude and loves to explain physics and computer science to anyone willing to buy his books.

But for the first time, I thought he’d been able to solve his plot problem, and if you just take parts I and II, he basically has.

Everything that has happened makes sense, the conclusion of part II feels built up to naturally and well-earned. The story really gets going once the surface of the planet has been rendered uninhabitable by bombardment from moon-shards and the biggest threat becomes humans still being really shitty to one another in a place so hostile, there’s no room for error. Life goes on, social media still exists, and petty bickerings dwindle the remnant of humanity to the point of dozens, but unity still can’t be achieved.

There’s a good reason to stop the story at the point where all men have died, and there are only eight women left alive, one of which is menopausal. Our main-main character Dinah has just threatened to kill all known-humanity if they can’t work out their differences to create a new population where the remaining spacecraft have settled in a crevice on the largest, safest moon-piece left orbiting an earth seared of all life. So if you quit reading, and you remember that there’s a population of humans under the guidance of Dinah’s father who went underground in the refuge of a mining tunnel and a U.S. Navy submarine captained by Ivy’s fiance heading for the Marianas Trench, then as a reader, you have ample evidence to imagine how things are going to play out, successfully or otherwise, and you can be extremely satisfied with what you’ve just absorbed.

But then there’s a part III, and that’s where Neal Stephenson goes full Neal Stephenson.

I don’t agree with Kate Lechler’s review over at FanLit in terms of appraising each section and the pacing, but we do agree on many details, and her summary of the book is as succinct a description of all Stephenson’s novels I’ve ever read:

…I felt largely frustrated and let down by a sub-par execution of a fantastic story.

The last third of the book is set 5,000 years in the future where we learn all kinds of wonderful stuff about a self-powered gliding suit, that never becomes necessary to the plot; there’s a heterosexual romantic subplot explained away as two races naturally being attracted to one another; pages are given over to the rings of civilization made out of old moon-stuff and asteroids, but neither of the two main characters is given anything really to want; the female character is given Stephenson’s standard transformation amid trauma to a zen-like transcendence (e.g. Hiro Protagonist, Erasmus, John Percival Hackworth), this time with the literal explanation of an epigenetic shift; and there’s the big reveal of everything that’s happening and why, in the form of after-the-fact dialogue.

Hey, that’s all just kind of what Stephenson does, and he does seem most pleased when he gets to go nuts worldbuilding and telling you how it’s actually scientifically plausible that this nuttiness could happen in just this way, rather than sci-fi narrative fairy dust.

To my mind, part III would have made it’s own nice novella, or something presented as Stephenson’s personal timeline for how humanity rebuilt itself in the future. But it felt tacked on and a distraction rather than an intrinsic part of the Seveneves book itself.

Which is exactly the sort of way you expect a Neal Stephenson book to end once you’ve begun it.

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