Published May 19th 2015.
When I read the first 25 pages, my first objection was to how the moon was broken up into so few large pieces. The verisimilitude hangs on the likelihood of meteor bombardment coming down to what the Agent was, and I'm not aware of anything we currently know of that could break apart the moon like that. I had huge problems with this premise right at the beginning of the book.To get through it without getting hung up on this hypothesis, I just told myself that maybe it was some weird high energy particle or quantum bullshit, because theoretically anything is possible, just varying levels of likely.
When do I decide that I’m reading something impossible? There are no ghosts, dragons, goblins, leprechauns, hobbits, or any kind of magical transitions between worlds. Even when magical events and beings show up in SF, I expect the writer will keep everything under control. A work of fiction that piles impossibilities upon impossibilities would be extremely tiresome on my endurance capacity and in the end likely lead toward me giving up on it forever. In the same way, a work of fiction that is remarkably rich in invention and in which the terms of impossibility in the SF world are not made clear until late in the narrative is apt to be also tiresome. On the other hand, a clear explanation of the limits of the impossible (in this case, the disappearance of the moon and its effects, e.g., the end of all Lunar calenders, shorter work days due to tidal friction…) can provide a convenient setting for the telling of the story:
“The lack of a moon meant that New Earth’s tides were caused entirely by the gravity of the sun, which made them weaker and more closely synchnonized with the cycle of night and day.“
In a realm of impossibilities, “Seveneves” is clearly grounded in reality (physics is a more apt word). The only “impossibility” is the disappearance of the moon, but its effects are not really fiction.
Stephenson definitely sides with the inner geek in me:
“What keeps us alive isn’t bravery, or athleticism, or any of those other skills that were valuable in a caveman socity. It’s out ability to master complex technological skills. It is our ability to be nerds. We need to breed nerds.”
One of the longest sections in the book narrates a mission to bring back a comet to the ISS and fly it into the same orbit as the space station, and it’s, without a doubt, one of the better dramatic action sequences ever rendered on the written page, be it SF or otherwise.
As usual the infodumps à la Stephenson are some of the best parts in the book (it awakens the geek in me):
“Today we’re going to talk about what it means to have a swarm of arklets, he said. In normal space, like on Earth, we use three numbers to tell where something is. Left-right, forward-back, up-down. The x, y, and z axes from your high school geometry class. Turns out that this doesn’t work so well in orbit. Up here we need six numbers to fully specify what orbit an object, such as an arklet, happens to be in. Three for position. But another three for velocity. If you’ve got two objects that share the same six numbers, they’re in the same place.”
As I’ve said elsewhere, Neal Stephenson is the king of the infodump and the “tell, don’t show” trait in SF.
Is there any truth to the “show, don’t tell” fiction maxim? Once I belonged to the field that believed that good fiction should not break this cardinal rule of “showing, not telling”. Now, I’m not so sure. It goes without saying that there’s a degree of truth about this, but I’m not sure that this a clear-cut theme.
Fiction is art, and you need to dramatize, not just state things. The sentence “I’m a handsome man” is not a handsome turn of phrase, and though authors are welcome to use it, they shouldn’t think it will do much work for them. I remember when I attended a class in English Literature at Universidade de Letras de Lisboa, when I wrote something breaking this cardinal rule, I remember my teacher saying something like (I can’t recall the exact words), “First of all, get rid of the ‘adjectives’ cliché, (i.e., the “telling”); on top of that, one can evoke an incredible feeling of happiness, sadness, etc. in the rest of the novel.” or something like this.
Stephenson’s approach is the opposite of this. Does it work? It works for me. I know I’m reading Neal Stephenson, so the out-of-narrative exposition is a given and on top of that it’s going to make me smarter:
“All conversations worth having about space voyages were couched in terms of ‘delta vee,’ meaning the increase in velocity that had to be imparted to a vehicle en route. For, in a common bit of mathematical shorthand, the greek letter delta (∆) was used to mean ‘the amount of change in…’ and V was the obvious abbreviation for velocity. The words ‘delta vee,’ then, were what you heard when engineers read those symbols aloud. Since velocity was measured in meters per second, so was delta vee.”
“The conversation turned now to mass ratio: a figure second only to delta vee in its importance to space mission planning. It simply meant how much propellant the vehicle needed at the start of the journey in order to effect all the required delta vees.”
Even at 880 pages, the subplots felt rushed. I was quite disapointed with the break in the narrative (a five thousand years gap). It’s quite hard to swallow. If I spend a huge amount of time reading a ton of pages detailing the details of the world, it feels like an easy way out to then leave out 5,000 years’ worth of information. Another thing that jarred my “sensibility” was the submarine subplot. It was briefly mentioned once. So, it’s good that all these groups survived, but then, what’s the point of it? It’s not clear and Stephenson does not follow-up on it.
NB: The title of the best character name ever invented in a SF work goes to Neal Stephenson: “Sonar Taxlaw”. I also loved the reasoning behind the name…
SF = Speculative Fiction.