The last Neal Stephenson book I read was probably Anathem, which was a while ago (I remember I was enamored enough to have subsequently bought the “accompanying soundtrack1”).
Before that had been the massive and delightful “System of the world” trilogy (as it turned out, I read all of these on the Kindle device I then possessed, and only realized how fat these books were in physical form when I saw them in a store).
Seveneves begins with a bang2 (and yes, Neal does seem to be good at beginnings, better at middles, and not-so-great at endings, and … what’s wrong with that? 🙂
I came for the exquisite world-building and was not disappointed at all. This was an extremely detail-oriented expository sort-of book, that would turn off anyone who wasn’t ok with that style.
So … having completed this book a week ago, I’m a satisfied reader here, especially since I’ve been waiting (for many years now) to do a better job of slowly reading some fiction. It’s hard because time is short, but it’s still satisfying, so it’s worth being creative about fitting in a few minutes of reading here and there 3.
The story is largely in three parts: what happens soon after the moon breaks up, what happens after the “hard rain” wipes out all life on earth, and a “fast-forward” to a speculative future five millennia after all this.
In all this nitty-gritty detail, it’s easy to think that this is all about imagining the future with a clear slate, while … I couldn’t shake the feeling that this could just as well be about the past.
There is a strong tendency to think of history4 as essentially linear, and even, to some extent, “progressive”; that there is some end-goal5 towards which we are, and have been, progressing, slowly or quickly.
What Seveneves can be seen as, then, is an imagined “theory of cataclysm”: while the majority of the text is centered around “how do humans survive in space?”, the other question, reading between the lines, is “how do future generations of human beings, born on earth with none of the contextual cultural and scientific memory of the earlier survivors-in-space, make sense of these gods-and-demons, and their mysterious devices?”
Or, to put it bluntly, what if these “future generations of primitive savages”, who don’t understand the works of the “magic-wielding” space-humans, and have to come up with their own myths to explain them6, are basically … us?
- “Iolet: music from the world of anathem” ↩︎
- The first line reads: The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. ↩︎
- Practically, this means resorting to the e-book format most of the time … ↩︎
- (in all its forms: cultural, political, biological, geological) ↩︎
- this of course, is what most disagreements are about … ↩︎
- (especially after these space-humans (perhaps) fight against and destroy each other) ↩︎