The Problem with Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

Spol­ers Below

It says some­thing that the first per­son Neal Stephen­son thanks in his acknowl­edg­ments is Ama­zon CEO Jeff Bezos, for the time he spent employed at Bezos’ aster­oid min­ing com­pa­ny. What that some­thing is can be debat­ed: I think it is a great sign­post of where Stephen­son comes from: a tech­no­crat­ic, lib­er­tar­i­an back­ground that ulti­mate­ly dis­dains human­i­ty, but you can make your own con­clu­sions.

One of the most talked about books this year, Sev­en­eves is a sto­ry about what might hap­pen if a bet­ter ver­sion of our world had to cope with an unimag­in­able cat­a­stro­phe. It has racked up near-uni­ver­sal praise of its vision, scope, and tech­ni­cal detail. And all of those are impres­sive! There is no doubt that Stephen­son does inten­sive research into his sub­jects — in this case, orbital mechan­ics and the engi­neer­ing of space trav­el.

The space station and its arklets are how we survive, apparently.
The space sta­tion and its arklets are how we sur­vive, appar­ent­ly.

But whiles Stephen­son thrives on the tech­nol­o­gy, he fal­ters — hor­ri­bly — on the human­i­ty. You can read plot syn­opses else­where, and I agree with much of the praise. His open­ing line, “The moon blew up with­out warn­ing and for no appar­ent rea­son,” is a shock­ing way to begin a sto­ry, and there are often moments of jaw drop­ping descrip­tions of what the con­se­quence of such a dis­as­ter would be, from the mete­oroids, to the prob­lems of water and pro­pel­lant, to oxy­gen and food, to col­li­sion avoid­ance. It is a com­pre­hen­sive look at just how chal­leng­ing, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly impos­si­ble, it would be to sur­vive for the long term in space.

Unless you’re a per­son.

There are very few humans in Stephen­son’s work. The Swiss Ger­man leader is tac­i­turn and deci­sive, punc­tu­al and a bit cold. The Lati­na is a social work­er who cares for refugees. The Chi­nese-Amer­i­can woman is torn between cul­tures, and so on. Every­one is a cutout who only speaks when it is nec­es­sary to advance the tech­ni­cal details of the sto­ry. They don’t have inner lives, rea­son­ing, or even con­flicts (even con­flicts between each oth­er seem to come from nowhere and nev­er had res­o­lu­tion). Lat­er, the post-humans all have racial­ly-defined per­son­al­i­ties, which is a whole heap of trou­ble Stephen­son nev­er both­ers with. And final­ly: no one has any polit­i­cal beliefs. None. It is the most inhu­man soci­ety I’ve ever seen in a work of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion about human­i­ty.

The Anti-Pol­i­tics

I ref­er­enced Stephen­son’s close ties with Bezos for a rea­son: the tech scene often likes to describe itself as hav­ing a sort-of anti-pol­i­tics. Peo­ple who grew up writ­ing code and work­ing on engi­neer­ing prob­lems tend to think that all social and polit­i­cal issues are real­ly engi­neer­ing prob­lems as well. I’m most famil­iar with how this mind­set plays itself out when it comes to the mil­i­tary, which is also an engi­neer­ing orga­ni­za­tion giv­en the task of con­duct­ing war rather than build­ing wid­gets.

In Afghanistan, I called it the “Tool Box Approach” in an unfor­tu­nate­ly jar­gon-laden blog­post. The basic idea is that when you are pre­sent­ed with a chal­lenge, you reach into your per­son­al tool box and apply meth­ods you are famil­iar with to solve them. Hence, when con­front­ed with a polit­i­cal and social chal­lenge in Afghanistan, the mil­i­tary’s first instinct was to pro­vide secu­ri­ty in the form of vio­lence against the insur­gency — even if that method was the prob­lem gen­er­at­ing social and polit­i­cal chal­lenges in the first place.

In Sev­en­eves, that means that Stephen­son thinks the biggest chal­lenge to sur­viv­ing the apoc­a­lypse is the tech­nol­o­gy to do so — and not any oth­er con­cern. He hand waves away the glob­al pol­i­tics of hav­ing Amer­i­ca and Rus­sia essen­tial­ly dic­tate how the world will cre­ate an ark in space to per­se­vere after the sur­face is vapor­ized. He assumes there will be no riots, mass loot­ing, or oth­er form of social break­down when entire civ­i­liza­tions are giv­en a death sen­tence with a clear end date. Over the course of two years of book time, he sees the most inter­est­ing sto­ry to be told not in terms of how peo­ple on Earth cope with their impend­ing destruc­tion, or even with how peo­ple in space cope with the guilt of sur­viv­ing such a calami­ty, but rather with how hard it would be to fly to a comet to har­vest its ice.

And that’s what part one of the book comes down to: a char­ac­ter say­ing a line, fol­lowed by pages and pages of back­sto­ry, expo­si­tion, his­to­ry, engi­neer­ing efflu­via, and dis­tract­ing­ly pre­cise physics, then a response from anoth­er char­ac­ter, and then pages more of expo­si­tion. I know this is Stephen­son’s thing, it’s what he does in his books, but it makes fol­low­ing the actu­al sto­ry impos­si­ble.

The sec­ond part con­tin­ues in this vein, but the third is the most egre­gious (which will be detailed below). Apart from the poor edit­ing of ran­dom­ly jump­ing 5,000 years into the future, then back­fill­ing with thou­sands of words of back­sto­ry so you can under­stand what is hap­pen­ing, then short­cut­ting an actu­al sto­ry at the very end of the book, Stephen­son cre­ates the worst sort of racial dystopia I’ve seen in a mod­ern work of fic­tion.

The end result is a very Sil­i­con Val­ley-like assump­tion that all you need to sur­vive is engi­neer­ing knowhow and some clever python scripts for your robot swarms, and that noth­ing else about the peo­ple who either per­ish or some­how sur­vive is worth men­tion­ing. When one char­ac­ter actu­al­ly behaves like a politi­cian and speaks of ask­ing the mass of peo­ple, hud­dled in their space pods, what they think, Stephen­son por­trays her as a vil­lain, out to dis­rupt the calm order of the leader of the space fleet. For Stephen­son, pol­i­tics are poi­so­nous to sur­vival, and only fas­cism will help us sur­vive.

Genet­ic Pol­i­tics

About 2/3 through the 900 or so pages of Sev­en­eves, Stephen­son makes an utter­ly baf­fling deci­sion to skip sev­er­al mil­len­nia of sto­ry. As a writ­ing deci­sion, this ruined the book for me. This sec­tion is filled with spoil­ers, which I not­ed above, so no com­plaints.

Put sim­ply, Stephen­son’s vision of “spac­ers,” the genet­i­cal­ly engi­neered descen­dants of the sev­en women who ulti­mate­ly sur­vive the apoc­a­lypse in space, is the worst sort of Nazi racial deter­min­ism I’ve even seen in the mod­ern era. His ver­sion of how races, which do not exist in any sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly detectable way right now but appar­ent­ly will in the future, deter­mine one’s behav­ior, social inter­ac­tions, choice of sex­u­al part­ner, and ulti­mate role in soci­ety is actu­al­ly hor­ri­fy­ing.

One group, descend­ed from a Malala Yousafzai type, are meek paci­fists of inde­ter­mi­nate gen­der who work as aides and assis­tants and tech­ni­cians. One group are nat­ur­al lead­ers because their “Eve,” which is what they call the sev­en women who sur­vive, thought lead­er­ship was impor­tant. The race that descends from the politi­cian acts very “polit­i­cal­ly” but don’t seem to have any pol­i­tics of their own. And so on.

But this is not just hog­wash, some lazy MacGuf­fin meant to give Stephen­son a clichéd sim­pli­fied racial polit­i­cal sys­tem for sci­ence fic­tion adven­tur­ing, it is an inhu­man way of por­tray­ing genet­i­cal­ly deter­mi­nate behav­ior. The mod­ern equiv­a­lent is to say that Asians are good at math, Jews are good with mon­ey, Mex­i­cans tend to be lazy, and so on. It is offen­sive (and wrong) on its face.

It also ignores choice. One female char­ac­ter he fol­lows in this future has no choice about who she is attract­ed to: her Eve had a rela­tion­ship with a Russ­ian Eve, who thought that her descen­dants should all be phys­i­cal­ly strong labor­ers and war­riors (and so they are). And some­how, that deci­sion that the descen­dants of those two races would always want to have sex with each oth­er is still there 5,000 years of breed­ing lat­er.

The third part of Sev­en­eves is filled with this shit, and after a while (after pages and pages and end­less more pages of back­sto­ry he won’t dra­ma­tize but just breezes through like an engi­neer­ing text), the offen­sive­ness gives way to the insult­ing ridicu­lous­ness of such a soci­ety ever exist­ing.

Despite his anti-pol­i­tics, Stephen­son appar­ent­ly real­izes that he needs to have some sort of polit­i­cal con­flict at the end of the sto­ry. Of course, genet­ics deter­mines pol­i­tics in this case, and of course the only polit­i­cal con­flict he can envi­sion is the Cold War (because its pol­i­tics were, in many ways, the sim­plest; oth­er polit­i­cal con­flicts are incred­i­bly com­pli­cat­ed and often too per­son­al). So you have “Red,” which total­ly isn’t the Sovi­et Union but total­ly has an Iron Cur­tain around its space habi­tats and engages in sub­terfuge in the “Blue” habi­tats, which total­ly aren’t NATO even though they are built almost entire­ly on racial stereo­types of West­ern Europe and the Unit­ed States, and of course they have a long-run­ning con­flict over vague­ly defined prob­lems that are nev­er dis­cussed apart from their exist­ing and the brief war they fought over it.

It’s all dis­tract­ing non­sense, and its only pur­pose is to pro­vide a breezy frame­work on which to hang con­flict that he acknowl­edges exists, but can­not describe. At the end of it I still had no idea why Red and Blue were ene­mies, why they only fight through pro­pa­gan­da, and why the things they fought about made the choic­es they did. None of it makes sense.

Oh, and despite an avowed Catholic, and a veiled Mus­lim woman, no one has any reli­gion or reli­gious beliefs what­so­ev­er, nor do any of the sur­vivors left on earth. Not a sin­gle per­son. It’s tech­no­lib­er­tar­i­an par­adise.

A Bro­ken, Rushed Struc­ture

Final­ly, this book felt rushed. Even though it is 900 pages long, Stephen­son packs in so much stuff that the actu­al sto­ry gets very lit­tle treat­ment. Even if the char­ac­ters remained cheap cutouts of peo­ple, a riv­et­ing sto­ry would have been nice to read. It’s sort of there, bro­ken into three broad arcs: how human­i­ty pre­pares for the apoc­a­lypse, how its sur­vivors man­age to sur­vive, and how their descen­dants cope and build a new soci­ety. But Stephen­son spends so much time hit­ting you again and again in the face with incred­i­bly minute tech­ni­cal details that none of those sto­ries ever get a chance to be told.

As one spoil­ery exam­ple, when his far-future char­ac­ters are learn­ing about how a small band of humans man­aged to sur­vive under­ground for 5,000 years, we get a bit about their his­to­ry, and how hard it would be to main­tain a soci­ety that way. He writes, “The require­ment for a steel-spined author­i­tar­i­an cul­ture was obvi­ous,” as if that is the only pos­si­ble solu­tion to sur­viv­ing a cri­sis. This appeal to fas­cist tyran­ny again and again, and its endorse­ment as the only viable way to sur­vive, is one of the most trou­bling aspects of Stephen­son’s pol­i­tics, and it has been com­plete­ly unre­marked upon by his many fans (most of whom I would guess don’t even rec­og­nize that it’s there).

But at the end of it I’m left want­i­ng to hear sto­ries about these his­tor­i­cal events he breezes through. I want to know how the Sev­en Eves (get it) man­age to sud­den­ly make all of their oxy­gen and food and water gen­er­a­tion work, when it had­n’t before and they were all slow­ly starv­ing to death. I want to know how and why peo­ple appar­ent­ly decid­ed to iso­late them­selves in genet­i­cal­ly homoge­nous space habi­tats and delib­er­ate­ly breed them­selves into dis­tinct sub­species and why any of them would both­er to rein­te­grate into a soci­ety after mak­ing such a choice. I want to know why Red and Blue hate each oth­er, and what caused them to fight (because I can­not accept that a sin­gle petu­lant 30-year old 5,000 years ago would cre­ate a per­ma­nent polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion to entire races). I want to know how selec­tive breed­ing on a sub­ma­rine can cre­ate blub­ber-skinned peo­ple who live in arc­tic waters. I want to know how a sin­gle polit­i­cal cul­ture can live in a cave for 5,000 years and how it nev­er ran into the Island dilem­ma of iso­lat­ed genet­ic phe­no­types inbreed­ing under con­di­tions of accel­er­at­ed evo­lu­tion (and why the cave peo­ple did not rad­i­cal­ly alter their genes this way while the sea peo­ple did).

And I sup­pose, that is the point. The one thing Stephen­son does real­ly well is throw a mil­lion super high con­cept ideas at you that you want to learn more, and along the way gen­er­ate oodles of inter­net dis­cus­sion. As such, I guess it works: he has cre­at­ed a book to be debat­ed and dis­cussed end­less­ly, even if it’s just to point out how hor­ri­fy­ing some of his ideas real­ly are.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.