The Problem with Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
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.
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.
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.
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.