“Choose Your Own Survival” – A Review in Stages, Depending on Your Taste for Spoilers
By Rollen Lee
When it’s a book of this size (only 861 pages) by an author who habitually puts out a new work every three years, there are many different ways to want to first encounter it, let alone to discuss and review it. To explain my choice here, a little background: I remember a professor recommending Snow Crash and The Diamond Age back in 1997, though I didn’t end up picking up either until 2003. Since Quicksilver, I’ve been picking up each of his books as they came out, and even reviewed the previous book, REAMDE (2012), for the Page of Reviews then.
So I decided that I wanted to go into this book blind, knowing nothing whatsoever of it. I didn’t look for pre-release extracts, like I did with REAMDE, and I didn’t look for reviews in advance, since I knew that I’d be buying it as soon as it came out and reading it. Not even looking at the flyleaf or the front flap of the dustjacket, I plowed into the book.
For anyone looking to read the book in a similar fashion, then by all means pick it up and read it. I recommend it highly, and put it up on par with my favourites of Stephenson’s – The Diamond Age and Anathem. If you’re considering this book in this fashion, you’re likely also an ardent reader of his books, or at least of hard SF. It is thrilling, but it’s by no means a techno-MMORPG-thriller like REAMDE. It’s a work of grand sweep and depth, but it’s not as dense with philosophy and neologisms as Anathem or with philosophy and theology and history as The Baroque Cycle. It has a diverse cast of characters, but it’s not a multi-chronological rollercoaster like Cryptonomicon. It has many strong female characters and plenty of science and robots, but it’s very different from The Diamond Age. And there are no samurai-sword-wielding hackers like in Snow Crash. (It’s also not like Zodiac or The Big U, though some of the horror and chaos of the latter comes through in this book, though not many have bothered to read his juvenalia.) It fits in with his other books well, as a sort of lost Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle novel modernized and given the Stephenson finish.
If any of that appeals, then pick it up. If you’d like more information, read on. In true Stephensonian fashion, there’s lots to consider.
AFTER HERE, THERE BE SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST HUNDRED PAGES OR SO, THOUGH NO WORSE THAN ON THE FRONT FLAP OF THE DUST JACKET
“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.”
In Seveneves, Stephenson opens with this arresting sentence. He proceeds to explore the end of the world as we know it. You can, however, feel somewhat fine because he’s given humanity about two years to prepare for it. He chooses not to dwell on the cause of the disaster – the earth’s moon is sundered into seven pieces by an unidentified Agent, as it’s termed in the novel. Assigning cosmic blame may be satisfying, but the task of survival at hand is more important than that search. This is perfectly reasonable, as, once the seven pieces soon become eight, multiple analyses by the scientific community demonstrate that the pieces will continue to collide, fragment, and steadily become more chaotic until they blanket the earth’s sky and then become a “Hard Rain” that will persist for millennia.
For about five to ten thousand years, actually. After that there’ll be some pretty Saturn-like rings, but that’s not important right now.
Some time is given over to the change of affairs on Earth as everyone has to face up to a definite end date looming: how does schooling change in such a setting? What do people do with their lives? How will governments come together or protest the situation? What becomes of euthanasia in such a setting? None of these take up substantial page real estate, but they do suggest the issues that most people on Earth would have to endure. The primary focus of the book at the outset is with the efforts of the world to prepare for a massive space mission, dubbed “The Cloud Ark,” to try and save humanity. From every country, a certain number of candidates are to be chosen for rapid training, and all efforts are to be directed towards preparing “Arklets” to share out smaller portions of humanity clustered in space.
By the way, the setting is in the near-future: some things are different or surprising, such as a meteorite attached to the end of the International Space Station as a testing site for different drone robots for mining, or the persistence of Sears and its Craftsman tools. Facebook and Skype are still part of people’s lives, but so are throwback communication forms like telegraphy and morse code for characters like Dinah MacQuarie, the geology/robotics expert assigned to the ISS, who uses them to stay in regular contact with her father at his mine site in Alaska. Television, of course, is also still an essential part of people’s lives: favourable notice is given of a Neil deGrasse Tyson-type science personality, Doctor Dubois Harris, who briefs the American President on the impending disaster and later becomes involved in the Cloud Ark, while some incidental remarks later note that the people aboard the ISS have become reality TV figures, to the disgust of some on board.
Stephenson explores many issues in the book, as he does in any of his novels. The key issue, of course, fits in with a common theme for him over the last decade – currently, humanity has not put enough attention into expanding our exploration and presence in space, with dreams focused more on software and miniaturized personal technology rather than hard sciences and engineering that can allow humanity to achieve more. The endless argument in Stephenson’s books between the perspectives of the “technocracy” and of the politicians or social critics continues here, as well, though issues like this will be taken up later in the “greater spoiler” section. Glimpses of possibilities for nuclear energy, the resources offered in near space, the future of genetic study and research, and the costs of flexible, risk-taking space exploration are all examined here, both for their positive elements and for their drawbacks. Any further exploration of themes here would start to crowd us into the realm of spoilers, though, so be warned.
The next part of this review has a spoiler from the front flap of the dust jacket – it gives away an important detail about the final third of the book, though not the resolution. (You may be able to guess the final result from reading it, though.) Trust me, if you’re happy with this level of detail in the review so far, then resolve to find the book and to either remove the dust jacket without reading it, or else put a cover over that inside flap when you sign it out from the library. (Or, I suppose, ignore the book altogether or just read the review since you don’t care anyhow.)
SIZABLE SPOILER, AND ONE I REALLY WISH I HADN’T ENCOUNTERED HALFWAY THROUGH THE BOOK
The result of these issues and devastations are explored five thousand years into the future, as humanity begins the gradual process of their return to the surface of the Earth. This portion covers the final third of the book. I foolishly looked over the dustjacket at a tense point about halfway through the book, and would have almost rather not known that. (I’ll get into that issue in the “greater spoilers” section. Trust me: that one is a much bigger spoiler than this is.)
Before going to that, though, I should summarize here: again, this is a very interesting and oddly inspiring book. As ever, it has many ideas explored well, several interesting characters to follow, and plenty of conflict to drive the action. It’s not yet fair to compare this to either Anathem or to The Diamond Age at this point since I’ve not read this one a half-dozen or more times yet, but it feels like it will end up closer to that level of achievement as I re-read it. It feels more substantial and essential than REAMDE did, although I did enjoy much of that book as well. At times, though, Seveneves may feel as though it shares the primary issue that I had with the previous book, in and that somewhat too much attention seems given over to “chase scenes” instead of ideas, though in Seveneves the chase is in the middle rather than at the end. One of the many quotes I treasure from Stephenson, after all, is from Snow Crash: “After that – after Hiro gets onto his motorcycle, and the New South Africans get into their all-terrain pickups, and The Enforcers get into their slick black Enforcer mobiles, and they all go screaming out onto the highway – after that it’s just a chase scene.” There’s times where the chase doesn’t need to be played out. Although it may feel like a tense chase sequence here, that’s primarily because of the high stakes and complicated technologies at play while other drama plays out back in the Cloud Ark. It’s not like the cross-country pursuit played out in the final hundred-plus pages of REAMDE.
The book feels like a thrilling chase, though, once all is in space and then once the final portion of the book moves to a close. Set-up and the doling out of information is always done judiciously, and though you may chomp at the bit as you will things to move along, wanting to know more, Stephenson blends character beats with the work of exposition effectively and well. Granted, there are portions where characters provide exposition in response to others’ explanations, though at this point with Stephenson and the genre of “hard” SF you should expect some degree of that as standard operating procedure. The exposition factor is just as notable in the future portion, which starts us with a character and adds on technology, setting, and connections to the past as needed, rather than as one long catalog of updates.
GREATER SPOILER WARNING SECTION – HEREIN THERE BE IDEAS, ISSUES, AND QUESTIONS WORTH MENTIONING OR EXPLORING BUT WHICH WILL GIVE AWAY PARTS OF THE BOOK AND PLOT
Are you sure you want this?
After all, the book’s still interesting and engaging enough without this up front before you read it.
Alright, it’s a free country and a free internet.
So: should we trust the democrats or the technocrats to save us?
In spite of all the good that governments do to build up the cloud in space, Julia Flaherty, the President of the United States, defies a global treaty banning government officials and leaders from going into space and avoiding death by escaping into orbit in a Boeing X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle, designed for maintenance of military satellites and other secretive missions. She arrives soon after the commander of the Cloud Ark declares that, with the Hard Rain falling on Earth, all people in orbit are no longer subject to the nationalities and laws of the destroyed surface. While people adjust to the new situation, the equivalent of martial law is declared.
Now, this issue can be explored in a few ways: yes, the commander moves quickly to establish order in the Cloud Ark, under the aegis of the laws prepared for the project. However, it can also be seen as a heavy-handed gesture rather than a measure to deal with future worst-case-scenarios. There is a definite divide between those in the centre of the ISS and those “Arkies” who live out in the Cloud Ark, who only dock with ISS for a tenth of their time while otherwise floating around in formation and waiting to be told where to go. The ex-POTUS goes out into the Arkie population, and very quickly works to galvanize a majority of them to set out for Mars instead, taking vital gear, resources, and expertise with them. It’s fair to concede that the population of the Cloud Ark think that they’re being neglected by the crew on the ISS, but at this same moment, the commander himself, Dinah MacQuarie, and two other experts are trying to bring in a comet that was steered to them on a suicide mission by a space mining entrepreneur. Rather than have the Arkies provide new organization or new ideas or negotiate for changes to the governance structure, the mutineers instead come off as petulant and impatient children by comparison. The President, typically, comes off as a manipulative, power-seeking dilettante without any skills to offer in space other than misguided and uninformed leadership. Now, many would make the same criticism of modern politicians in general, and I’m certainly not innocent of such statements. Most of the characters are shaded with enough strengths and weaknesses on both sides that it doesn’t prove to be too problematic overall, but to some degree the President is made out to be a straw-woman for this scenario. The argument, as usual, favours the technocrats, and the President comes in somewhere above G.E.B. Kivistik from Cryptonomicon and below Fraa Lodoghir from Anathem in the annals of non-STEM thinkers and leaders in Stephenson’s books.
Another issue: should we be more adventurous in space?
Under such a time crunch, it’s understandable that the careful testing, simulating, and reassessing of space missions and technologies would be compressed. Safety for astronauts and cosmonauts who are backed by many years of valuable training are not to be put into unacceptably risky situations, after all. With such a limited time to prepare for millennia in space, many technologies are thrown up into orbit to be later brought together in a flexible and adaptive fashion. But the level of threats from space – small and large fragments from the moon, other space rocks, radiation, decaying orbits, among others – is daunting, and the deadline for all is spectacularly fatal.
A primary example is that of proposed efforts to capture asteroids or even comets for human use. The distances and forces involved are immense, and fraught with danger. The presence of an asteroid tethered to the ISS indicates that the ability is there, but its difficulties are made clear. Early in the first part of the book – the pre-”Hard Rain” portion – the space mining entrepreneur for whom Dinah works sneaks up into space in an experimental space tourism capsule, and is shortly followed by a private space vessel to allow him and a crew of five more to chase down a comet, break off a sizeable fragment, and steer it back to the cloud. The water in the comet, mixed with the heat from their nuclear reactor, provides enough propulsive force to bring it back towards the cloud less than two years later, but the accidents and failures lead to the reactor’s radiation – as well as those rays from space itself – producing enough damage to kill the entire crew before they can return.
A great many characters die because of space-related injuries and hardships in Seveneves. The first set of workers sent up by the Russians are not expected to even come aboard the ISS, but instead live in their suits and in onion-like air and plastic “lifeboat” bladders while they build up the exterior of the station. Only a few of these survive. For later members of the Cloud Ark and the crew of the ISS, many are wiped out by stray rocks, by accidents, and by cancers due to their proximity to nuclear and space radiation. The death toll for humanity in this book approaches Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy levels, though we come to know many more humans and victims than we did in Adams’ book (which was written for a very different purpose anyways).
Which leads to another issue: at what point does all society and humanity collapse?
(Incidentally, this was when I chanced a look at the dustjacket and discovered that the remaining 300 pages did offer something beyond the imminent collapse. I wasn’t exactly looking for reassurance of a happy ending – and, given the issues, I assumed that Stephenson wasn’t going to end the book on a note of hopelessness – but it still took the impact away somewhat.)
Cannibalism enters the picture in some of the Arklets. At first as the Mars mission fails due to blights and crop failures in their ships, a few self-cannibalize, arguing that their legs are relatively useless in zero-G. Later, several others are killed to become food. The gruesome advent of this moment occurs as the rebels against the President begin to strengthen themselves for the struggle to retake some of the ISS so that they can bargain from a position of strength. Most of the combat is with pipes and knives, or else with weightless grappling. The fight between the ISS population and the returning Martians ends with barely a dozen survivors from an initial orbiting population of nearly two thousand from a terrestrial population of over seven billion. The survivors manage to take their ship (built out of the asteroid, the ISS, the Arklets that stayed, and the comet fragment) and successfully dock it in a larger chunk of space rock. Once there, the remaining population of men rapidly pass away from a range of maladies and injuries.
Safe at last, shielded from hazards, the remaining eight women have plenty of resources to support them, but any stored genetic material – other than digital records – were lost long before in an accident. One of the eight has gone through menopause, and so seven women remain to try and rebuild the human race. The technology, their geneticist is confident, will allow them to make enough changes to their eggs to allow them to produce a sufficiently diverse and robust population. A high-stakes debate ensues over the changes available and the likely benefits offered by depressive and bipolar personalities. This debate is pushed to a solution by an ultimatum, and is then capped with a curse by the surviving cannibal leader, who assumes that her descendants will be judged by what she had done in the name of survival. (I’ll come back to this in the next, most spoiler-intense, section.) This moment provides the title of the book, then, with “Seven Eves” who will become the mothers of a future humanity.
An aside before the big spoilers: What becomes of privacy in the future and in the Cloud Ark?
In the space vessels of this future, all your moments are recorded – unless you know how to counteract the surveillance. This is first hinted at with the reality show, but later it becomes a greater issue after the commander at the time of the Hard Rain promotes the assistant of the computer system guru to head up surveillance and systems rather than retain the original man, an obvious NSA-type whose allegiances the commander cannot trust.
Either due to this demotion or to allegiances, the President quickly prevails upon NSA-type to shut off surveillance in their Arklet while they plan for their Mars mission. He, in turn, had placed a bug in the command module of the ISS, and this sort of panopticon for those in charge gets a fair degree of mention. It’s never expressly brought up as a key theme in the first portion of the book, but it’s never elided, either. It’s treated as a fact of life in space, much as it is in this post-Snowden time – and as was fretted about in a different fashion in Cryptonomicon.
The surveillance records return in the latter portion of the book, as the files and pictures left in their computers, in their “Spacebook” and blog posts, and in the surveillance videos come to constitute “the Epic” which informs later generations of the formation of their future humanity. Scenes we have earlier read become cited episodes to inform everyday living later, or mines of information to be used by characters to control pivotal events later on. One can deplore the manipulation of these episodes by others, but one can also appreciate the endeavour to examine how history could be done in such a paperless milieu.
SPOILER ON SURVIVORS AT THE END OF THE FIRST TWO-THIRDS OF THE BOOK COULD BE INFERRED. ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO READ THIS IF YOU’RE GOING TO READ THE BOOK?
On reproduction, survival, and race: to what extent is it racial profiling when these are characters who have been cloned?
The front flap, again, spoils the reader to the development of “seven distinct races now three billion strong,” so if you read that, you knew this was coming. But again, this spoils you on the survivors of the Epic, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The women who survive to reproduce are generally from the global north, or acculturated to it. The balance is more skewed towards standard “white” characters, but only 4:3.
Each woman, essentially, becomes the “Eve” of the ethnicity that grows from them. Each, to some extent, bears a race of similar properties – determined engineers and operators, thoughtful scientists and organizers, tough and disciplined operatives, wise and wily figures, determined and amplified strivers, supportive and non-combative assistants, and, finally, individuals who are genetically unsettled such that they can change in response to trauma and challenges – particularly in response to the actions of the ambitious and unsettling. These properties become more important than skin tone, though some sequences at the end do rely on pigmentation to drive the action, too.
To some extent, each may well be considered to be a caricature, or even a stereotype, by some readers. Part of this issue must be considered in light of the earlier scenes and developments that were given to each of these characters, though. A couple are given a substantial amount of page-time; most of them are given much less time than these two, though consistently present throughout; and one is given very little time before the pivotal debate, though she speaks volumes in that short scene. Given what we are shown through the first two-thirds of the book, nothing which follows with their clones is too divergent from the characterizations already developed as they focus on traits necessary for survival and expansion in space, though some may be given greater portions of heroism or villainy in the descendants we encounter. In the truncated account of the history that follows from that debate, Stephenson details various stages and phases the re-populating effort follows, with some parts more inclusive, and others more focused on building up particular “racial” characteristics over time.
Some long-time readers of his works may recall the critiques that dogged earlier novels of Stephenson, whether related to depictions and discussions of race or to the primacy and privilege of male characters over female characters. Personally, although I may have seen how some could criticize such books through that lens, I never found myself losing interest in or affection for those works, seeing them instead as novels and explorations of issues rather than definitive statements on all problems. These are works of thoughtful fiction, not social tracts, after all. Making these novels into expansive templates for social order would entail a substantial amount of extra writing. Since Cryptonomicon, Stephenson’s novels have tended to reside in the neighbourhood of a thousand pages, give or take 10%, and although there are many words on the page, one doesn’t usually get the sense that he’s wasted words in his storytelling. Part of his style is a high-impact, high-use wordiness and referentiality, and although you could edit out certain asides or passages, something of the character of his phrasing would be lost in the exchange. Doing so to add in these supposedly missing statements to solve racial issues or gender representation would likely be insufficient or at odds with his usual style. To be honest, such an effort would likely lead to the application of the telling and new label of “mansplaining” to such attempts to “fix” this issue anyhow. I wonder if less literary and more “gripping yarn”-style SF is criticized for these issues as well? I suspect that there’s not the same level of expectation or attention given to them, though.
In terms of Stephenson’s intent, I believe that his level of interest and concern in people and the ideas that impact them has been steadily evolving, with focus gained without proving to be a “correction.” In terms of effect, though, Seveneves goes further in the development and presentation of these concepts. For example, in REAMDE, the strong and interesting character of Zula is somewhat too compelling for and beloved by every male character in the book, to the point where she seems close to pedestal installation at times. Here, both before and during the fight for control as the counter-mutineers return, it is noted – and made manifest as woman is tasered to keep her from returning to battle – that men are more expendable at this point, while women need to be saved so that they can restore humanity. Perhaps the argument can be made that this reduces female characters to a womb, but the stakes involved, the sacrifices made, and the dire numbers at this point in the story, the difference between Zula’s elevation and the issues in Seveneves is noteworthy. (The situation is such that the victorious survivors don’t even eliminate some mutinous figures, as the greatest possible genetic diversity is needed at this point.) As a different example, female characters such as Nell in The Diamond Age and Eliza in The Baroque Cycle had to endure sexual degradation at various points in their novels, but such trials are absent in Seveneves. Whether the accounts of Dinah’s love life in orbit or of lesbian couples forming between different known characters count as a degradation of character or mere titillation is a question of personal taste; although the term used at times in the novel may be base Anglo-Saxon, the details of the act are generally lacking. When this is compared to the clarity of mind that the Waterhouses gain in Cryptonomicon after ejaculating – and the in-depth and hilarious detail of the senior Waterhouse conjures about the hypothetical Ejaculation Control Conspiracy which he needs make peace with if he is to advance in life – then Seveneves becomes a far more demure text.
Even with all these issues in mind – and probably because of them – the novel is well worth your time. As a starting point for discussion of these themes and others, let alone for thoughts and questions about humanity’s destiny and place, its resiliency and its failings, or just as a gripping tale of survival and reconstruction, Seveneves is an informative and entertaining ride. I can’t wait to re-read it.