Even “hard” science fiction–that science fiction which is based upon the accurate presentation of the science and technology we’ve already developed or might plausibly develop someday–usually asks us to accept one implausible event as the mainspring of its action. In Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves (2015) it’s the destruction of Earth’s moon by a mysterious, unexplained force called the Agent. As the world watches one evening, that Agent shatters the moon into seven large pieces and thousands upon thousands of smaller pieces. All of those pieces keep roughly within their gravitationally-bound orbital plane above Earth, at least for a while, but one of the witnesses to that cataclysmic event, Dr. Dubois Harris, known to his large television audience as Doc Dubois, calculates that those pieces will eventually begin to collide with each other, creating even more pieces, and all of them will ultimately fall out of orbit and upon the Earth in a “Hard Rain”–a variation of what present-day astronomers and physicists have called “the late heavy bombardment” that shaped the Earth during the development of our solar system four billion years ago.
Doc Dubois, a thinly-disguised portrait of real-life science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson, realizes that the Hard Rain will wipe out life upon the Earth and reshape its surface, just as the late heavy bombardment did. Humanity has about two years, however, before the Hard Rain begins–two years to save a remnant of itself.
It does so by pooling its resources, sending up every rocket it has to first expand the ISS and, later, to build dozens upon dozens of self-sustaining arklets, connected in a chain, populated by a hand-picked remnant of humanity, who must every day sustain orbit and survive collisions with the rocky bollides that surround them, even as the planet below them–and all that they knew–is being wiped clean.
Gravity being what it is, the orbit of the great space habitat, called the Cloud Ark, cannot be maintained forever. Sooner or later, it too will fall to Earth unless something is done. Enter Sean Probst, a rich entrepreneur who has the idea to bring to the Ark a large comet, whose water can be used to make the propellant needed to boost the Ark’s orbit higher and toward the safety of a huge chunk of the Moon, dubbed the Cleft. It’s an extraordinarily-risky mission, a two-year endeavor, but everyone’s survival depends upon it.
The first two-thirds of Seveneves, in fact, is filled with such risks, both small and great. People like Doc Dubois, Ivy Xiao, the leader of the Space Station, and Dinah Macquarie, a miner’s daughter and roboticist, have to make decisions every day that put some people at risk so that most may survive. Except for the rescue of one important character during the building of the first arklets, these decisions are made dispassionately, even as the passions of others–in rebellions on Earth and on the Cloud Ark itself–erupt around them. One would think, given the nature of human aggression, that Stephenson would flesh out some of his characters more than he does, but Seveneves is entirely plot-driven. The only character who comes across as fully human is Doc Dubois himself, who falls in love and has children, but has to leave those people behind when he’s drafted to join the Cloud Ark. The rest are what E.M. Forster describes in The Art of the Novel as “flat” characters–personages meant to fulfill a particular role, but without a defining or memorable trait.
What Stephenson is good at–very good at–is explaining how all this survival technology works, but why it is that so many of those who are chosen to populate the Cloud Ark and the arklets eventually die, leaving only a tiny handful to decide humanity’s destiny. Like any good explainer, he explains a lot at first, but gradually tapers off, as readers become accustomed to the world he builds for us to live in.
Whether readers will fully enjoy the last third of Seveneves, however, is an open question. It’s breathtaking in some ways, as the timescale of the novel suddenly expands far beyond what we would expect, but unsatisfying in others, as Stephenson transforms his novel into a Quest tale that doesn’t quite come off. The author forgets nothing as he takes us along, and his work in bringing the immense details of his long story together is quite commendable.
As a whole, however, Seveneves falls a little short in its emotional impact. Everything that happens makes sense, but whether we care about what happens to the characters, as we do in The Lord of the Rings and in Dan Simmons’s Hyperion saga, is another matter. Survival is what matters to Stephenson, but as we learned from Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, survival alone is not sufficient. We must know what humanity’s Purpose is beyond survival. We must recognize ourselves in the new Heaven and upon the New Earth that Stephenson places us, but even among the gallery of potentially intriguing characters Stephenson designs, I don’t think we can, and that’s too bad.