Top critical review
I like Neal Stephenson But Sometimes Too Much Is Too Much
Reviewed in the United States on January 26, 2017
I like Neal Stephenson. I really do. I particularly enjoyed Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle, and even had a grudging respect for Anathem, generally reviled among his hard-core fans. But I hit the wall with Seveneves. Let me explain why, because I think many reviewers either blindly bought into it, or put it down as garbage. There is a reason for both.
Seveneves is an 880 page novel, ostensibly about a very near-future catastrophe where the world must work together in a short amount of time to build out an orbiting habitat (using the ISS as a core), to save what tiny fraction they can of the human race. As you can imagine, this rush to save the essence of humanity is a perfect stage to explore every near-future space technology and Stephenson takes every opportunity to do so. And then some.
Unlike Cryptonomicon, for example, where the Turing code-break/world net/Axis gold story lines are different enough for the reader to enjoy or slog through, the technology in Sveneves is so dense, so similar in purpose, and so relentless, it’s easy for one’s eyes to glaze over. A six page description of delta-V and how to achieve it might be interesting in and of itself, if it weren’t part of many, many more pages of orbital mechanics and how to use a nuclear reactor to power a space-borne craft. And although the subjects he deeply delves into range from genetics, to asteroid mining, water from comets as propellant, and zero-g sex, these components are all in service to a very specific technology problem the survivors are trying to solve.
The first two-thirds of the book relate the challenges of creating the habitat and stabilizing its existence. Unfortunately, the story is but a mere framework on which to hang gobs of technical dissertation, and the characters are poorly formed, used only as chess pieces around which the technology can orbit. No matter how much you may adore hard SF (and Stephenson admits he did play fast and loose with bits of the tech), Seveneves ends up reading, for the most part, like transcribed lectures.
The last third of the book, when the survivors can finally return to Earth, exalts similarly in forward-derivative tech, although the story itself picks up a little more steam. The ending is meh and satisfactory only in that it is an ending.
The secret to Seveneves, however, is spelled out in the author’s five pages of acknowledgements at the end. He tells how he started developing ideas for the book in 2006, and lists the huge cadre of techies, space scientists and enthusiasts, and geeks that helped him vet any number of ideas in his book. The real telling line, comes at the end when he thanks his editor for her patience with him while he spent seven years deciding what to do with all these ideas. To me, that’s tech in search of a story and that’s exactly what you get in Seveneves.
Many reviewers either loved it because it was NEAL STEPHENSON, while many just stopped reading and tossed it on the floor. When I realized less than half way through that I really fell into the latter camp, I nevertheless struggled through to the end because I adore Stephenson’s snarky prose, which is definitely on point. I gave the book three stars, though it really deserves two and a half stars because you have to admire a writer with his cojones to put this out.
Should you read Seveneves? If you’re a Stephenson nut, you can’t not read it. If you’re new to Stephenson, stay away and try some of his earlier books from the 1990s. He is no doubt a very fine writer and I would hate to have a newbie be influenced by what I hope is a vanity project that has emptied Stephenson’s pent-up rolodex of very near-future space tech, and that his next book is more accessible.