Recently, I was lucky enough to get my hands on an Advance Reader’s Edition of Neal Stephenson’s upcoming novel, Seveneves.
There are certain people—artists, writers, performers, musicians—who are so breathtakingly good, such absolute masters of their craft, that I can only stand in awe of their work and think:
It’s not fair. No one has the right to be this talented.
This is especially true every time I read a novel from Mr. Stephenson. Seveneves proves once again that he possesses an imagination of staggering inventiveness and scope. For him, an event that most of us would find unthinkable is where he starts the story.
Seveneves is somewhat unexpected. Unlike much of Mr. Stephenson’s oeuvre, this book is classic hard science fiction. Set in the future, where large-scale engineering and physics play a central role in the action.
The novel is divided into three parts. Parts One and Two take place contiguously in the near future, with the same group of characters traversing a unified narrative arc. Part Three skips ahead 5,000 years and introduces new characters in a radically different milieu.
Parts One and Two rank among the very best of Mr. Stephenson’s writing. He renders the world of these sections so vividly, in such fine-grained detail, that I honestly believe I can see the dust bunnies under the furniture, the scuff marks on the floors. The devil is in the details and it’s all utterly believable and immersive.
As impressive as his imagination is, it’s easy to overlook how good Mr. Stephenson is at creating characters. Every character feels complete and fully rendered from the moment they first appear, like Athena springing fully formed from the head of Zeus. The individuals who people these pages carry a sense of reality that’s more than you typically expect from characters in a novel. They’re real in a way that’s rare and very self-assured.
The stories told in Parts One and Two are grounded in the characters. This isn’t a just a tale of humanity and disaster, this is the story of individuals and how they cope—snapshots of moments and complications, conflicts and repercussions. I found these parts to be some of the most affecting work Mr. Stephenson has produced to date.
Simply put, Parts One and Two of Seveneves make up my new favorite Neal Stephenson novel.
Part Three is a disappointment. It’s still staggeringly imaginative—indeed, set 5,000 years in the future, it’s more unrestrainedly speculative than Parts One and Two—but it feels less immersive.
The world of Part Three is rendered in less detail. It’s multifaceted and fascinating, but it’s as if Mr. Stephenson imagined it at a lower resolution than the world of the first two parts. As if he hadn’t spent quite enough time envisioning it at as completely as he could have. For all that it presents some amazing concepts, it’s fundamentally less engaging.
That may be unavoidable—the world of Parts One and Two is based very much on the real world we live in today. The details are easy to see. The messy, complex reality of it is apparent.
A far-future world, by contrast, can only be imagined. It’s probably inevitable that Part Three feels less realistic.
But the characters in Part Three are also less believable. They feel more like characters than real people, ideas that haven’t quite fully taken flesh. Again, the ideas are wonderful but they’re not alive in the same way that the characters in Parts One and Two are.
As a result, the exposition in Part Three becomes more burdensome. Because this section is more about concepts than about people, it necessarily means that there’s more telling and less showing. This makes it more difficult to invest in the story.
Inexplicably, there are several descriptive sections in Part Three where Mr. Stephenson summarizes important events that took place in Part Two, recapping things I had read just a day or two before, as though he thinks that I won’t remember them. These sections actively put me off.
Part Three comes across as incompletely developed. The narrative is inelegant, choppy and disengaged. The characters are less authentic.
It’s frustrating—the ideas for the world and the characters in Part Three are so good, so intrinsically interesting, packed with so much potential, that they deserve to be as well developed as what we get in Parts One and Two. But they’re not. Part Three reads as though Mr. Stephenson said, “Meh, good enough,” and just left it at that.
It feels like Part Three belongs to a different book than Parts One and Two. It feels like the outline of a sequel, stuck on the end for lack of a better conclusion.
And that’s what I wish had happened here:
Seveneves should have ended with Part Two. Mr. Stephenson should then have spent more time developing Part Three more thoroughly, expanding it, discerning a more elegant narrative for it, and breathing more life into the characters. Part Three should have become a full sequel novel.
Taken all together, even with a disappointing third act, Seveneves is still one of the very best books you’re going to read this year. It’s worth it just to experience Parts One and Two.
4 thoughts on “Book Review: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson”
I read the preview on his site and was, frankly, crushed. I adored “Snow Crash”, so when I read this:
“It had been identified as dangerous, with a 0.01 percent probability of
striking the Earth within the next hundred years, and so another swarm
of satellites had been sent up to drop a bag over it and drag it into a
geocentric (Earth-rather than sun-centered) orbit, which had then been
gradually matched with that of the ISS.”
– Thanks for explaining what a geocentric orbit is, Neal.
“When he got ridiculously cold, he would retreat into the cab of his
truck (he kept the engine running) and hold his hands over the heater
vents until his fingers regained feeling.”
– He kept the engine running! Really! You typed that and left it in
Total train wreck. It reads like something a 16 year old would produce
for an English Lit exam. Is the rest really any better? I thought this was shockingly bad.
I completely understand where your concern comes from. I can see exactly what you mean and I can’t disagree. Still – I liked this book. A lot. (Barring the last third of it.)
“Seveneves” is a bit of an oddball in Stephenson’s recent output. It’s hard scifi, almost Golden Age style, which isn’t something he does, really. I’m not sure that the tone of it comes naturally to him. Still, it didn’t strike me that his writing style was noticeably worse in this book than in his last few opuses. He’s never been an elegant writer – his style has always been more blunt force than nuanced – so I wasn’t expecting anything else here.
I try to keep in mind, as well, that starting with “Cryptonomicon”, and especially with the Baroque Cycle, he’s amassed a significant mainstream audience – people who don’t read much scifi and who actually don’t know what “geocentric” means off the top of their heads. There are a lot terms that we scifi readers take for granted that many of his fans aren’t familiar with. It puts him in a radically different position than most other SF writers. So I’m willing to forgive his admittedly inelegant (and sometimes unnecessary) attempts at reader-friendly explication. Those parenthetical definitions didn’t bother me that much. I just slid over them.
The fundamental concept of the book is interesting and reminiscent of Robinson’s “Mars” trilogy, in that he attempts to tackle a speculative subject as realistically as possible. Like Robinson, the human factor is the most important force influencing how events unfold, and the characters in this book are some of the best he’s written (or, more accurately, I find that I like them better than most). I’m also impressed by how hard he worked to get the physics correct. For someone who has long been an internet / Digital Age / information sciences guy, mass body physics isn’t his home turf. I admire his willingness to take it on at this level of detail.
You’re not wrong in your concerns, but I wouldn’t say that “Seveneves” is a train wreck. The plotting, pace, characters, etc., are all strong. (Barring the last third of it.) I think the concept of the novel is strong enough that I’m willing to forgive it.
Thanks so much for the thoughtful response, John. I’ll put this back on the list of books to get out of the library.
I love any chance I can get to talk about books!
It also occurs to me: Because “Seveneves” is so reminiscent of Golden Age scifi, I compare it to that style as much as I compare it to Stephenson’s other books. And let’s face it – Golden Age scifi wasn’t terribly sophisticated, stylistically.