Mothers of invention
Release Date: OUT NOW!
880 pages | Hardback/ ebook Author: Neal Stephenson Publisher: Borough Press
His reputation may rest
on subverting and challenging genre conventions, but Neal Stephenson, it would appear, has gone native. Or to put that another way, Seveneves is arguably the most conventional SF novel Stephenson has ever written. This may strike certain readers as bad news. After all, if a man who somehow imbued historical fiction with a science fiction vibe when he wrote his Baroque Cycle is doing the same as everyone else, well, what’s the point of him?
To which one reply might be to begin by asking what’s the point of science fiction novels that utilise familiar tropes? By now, don’t we all know what to expect of books about the end of the world as we know it ( so many of these of late…), colonisation of the vacuum just beyond Earth’s atmosphere, war in space and terraforming?
Apparently not, because Seveneves is a novel that constantly delights in playing with and confounding our expectations of what will occur in certain kinds of familiar SF stories.
Begin with the premise. The book commences with the Moon suddenly blowing up. This doesn’t initially cause a calamity. Even tide tables still “pretty much work” because, to quote scientist- astronaut Ivy, “The Moon’s mass is still all there… It’s just spread out a little.” The pieces retain the same collective centre of gravity.
What a boring non- apocalypse. Except Stephenson then offers us an alternative apocalypse for which humanity has time to prepare. As the pieces of the ex- Moon crash together, a critical mass of debris is building up. Eventually, what comes to be dubbed a “Hard Rain” of lunar debris will fall and planet Earth will no longer be blue, but an uninhabitable fireball.
Humankind has just a two- year window to save the species and some vestiges of what we like to call civilisation. In a heartbreaking detail, those who make it into space will have more than enough time left to say goodbye to those left behind, including their own children.
This makes a fine scenario for an SF novel. Moreover, it’s convincingly and even vividly realised because Stephenson – who spent time working for Blue Origin, the space exploration company established by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos – has the technical chops to develop his premise, often speaking through the character of Doob, a scientistcommunicator who has the unenviable job of explaining to the world how the world will end.
And yet that’s only part of what Stephenson is doing here. Again and again, Seveneves moves forward by subverting familiar tropes. As a war in space plays out, for example, we discover ( very slight spoilers ahead) why the book gets its title: eventually, there are just seven women of childbearing age left alive, a sly Shaggy God Story gag in itself.
Not that we get to follow these women’s lives in too much detail. Having made us care about such characters as warrior cosmonaut Tekla, Stephenson promptly abandons them in the void. Rather than following their stories, the latter part of the book is set 5,000 years in the future, an audacious jump. The Hard Rain is in the past and the descendants of these seven eves have terraformed an alien world pockmarked by debris – our very own Earth. And then, because Stephenson is really on a trope roll, he tangentially tackles first contact too.
Joking aside, Seveneves is, ignoring a few info- dumps presumably necessary to get from A to B, a fine novel that functions both as an adventure story, and a meditation on life and how to live it. For this reason, although it’s less ambitious, it invites comparisons with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy in the way it combines hard science with speculation about what kind of societies humankind might build once we start to live beyond the Earth’s protection – right down to the granular detail of why our descendants might decide Spacebook was a really bad idea. Jonathan Wright
Constantly delights in playing with our expectations
Stephenson spent eight years pitching the story to TV, movie and game companies before finally just writing it as a novel. The Water Knife is set in the same world as Bacigalupi’s 2006 short story “The Tamarisk Hunter”: http:// bit. ly/ tamastory.