Moth­ers of in­ven­tion

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Books -

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.

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