Our book for the month over at Flips Flipping Pages is Neal Stephenson’s “Seveneves,” which is quite a doorstopper so I carved out time a couple of weeks ago to read it.

It begins quite ominously: “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason,” which basically is a drawn-out disaster scenario, where fragments of the moon are set to rain down on Earth in around two years, rendering it inhabitable for 5,000 years. Evacuation into space is determined as the best hope for humanity, and the world’s powers and scientists quickly assemble the Cloud Ark. The International Space Station is transformed into a hub for smaller vehicles (arklets), to house two representatives from each nation, as well as a handful of specialists to ensure the survival of the human race.

Consumed with copious amounts of tea. And cheese — moon shards!

“Seveneves” presented an interesting proposition, and the book came so highly recommended that I was determined to finish the book in time for the discussion. I enjoyed the first part of the novel, but my appreciation of the book steadily declined as the novel progressed, to the point that it was just really tiresome. I like the monthly book club exercise of exploring someone else’s book of choice, and I have discovered many great books that way, but there were just so many things working against “Seveneves” that made reading it such an ordeal.

First the info dumping. It’s not that it was hard to read on a technical level — I build things so I like learning how things work, but I think the level of info dumping in this book was largely self-indulgence on the author’s part. I think the story would have been more solid if Stephenson didn’t spend so much time describing thingamajigs the reader would only encounter once in the story and aren’t really crucial to the plot. Detail is always good for world-building, but if it gets in the way of telling the story, the trade-off just isn’t worth it. Even more frustrating is the way Stephenson manages to describe a mechanism in excruciating detail, but glosses over other important topics — the life sciences, for instance — going straight to the results without really explaining how things work. I am no biologist, but even I can see the gaps in the preparations (really, no back-ups for the specialists? And such a limited skill set among them, too) and the way things panned out for the human race (and the ridiculous connections between the survivors 5,000 years later).

The imbalance carries on in the characterization. It is so frustrating that in a novel of considerable length, the characters are too one-dimensional. The characters are introduced, the author gives a few paragraphs back story as well as a laundry list of qualities they’re supposed to have. The world as they know it is about to end, leaving behind family and friends to (for all intents and purposes) die in the aftermath. But they go about their tasks, unaffected by things, in a way that isn’t at all consistent with human nature (I’ve already suspended my disbelief at the fact that the world powers all got together to build the Cloud Ark). Given that it’s a disaster situation, and maybe partly because we only get the points of view of those in command (although it really wasn’t a life and death situation for any of them until the middle part of the novel), but I didn’t get the sense that they were affected by more than a passing thought about the loss of humanity, or unduly troubled by any of the moral dilemmas that their situation would present. I find it disturbing that there is no one character to connect to, no one to root for, and no sense of triumph or fulfillment at the end of it all.

I also think the book is missing one crucial element from the sci-fi I enjoy reading: posing the difficult questions on the existence of humanity, human nature, and the survival of the human race. I mean obviously it’s buried in there somewhere underneath all those info dumps, but Stephenson doesn’t really bring these topics in dialogue and I feel like it was such a missed opportunity. In fact, in our little support group (haha, consisting of my cousin and me, wherein we expressed all our frustrations with this novel), we spent a lot of time discussing how much we’d love to see another writer take this premise and write this story a different way.


And the third part of the novel, the 300-page epilogue before the actual (and quite pointless) epilogue was such a pain to read. A new set of characters are introduced, Stephenson backfills the events of the last five millennia and the evolution of civilization but doesn’t even begin to adequately explain the survival of the Rootstock. I would have probably lived with just the first two parts and a few pages of the 5,000 years later. It gave me the sense that Stephenson already had this conclusion in mind and he backfilled everything to get to this point.

It might be argued that this is a book written for a certain type of reader (e.g. a sci-fi reader, a Stephenson reader), or it’s one of those books that you either like or you don’t. But I think a good story is a good story (and it will find a reader regardless of the genre it falls under or who it’s written for),  and ultimately, I find that it’s the storytelling in “Seveneves” that fails me.

FFP aggregate rating for Seveneves: 3.39… (or thereabouts)


Seveneves, 2/5 stars


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