Review by Sam Sheikh
By Neal Stephenson
Once in a rare lunar event comes writing of exceptional quality. It’s as if, Ozymandias-like, the author says, “Look on my words, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Seveneves is such a work. Covering the survival and homecoming of mankind over millennia in a little under 900 pages, it is the very definition of an epic tale.
One day, for reasons unknown, Earth’s moon suddenly fractures into seven pieces. The initial panic on Earth dissipates once day-to-day life resumes without noticeable change. The pieces of the former moon continue to orbit and exert gravitational forces, albeit reduced. But a week later two lunar chunks collide, creating an eighth. As Dr. Dubois Harris, a Neil deGrasse Tyson analog, warns at a meeting with the president of the United States, “We need to stop asking ourselves what happened and start talking about what is going to happen.”
The incidence of collisions and fractures increases exponentially. As a result, scientists predict in two years’ time that the number of fragments will increase to the trillions, creating a phenomenon nicknamed White Rain. Two days after that begins the Hard Rain, when meteorites will obliterate the surface of Earth and turn ithe sky into a dome of fire. How long will the Hard Rain last? Five to ten thousand years.
Stunned into slowly coalescing but determined action, the world decides that taking to space is mankind’s best option for survival. The International Space Station, a.k.a. Izzy, is to be the core of a new Ark. The first waves of pioneer astronauts are sent to expand Izzy’s infrastructure just as the crew begins to prepare for its new mission.
Back on Earth, differences emerge between scientists who advocate competing strategies for how the human race will survive in space. Simultaneously, a selection process begins to determine who will represent mankind’s finest—a process fraught with political and cultural considerations. Meanwhile, a billionaire entrepreneur side-steps the bureaucracy and infighting to zero in on a critical shortage the experts have overlooked.
Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum—and finds life in space. And like the seven virtues and deadly sins, seven genetic alterations eventually come to define the human race.
Seveneves combines an epic vision, copious amounts of hard science, and intriguingly plausible political dimensions with a fast-paced, exciting drama covering humanity’s survival after a cataclysm. It makes Homer’s Odyssey seem like an idle float down a murmuring creek on a carefree summer day. There is plenty of action, but little melodrama. Like worker bees, many characters come and go, often accomplishing heroic deeds for the species but dying alone and unsung. The protagonist is not any individual but the entire human race.
The staggering scope and ambition of Seveneves is commensurate with the talents of Mr. Stephenson, an accomplished and award-winning author. Even the title, a clever palindrome, reflects the author’s attention to every part of his work. He writes with the authority and sureness of a historian but with the training of a scientist as well. As a result, Seveneves reads like an exciting, absorbing chronicle of humanity’s survival rather than mere science fiction.
It is, quite simply, superb.