Seveneves: a review

Seveneves Neal Stephenson, Eligible in Best Novel Category

In one of the many bits of reactionary writing that I’ve encountered while exploring the far-right reaches of SF/F related blogdom, one claim in particular has been stuck in my head recently. I can’t recall the exact words or who exactly said it but it went something like this: why is racism the one idea that science fiction isn’t allowed to discuss? The question is disingenuous because racism is a common topic in science fiction both in overt discussions of prejudice or inequitable social grouping but also in the sense of a ‘what-if’ – i.e. what if there were being who were clearly people but who were fundamentally (and inherently) a different kind of people to us (for some value of ‘us’) and these people sort of looked different but also fundamentally were different to us cognitively and in terms of personality. This notion is so common place that often we don’t even notice how prevalent it is. In Star Trek it appears in terms of Klingons, Vulcans, Romulans and Ferengi. In Lord of the Rings (and every clone of Middle Earth) it appears as men, dwarfs, elves and hobbits. In a sense, this ‘what-if’ question about racism plays out in every SF story about sentient alien species and in every fantasy novel in which there is some other kind of people or thinking creature than humans. Far from being the one idea that SF doesn’t address, ‘racism’ is arguably the idea that is so repeated throughout (both intentionally and unintentionally) as being almost central to both science fiction and fantasy.

Now arguably, what we don’t see is the what-if question applied to humans (although I’m sure people can think of many examples both good and bad). In other words what if humanity actually had proper races – distinct kinds of humans with inherited physical traits that allowed you to tell the race of one person from another and also distinct emotional and cognitive traits, that meant that certain races were just better suited to some tasks or positions in society than others. This is an idea at least as old as Plato’s Republic and in modern times fully examined by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

This idea of a society in which the basic tenets of racism are true is also a theme explored in the final third of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. It may seem odd to review the last third of a book first but Seveneves is an unusual novel. Essentially two separate novels, the first two thirds are a two-part story set in the near future…

…The final third is set thousand of years later and presents a complex, technologically advanced society. Because of events in the first two-thirds of the book, this society consists of people all descended from exactly seven women (the seven Eves of the title). These women had to make use of genetic engineering to not only produce children but also to ensure that humanity was not destroyed by inbreeding. Each of the Eves also made decisions about which traits (both physical and mental) they would select for in their quasi-cloned offspring. Additionally, while this effort to save humanity was collaborative it was a collaboration forced upon them by circumstance ( I’m dodging around spoilers for the first two-thirds of the book).

The Seven Eves are as follows:
Eve Ivy – Ivyns – leaders
Eve Dinah – Dinans – innovators and mavericks
Eve Moira – Moirans – epigenetically adaptable people, who can readapt their phenotype to change environmental conditions
Eve Tekla -Teklans – physically strong and decisive often police or military
Eve Camila – Camites – people adapted to get along with other humans particularly in confined spaces. Particularly adapt to serving in cramped orbital habitats.
Eve Julia – Julians – people with a tendency to paranoia and worst-case scenario thinking. Mystics, religious leaders, politicians and intelligence service officers
Eve Aida – Aidans – a group with its own sub-races intended to counter the skills and adaptations of the other other groups. Aidans include groups like Neoanders – people with reactivated neanderthal DNA for improved bone strength and physical strength intended as a group that could fight Teklans.

These multiple races live in orbital habitats surrounding Earth and are in the process of re-terraforming the planet after an astronomical disaster. Additionally this orbital society had effectively split into two nations who are in a state of cold war. Blue society consists primarily of Ivians, Dinans, Moirans, and Teklans with some Julians and Camites. Red society is dominated by Aidans but also with some Julians and Camites.

The world building for this complex society is substantial and the underlying history and mythology lies with the first two-thirds of the book. The plot is a mystery/adventure as a group consisting of one from each of the major racial groups explore a mystery on the surface of New Earth.

Stephenson makes this future society sound workable and comprehensible. He also points out the obvious – as the underlying pressures and circumstances that led to the creation of separate races has eased, increasingly the more open Blue society has become more multi-racial and less specialized. The metropolitan Blue sections of the orbital world are places with many people of mixed racial backgrounds  and even those  people of more ‘pure’ racial heritage have diversified in terms of social roles and power structures. Rather than create a racial dystopia or utopia, Stephenson has instead presented a world in which race was just a thing that happened and which humanity will probably grow out of again. However, in doing so he neatly examines not our current attitudes towards race but rather the sorting-hat style or planet of rubber-forehead style of segmenting humanity that is used as a backdrop to much science-fiction and fantasy.

So that is one of the two books that makes up Seveneves. The other is both another book altogether (utterly unlike the second in style or themes) but also the necessary first part that builds the world of the second book incrementally.

The first (two-part) book of Seveneves is a story of disaster, survival and orbital engineering. In the first sentence of the book the moon explodes and sets in chain a series of events on Earth and in orbit. At the time of the disaster the International Space Station has a multinational crew led by Ivy Xiao. Also on board is an expert on robotics Dinah MacQuarie. These two women form the core of a broad set of characters that include astrophysicist and science communicator Doctor ‘Doob’ Dubois and other scientists, astronauts, cosmonauts and engineers. Many of the characters have parallels with real people (Such as an Elon Musk like character, a Neil deGrasse-Tyson like character, a Malala Yousafzai like character). Inevitably there is a high death toll among these characters as humanity desperately attempts to build an ark in space for humanity to survive inside once the moon debris eventually causes an apocalyptic ‘hard rain’ scenario, which will result in multiple impacts on earth of moon fragments and the superheating of the atmosphere destroying all life.

During the course of the story we meet each of the eves. Ivy and Dinah are first. Julia Bliss Flaherty (aka JBF) is the President of the United States. Moira is a geneticist sent into orbit to manage the genetic seed bank that will be used to repopulate humanity. Tekla is a cosmonaut, who is daringly rescued by Dinah. Camila is a young volunteer ‘Arkie’ – teenagers sent into orbit in the hope of preserving humanities ‘heritage’. Aida we meet last – another Arkie who is introduced as the second third of the book reaches its climax.

As with most of Stephenson’s novels, this is a dense book in which he displays the extent to which he has done his homework while letting his imagination fly. The scale of the book is incredible and the world building…it is almost like he took the term ‘world building’ literally and adopted a Slartibartfast approach to it. The book mixes technological speculation and social satire (a social media star eats his own legs and inadvertently creates a cultural taboo about social media in the future society as a consequence) along with a seat-of-your-pants engineering plot that is reminiscent of The Martian. Couple that with a far future plot (including a scarf wearing character called “Doctor Hu”) and technology-indistinguishable-from-magic and you get a novel that attempts to do so many things that it really shouldn’t work – and may not work for many people. You may well bounce off it like a returning atomic/steam powered jury-rigged spacecraft carrying a comet fragment might bounce off a burning atmosphere or you may last the distance. Either way it is quite a journey.

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