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…

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