The science fiction of my youth incorporated a healthy sense of awe. The dawning sense that our knowledge only scrapes the toast, the universe-expanding Grand ideas, the mysterious aliens that we can barely even look at, let alone understand. The Big concepts that expanded my head like a balloon. I’m not going to say that’s gone now, but it’s definitely de-emphasized, especially in the short-fiction world. I won’t name names, but many science fiction short story venues seem to have different criteria these days. The emphasis seems to be on emotional tugging, tear-jerking and melancholy mood pieces. In a few of those venues, I read stories in which the speculative component is so slight as to be completely gone, slipstream to the point that the story is indistinguishable from contemporary fiction.
Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves slams the reader with the Big Concept like a runaway Viking probe. In this case, the Big Concept is the very survival of the human race, and the incredible extent to which it morphs and adapts itself to live through a catastrophe. It is a study in what the species will do to survive. It is not a view into what an individual will do to keep going, as we have plenty of books like that--this is the species as a whole rising up to ensure it lasts into the next centuries.
I loved it. Yet I didn’t. Neal Stephenson is very good at what he does, but he is so enamored with the technology that we get pages and pages of descriptions of how things work. It is absolutely meticulously researched, and if you like lots of details about life in space, this is your book. I do like that, and I’m very into the science and technology aspect, but even I have my limits. At some point I need to get back to the characters and plot. Now don’t get me wrong, Seveneves has plenty of great characters, and a rip-roaring plot. The characters are very well-sketched, and the plot is sufficiently complex to keep you turning the pages. But those plot points are separated by lots of very fine details.
So what’s my summary? Ultiimately I have to give Seveneves 4 stars, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. In terms of the Big Idea, it’s a 10 stars out of 5. What brings it down is the author’s devolution into the details, only about half of which are really necessary (in my opinion). Ultimately I think this is an important book for any science fiction fan, and highly recommend it. Just be prepared for a writing style that tells you everything you wanted to know about living in space, and probably a lot more than you wanted.
Hopefully I managed this review without giving any spoilers. See you next time!