Saturday, June 20, 2015

Seveneves: a very short review

Neal Stephenson doesn't write a large number of novels, but the novels that he does write are large.

Seveneves is such a Stephenson novel: it is 900 pages full of history, astronomy, biology, politics, robotics, psychology, philosophy, technology, romance, warfare, feminist studies, chemistry, space travel, evolutionary biology, escapades, ecology, extra-terrestrials, and more.

And Stephenson wants to talk about everything, so the book is full of topical subjects. There are discussions of Fukushima and of Facebook, there is an Elon Musk character and a Hillary Clinton character, and on and on.

Stephenson is so erudite, and has so many ideas about so many subjects, and so much imagination, that his book can barely contain it all. It is over-stuffed, with bits and pieces dribbling out everwhere.

It is encyclopedic.

There is even a real Encyclopedia Britannica in the book, and a character who spends her (young adult) life reading the encyclopedia.

Now, if you've ever actually sat down and read an encyclopedia, you know that it's not a lot of fun. Sometimes you find yourself reading a bunch of stuff that you're not terribly interested in.

Reading Seveneves is like that. A co-worker and I joked that, when you find yourself hitting one of those patches, you should just swipe "next page" on your Kindle twice, and resume reading a few pages later.

(Though actually, I didn't do that, I powered through every page.)

And Stephenson often seems to be almost deliberately encyclopedic, reaching over backwards for some sort of strange combination of balance and political correctness. You can almost hear him thinking out loud to himself: "let's make this next character an Eastern European woman who is an athlete and a lesbian. Then, let's see, I'll need to counteract that with a Chinese scientist who is an expert in nuclear science."

And to make sure we know he's an equal opportunity writer, Stephenson frequently reaches out and slaps us in the face with it:

"No," Luisa said. "Let's be clear, Markus, I have baggage too. I'm a brown Spanish speaker from South America. I devoted years of my life to hanging out with refugees on boats. And I'm a Jew. That's my baggage, okay"?

In his "Author's Notes", at the end of Seveneves, Stephenson observes that it took him nearly ten years to write the book. Obviously he had a lot to say, and in his ten years of labor he covered a lot of ground. But if we try to peel back the layers and layers of words and detect the individual themes, I think we might find something like this:

  • What would it be like for humans to live in space, not a few humans for a few days or months, but thousands and thousands of humans living in space for decades and centuries?
  • What would happen if humans tried to actively control and accelerate the course of evolution, using not just selective breeding but more aggressive techniques such as genetic engineering?
  • How can we get people thinking about big-picture questions, things that affect not just individuals but all people, and over time periods that span hundreds or thousands of years?

Clearly, these are some big questions, and I think Stephenson would be the first to admit that he isn't trying to answer these questions, just trying to actively explore them.

Obviously, the "life in space" theme is what people come to Stephenson to read: "hard" science fiction, realistic speculation about what lies ahead. And Seveneves is jam-packed with this material: page after page after page of discussion of vehicles, gear, propulsion, materials, techniques. If you want to spend some time (a LOT of time, actually) thinking about how you might accomodate different docking systems, or transition between orbits, or how the L1, L2, and L3 points are relevant to your trajectory and burn planning, Stephenson has you covered.

In spades.

For me, the most interesting part of this material was the discussion of robotics. Stephenson has obviously spent a HUGE amount of time thinking about how robotics will play out in giving humans a home in space, and the detailed descriptions of different types of robots, different ways to use robots, and different ways of living as a result of robots was fascinating.

On the other hand, the "life in space" aspects of Seveneves will be immediately (and justifiably) compared to this year's hit phenomenon, The Martian, and I'm sad to say that Seveneves comes up wanting.

It's not for lack of trying, it's something more basic. Stephenson's material just isn't fun, like The Martian is.

Rather, you get rubbish like this:

For now, her attention was captured by the giant machines in which the view was framed. Surrounding her, and just visible in her peripheral vision, was another of those ubiquitous tori, spinning around to provide simulated gravity for the staff who lived here with their families, looking after the tether and the elevator terminal. Inward of that were the sixteen orifices where the tether's primary cables were routed into the frame of the Eye. Each of those cables, though it looked solid from a distance, was actually made of sixteen more cables, and so on and so forth down to a few fractal iterations. All of these ran parallel between the Eye and Cradle. Webbing them together was a network of smaller diagonal tendons, arranged so that if one cable broke, neighboring ones would take the force until a robot could be sent out to repair it. Cables broke all the time, because they'd been hit by bolides or simply because they had "aged out," and so if you squinted your eyes and looked closely enough at the tether, you could see that it was alive with robots. Some of these were the size of buildings, and clambered up and down the largest cables simply to act as mother ships for swarms of smaller robots that would actually effect the repairs.

There's not the same thrill, the same pace, the same adrenaline.

And, really, there should be, because Stephenson's story is just as exciting, plot-wise; he just doesn't manage to carry it off like Andy Weir does. Which, I think, is more a matter of praising Weir than condemning Stephenson; I think it will be a while before another book as strong as The Martian comes along.

Meanwhile, the part of Seveneves which I found simultaneously most disturbing and yet most intriguing, is the substantial amount of time Stephenson spends exploring evolution and human biology.

Stephenson dances around the topic for a while, backing into it with a discussion of how dogs, wolves, and coyotes vary, and yet are really the same, and then discussing black-footed ferrets.

Later, after taking many hundreds of pages to demonstrate, at times quite vividly, just how messed up humans are, just how many flaws we have, and just how horribly those flaws lead us to perform the most terrible actions, Stephenson finally declares that it is, in effect, a bug (as we software engineers would term it):

When that trait ran out of control and sought dark paths it led to depression, paranoia, and other forms of mental illness. The challenge then was to find a way of combining that trait with a more positive mentality. Julia's research -- and she did a lot of research -- therefore tended to center on the history of sages, seers, ecstatics, shamans, artists, depressives, and paranoiacs throughout history, and the extent to which those traits could be localized to specific base pairs in their genomes and fostered by acculteration.

A bug? Well, let's fix it!

"Correction" was the name given to the phase that had begun after the first round of Gestations, when Eve Moira had fixed errors that had led to several nonviable infants. In a sense, Correction went on continuously all through the first round of Gestations and began to taper off as the daughters of the Eves began to produce second-generation children. It faded into a next stage, Stabilization, which lasted through the following ten generations or so as Y chromosomes were patched up, lingering genetic mistakes were fixed, and members of different Strains began to interbreed to produce hybrids within their own racial groups.


Selective mating had the power to wreak impressive changes over time, without any artificial meddling. In some cases, though, racial isolates had acquired genetic labs of their own. These had been used for many purposes, usally considered benign. In some cases, they had been used for Enhancement, which meant deliberate genetic manipulation for the purpose of rendering racial characteristics more pronounced -- the artifical acceleration of what was happening "naturally" in the way of Caricaturization.


their Eve had spawned not just one race but a "race of races," a mosaic, as proof that her children could do all that those of the other Eves could, and more.


I mean, really, what the heck?

As you can see, this is some pretty bizarre stuff, and I really don't know what Stephenson is driving at with it. At times it seems to be a cautionary horror story, sort of a modern version of H. G. Wells's tale of the Eloi and the Morlocks.

At other times it appears to be an engineer's fantasy, in which those annoying politicians and managers stop running the show, and the engineers are free to retire to their labs and fix all the bugs in humanity. There's a lot of interest nowadays in the notion of the "Lifehacker," and Stephenson seems to be exploring just how far that idea could go.

Which, in my reading, isn't very far, and isn't very successful, though I'm not sure Stephenson would be pleased to hear me say that; I think he has (much) higher hopes for this than I do.

Regarding Stephenson's third theme, which is that of taking "the long view," it's clear that Stephenson has been deeply affected by the well-known Long Now Foundation, and if you're familiar with their work, you'll know how this aspect of Seveneves plays out. Here, Stephenson is sober, cautionary, and, I'm sorry, dull as dishwater.

Some of this is the inevitable consequence of feeling like you're being lectured by the dentist to floss more regularly, but I think some of it can be charged to the uneven pacing of Stephenson's story line. Stephenson will sometimes spend a hundred pages describing the passage of 3 days' time, then in the next hundred pages he'll cover 3 months' time, or 3 years' time, or even 3 centuries. It's not easy to try to tell a story that consumes five thousand years, but the feeling of fits and starts seems, in my opinion, to make it even harder.

Not that I think this is really possible. Writers like Michener have tried, but I think it's just an insuperable problem. You can be epic, but can you really be this epic?

There is, of course, one well-known book which covers something around 5,000 years of history, and it's regularly read and taught in Christian churches around the world. And certainly there are plenty of allusions to the Bible in Seveneves, starting with the seven Eves of the title, and continuing with the core of the story's plot: human beings are raised up into the sky, and live beyond the death of people down on the Earth's surface, surviving in a Noah's Ark of sorts until the time comes for (seven) Eve(s) to repopulate the world from the Garden of Eden.

But I can't follow that line of thought very far, and I'm not sure Stephenson wants me to, either. There is room for many professions and many skills in his future world, but there isn't a cleric in sight. When he wanders closest to the subject, this is the result:

It was a meditative piece, a secular eulogy for those who had fallen, but in retrospect it seemed to mark an inflection point in the survivors' thinking. The Swarm had always had a sort of quasi-divine status to some, who had perhaps read too much chaos theory too superficially and were prone to believing that its collective decisions, lying beyond human understanding, partook of the supernatural.

The mishmash of techno-mystical ideation that had grown out of that one blog post was unreadable and incomprehensible to Luisa or to anyone else who read it after the fact, with a clear mind, but it seemed to have offered hope and comfort to many terrified young people trapped in arklets.

So if Stephenson isn't interested much in religion in his history of the extra-terrestrial future, what replaces it?

The result seems to be rather deadening, in my view; it's a highly technocratic triumvirate of engineering, politics, and warfare. Stephenson seems to be saying that, many centuries in the future, certains things will still be true:

  1. We'll be always be tool-builders
  2. We'll always be divided by differences of opinion, causing us to form groups and hierarchies
  3. And we'll always find things to fight over
  4. So let's get going building robots and practicing our genetic engineering skills!

There's a lot to read in Seveneves, and a lot of it is fairly interesting.

But in the software world, it's not uncommon to find a software project which has been worked on for many years, which is big and powerful and complex and filled with all sorts of ideas, each developed more or less thoroughly, and yet, when you consider the result, it isn't really worth keeping or using.

In the software world, we call those "failed projects," and we don't release them (hopefully), and we start over.

No comments:

Post a Comment