Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

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The moon explodes, breaking into seven large pieces and several smaller ones. It will continue breaking up until earth gains a ring like Saturn. However, in the meantime, bits of rock will rain down on the Earth for thousands of years, making the surface uninhabitable. Humanity can only survive by going into space or perhaps going underground.

Humanity has a couple of years to prepare. With the resources of the entire Earth, they’re able to get a lot done. They build as many rockets as they can and send as many people as they can into space, along with frozen sperm and eggs. They upload all human knowledge, including creative works and the DNA sequences of all plants and animals. In order to repopulate humanity quickly, they’ll need to send mostly women. Not only are women necessary for giving birth, but they are also smaller on average, so they take up less room and use less resources. Women are also better emotionally equipped to living in cramped quarters.

Our main character is Dinah MacQuarie, who was on board the International Space Station mining an asteroid using robots when the moon explodes. She communicates with her dad on the surface using Morse code which is a fun detail.

Doc DuBois is a Neal-DeGrass-Tyson-type scientist and science communicator. He realizes what’s coming before everybody else and has the job of sounding the alarm as well as keeping people from panicking. There’s also a character called Camila, who is obviously based on the real life Malala Yousafzai.

But does the plan of sending everyone into space really stand a chance? Space is a harsh place to live with radiation, micro meteorites, and lack of gravity causing bone loss and other health problems. The psychological toll of living in a confined space with lots of other people is also a hazard. Fuel is needed to keep the space station in orbit and that will run out eventually. A lot of supplies can only be made on Earth. Won’t those in space just be condemned to a much slower death than those who remain below on Earth?

I like that the author considers the logistics of things like adding more living space to the ISS. It feels scientifically accurate throughout and features believable near future technology. The author explains scientific concepts in an easy to understand way. There’s a lot of info dumps, which are sometimes interesting, but do get boring after a while. The best one sentence summary of this novel is it consists of long boring explanations punctuated by occasional moments of excitement.

As Earth burns, those still alive feel some survivor’s guilt, but because the disaster is so big, they can only really think of it in abstract terms. Except for people you personally know, it’s hard to feel bad about billions of deaths.

At Camila’s suggestion that aggression be genetically weeded out of future humans, Dinah gets upset and threatens everybody with a bomb. This is the first aggressive thing we’ve seen her do and it’s not a very good argument for keeping humans aggressive. She could have explained that it can sometimes be a good thing using examples, instead of turning into a drama queen.

Her definition of aggression is fairly vague. She cites examples where aggression helped her succeed, but I think most people would call this being assertive, not aggressive. She also accuses Camila of being passive aggressive, but psychologists today no longer use that term as it’s a misleading way to describe conflict-avoidant behavior. By defining “aggressive” as being synonymous with both “assertive” and “conflict avoidant”, the word loses meaning. Dinah claims being aggressive makes someone a hero who does what needs to be done, giving us another definition of the word. Aggressiveness is also equated with competitiveness later in the book.

Most dictionaries define aggression as hostile or violent behavior, readiness to attack, and attacking without provocation. (It can also be defined as assertiveness, but this is obviously not the definition Camila is using when she suggests doing away with it.) One of the themes of the book is that aggression is a good thing, but I think it fails to make its case. Throughout the book, we’re shown that violent behavior is a bad thing. If the only way to make aggression sound like a desirable trait is to keep changing its definition, you’re playing a shell game.

The humans agree to weed out physical disabilities, but not necessarily mental disabilities. One of the characters makes the argument that being bipolar can be a good thing because being depressed conserves energy, and being manic helps when it’s time to spring into action. Another character says depression makes her a good leader because she’s always worrying about worse case scenarios. (This sounds more like an anxiety disorder to me, but whatever.)

If there were any physically disabled characters present for the conversation, it may have went differently. For example, there’s an ongoing debate amongst the deaf community whether deafness should be cured or not since many deaf people don’t consider themselves to be disabled.

When one character says future humans should be made more intelligent, another character points out that there are different kinds of intelligence. The first character dismisses this, though, saying something like “Sure, emotional intelligence is a thing, but you know what I mean.” Memory, attention, reasoning, etc. are all associated with intelligence, but one of these things doesn’t entail another. If someone has a good memory, but poor reasoning, it doesn’t make sense to call them either smart or dumb since they’re both. Intelligence isn’t specific enough a term to be useful, but maybe they’re going to genetically engineer people to score high in all intelligence categories?

We don’t learn the reason for the title until over 500 pages in when there’s a sudden leap 5,000 years into the future. At this point in time, everyone is descended from one of seven women, the Seven Eves. While it remains hard science fiction, it gets a bit more speculative at this point. There are less info dumps, so it’s more interesting then the preamble. I like the detail that bullets in the future are tiny robots usually programmed to injure rather than to kill.

It’s disappointing that rather than going for genetic diversity, the Seven Eves each create their own race which largely don’t mingle with the others. How could this be sustainable for 5,000 years? Especially since they’re living in close quarters for most of it. All seven groups remaining racially pure for 5,000 years just isn’t possible. (There is mention of interbreeding, but apparently it’s rare enough that the seven races largely remain distinct from each other 5,000 years later.)

Why are people 5,000 years in the future still holding a grudge about what their ancestors did? What kind of feud lasts more than a few generations? And why would decisions made 5,000 years ago remain intact that long? Wouldn’t their descendants want to make their own mark on history by doing genetic engineering of their own? 5,000 years of genetic stasis doesn’t make any sense. The author explains that culture creates a kind of inertia, preventing change and leaving everybody set in their ways, but no culture remains static that long. I just don’t buy it.

We get introduced to several interesting characters towards the end of the book. I would have liked to see more of them, but the novel ends abruptly. The conflict between Red and Blue and how the Diggers and Pingers fit in is left unresolved. And we never learn why the moon suddenly blew up.

After patiently reading through so many info dumps, I was expecting a bigger payoff. There’s a lot of cool ideas in here, but character and plot are often forced to take a back seat to detailed explanations. Which is too bad because there are a lot of great characters.

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