Monday, June 08, 2015


I just realized I never mentioned/bragged that I got to see Neal Stephenson in person again! This is the third time I’ve been lucky enough to attend one of his book events. The seveneves reading was held at Public Works, a cool location on the northern fringes of the Mission District that's kind of a combination of art gallery and performance space. It was PACKED - we got there about 45 minutes before it was scheduled to start to find a lengthy line outside and a crush of people inside. We eventually found a spot on the second floor with a semi-obstructed view down to the stage below.

I’ve always enjoyed seeing Neal - he doesn’t seem like a naturally gregarious person, but has a kind of poised intellect and dry sense of humor that’s very compelling. This time around, he gave some very brief remarks introducing the book. One that sticks out in my mind was a quote that he said he’d heard from Bruce Sterling, something like “A thriller is a science-fiction novel that includes the President of the United States.” By that standard, he was comfortable describing seveneves as a thriller, and launched into reading a passage featuring the titular President along with an assortment of other characters in full-on crisis mode.

There was a lengthy question-and-answer period afterwards. I really should have written this earlier so it was fresher in my mind, but here are some of them, to the best of my recollection.

Q: Is Enoch Root in this book?

A: That would be a spoiler. Stephenson finds the biblical Enoch interesting because he’s from an era when there were so few people on Earth that you could keep track of when each individual person was born and died; and Enoch is the one person for whom we have a birth date but no death date.

Q: Will you write another book set in the multiverse of Anathem?

A: Maybe. Neal thinks that his [he visibly cringes here at his own words] most efficient value-add is in creating new settings. It takes him a long time to write each book, and he feels like that time is best served by coming up with wholly original books. But whenever he finished a novel, he does feel like there’s more left to do there. If he ever runs out of ideas for new books, he’ll enjoy going back and revisiting some old ones.

Q: Is Jesus a time-traveling alien?

A: Anything is possible in the Multiverse.

Q: Is the <something from one book> related to the <something from another book>? (There were a couple of variations on this from multiple questioners.)

A: No. [After additional variations are asked:] He’s noticed a trend where people are looking for connections between his books, like they’re some kind of puzzle to solve. He doesn’t really work that way. Every time he starts work on a new novel, it’s like he starts building a new car. He works on it for a while, then starts driving it, as far and as fast as he possibly can, until he crashes it. Then he walks away from the flames and starts looking for a new car to build.

I was kind of dreading the signing line, but our sub-optimal mezzanine location ended up translating to a decent spot in the queue, and we got through in a good ten minutes or so. This was a less intimate experience than the one at the Swedish American Hall, but still a positive one, and Neal was very gracious.

Now, on to the book itself!

This should come as no surprise, but I enjoyed it. I don’t think I’ve ever disliked a solo-penned Stephenson book, so that wasn’t much in doubt; the more interesting question for me tends not to be “Will I like this book?” so much as “What the heck kind of book will this be?” I studiously eschewed all spoilers, so that was a fairly open question for me by the time I started reading it.

It isn’t directly comparable to any of his earlier books; it does have some of the fast-paced structure of REAMDE, but broken up with more typical scientific tangents. If I had to pick one to compare it to, I’d probably say The Diamond Age: the narrative is closely connected to learning about various scientific and technical principles, but in this case there’s a more propulsive central threat driving the plot forwards.

As is often the case for Stephenson, the plot itself is cool, but the ideas he spins out in the course of developing it are the real stars of the show. I don’t feel like recapping the story, but many of those themes are spread throughout the whole course of the novel, so let’s jump ahead and do some


First, a somewhat random observation: gender is really important in this book. There’s much more female representation than one would necessarily expect, and more than in Neal’s other books. Ivy and Dinah are our only eyes in space for a long time, and the strongest through-line of continuity in the novel. They are, in some respects, typical Stephenson heroines: smart, resourceful, and brave, probably in that order.

In some ways what was more interesting, though, were the women who were NOT heroes. Specifically, President Julia is almost inarguably the biggest villain of the first 2/3 of the novel, and Aida becomes a sort of evil matriarch whose shadow darkens the final third. On the one hand, I tend to be happy when women are portrayed in a positive light: making wise decisions and saving the day. On the other hand, though, I wonder if there might be a different, kind of softly insidious bias in doing so relentlessly: representing female characters as ONLY good and talented, while male characters may be either heroes or villains.

It’s a challenging knot to untangle, because you wouldn’t want to revive old gendered stereotypes about villainous women: the black widow, the femme fatale, the dragon lady. Thinking back over Stephenson’s earlier books, I can’t think of another novel where the clear, sole adversary was a woman, so this is fairly new territory for him, and he acquits himself well. Julia is hateful, but in a believable and complex way: there are reasons for her actions, which are not blamed on her gender. She’s just as capable of dooming the human race as any man would be. I was reminded in some ways of Meredith Stannard from Dragon Age 2, another rare example of a female villain who also manages to be a compelling and loathsome adversary while being a believable human being.

The nature of her villainy is an interesting one, which is kind of alluded to in a light-hearted manner during that early meeting in the White House, and draws into sharper and sharper focus after the Earth is destroyed. As in basically all Stephenson novels, the protagonists are engineers, scientists, and crafters: the “doers” who actually accomplish tasks, who build things, who solve problems. The first third of the book is almost exclusively focused on them, in a sort of “man versus nature” narrative, as they draw upon on their ingenuity to try and surmount the seemingly impossible threat facing them.

We get the first solid indications of problems once Tav is launched into orbit. There’s a surprisingly pointed critique here of internet “social media” culture: Stephenson invents some fictional social platforms (such as “Spacebook”) that are obvious doppelgängers for Facebook, Twitter, and similar apps. People often see these things as annoyances or distractions, but Stephenson draws an even harsher picture: the ephemeral, low-friction nature of these platforms, which lends itself so well towards memes and bandwagoning and witch-hunts, is actively harmful, and ultimately dooms virtually all that remains of the human race.

The book presents a classic Stephenson opposition. On the one hand you have the “doers”, on the other hand the “talkers”. (This is subtly, but importantly, distinct from the Randian division between “creators” and “takers”.) Members of the GPop are doers, while the Arkies rapidly fall under the sway of the talkers. And the way in which this happens feels perfectly congruous with what often happens today: people are intensely interested in a subject, but have no means for directly affecting it, and so they endlessly discuss and argue and analyze and criticize it. Anyone who has seen a toxic fandom run amok on Tumblr or watched in horror as a seemingly rational person joined the ranks of a misogynistic mob will will quickly recognize the path down which the Arkies are traveling. People become obsessed with winning arguments and scoring points and gathering followers, and all of this noise eventually contributes to a shared hallucination that bears little resemblance to reality. Non-events become catalysts for incredibly harmful actions, good deeds are reinterpreted as gross insults, and the Arkie community eventually destroys the thing they claim to love. In the same way that some authors will insert fictional versions of hated critics into their works, it’s tempting to imagine that Stephenson is doing the same for the anonymous mob, but I think that he’s making an observation about a broader social sickness.

(And, yes, I’m well aware of the fact that me making a long-winded blog post about this book is pretty much Exhibit A in “talking about things instead of doing things”. It’s hard for me to ignore the fact that my posting frequency on this blog is inversely proportional to the amount of creative, productive work I’m doing in my life. Posts such as this amuse me, but really don’t contribute anything of value to the world.)

I think I was very much primed to respond to this section of the book, since it resonates with a lot of problems I’ve been mulling over for the past year. Mostly the stuff mentioned two paragraphs above: the ability to create tenuous and semi-anonymous connections with other people is a pretty impressive innovation in human history, but it seems to sap our capacity for empathy, and as a result there’s a shocking degree of hostility and abuse online which appears to be growing without abatement. We seem to live in a time when simple messages that align with your worldview are always more compelling than nuanced messages that question it, and the best way to gain influence is to produce a stream of those messages and channel them towards those of like minds. This leads to siloed thinking, echo chambers, battlegrounds where people on one side are convinced that they are right and pure and those on the other side must be eliminated.

But, any time my mind starts down that road, I realize that I’m sounding increasingly like a cranky old man, and start to question how new this all really is. You can imagine almost any criticism lodged against social media today to also have been raised at, say, the popularization of the novel. Just picture a solemn man with muttonchops shaking his head sadly. “Kids these days, with their books! Everyone is reading all by themselves, in solitude and isolation, losing the person-to-person contact that is necessary to form a healthy civic society. And people inevitably end up reading a few authors who reinforce their own prejudices, so they never become exposed to the range of opinions one would find out in the real world! Bah, humbug!” So, I dunno… the rise of electronic social media feels fundamentally different to me, but each generation probably feels that way about whatever new form of media arises in their lifetime.

Wow, that was a much longer tangent than anticipated. Returning to track:

In all the discussions about who to send into the GPop, and particularly when Julia makes her unexpected arrival, I was reminded of the “B” Ark encounter from Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe. It’s been decades since I read it, but if memory serves, a planet facing catastrophe decides to send out three space arks. The “A” ark contains everyone at the top of society: the artists, generals, leaders, philosophers. The “C” ark has the people who perform actual work: stonemasons, janitors, welders, soldiers. And the “B” ark is everyone in the middle, people of status who keep the wheels spinning but don’t contribute physical labor or intellectual creativity: stockbrokers, insurance salesmen, middle management. The eventual joke is that there’s no real catastrophe at all: the planet just came up with this plan to trick all of its useless population into leaving, so the rest of them could focus on what needed to be done without supporting dead weight.

Those arks don’t directly map onto Neal’s, but it’s still a pretty good approximation. The heroes are all part of the “A” and “C” ark. People like Tekla are solidly in the “C” camp, but most protagonists like Dinah actually straddle both sides: Dinah has the leadership and creativity of an “A”, but tinkers enough with physical objects to be considered a “C”. Julia and Tav, in contrast, are pure “B”s. They don’t have anything of value to contribute, and yet they are incapable of doing nothing, and so they begin to churn, ultimately causing problems and preventing the “A”s and “C”s from doing what needs to be done.

In many ways, this division reaches its apotheosis in the third section of the book. “Blue” is led by technocrats, and is primarily driven by practical decisions: what’s the greatest need, and what’s the most efficient way to satisfy that need. “Red” is led by politicians and media experts; we only see it from the outside, but it seems to be driven largely by emotion (vengeance, pride, greed), and works towards its goals through media savvy, messaging, and cunning. Blue outnumbers Red, but Red kicks Blue’s butt. You get the feeling that this is happening because Red is playing to win, while Blue is trying to achieve the best outcome. Again, the parallels to our present world (or, really, all of history) are easy and depressing to make. While one does have a general sense that the human race has generally trended towards greater altruism over time, it is incredibly difficult to remain altruistic while another powerful party is willing to take advantage of it.

Okay, I think I’m done with discussing whatever that is. On to the next topic:

In a lot of schlocky fantasy and sci-fi, authors create worlds full of cultures, where each culture is defined by one or two major characteristics, and virtually every member of that culture we see exhibits those characteristics. I think I first became aware of this when reading David Edding’s Belgariad: Drasnians are crafty, Nyissans are treacherous, Chereks are brave, Mimbrates are chivalrous, etc. And of course there are ample examples in science fiction, such as Star Trek: Vulcans are rational, Ferenghi are greedy, Romulons are sneaky, Klingons are hot-blooded, etc. And, of course, humans are somehow the only species that exhibits varied personalities, where you can’t assume how someone will act before meeting them.

I tend to really dislike these sorts of creations: at best it’s boring or reductive, at worst it can smack of racism or bigotry. But, I actually loved how this comes about in seveneves. It’s kind of an inversion of the normal approach: we aren’t seeing individuals being defined by their genetic heritage; instead, we see genetic heritages being defined by individuals. The Seven Eves have control over their reproductive choice, to a greater extent than anyone else in history, and shape their own progeny to meet the needs they see. So, later on, when we see Doc being a stereotypical Ivyan, it’s not because Neal is being a lazy writer and saying that all Ivyans are smart: it’s the result of the choices that Ivy, the character, made five thousand years ago.

And, even better, the characters in the book are all self-aware of the situation and reflect on it. Einstein is prickly partly because he knows that he’s being judged by the standards of other Ivyans. Beled and Kath Two fall into an easy intimate rapport based on their compatible ancestries, but are very aware that those ancestries are defining the roles they play. There’s even a bit of eye-rolling when the Julian proves her treachery: she’s damned for the act, but also for the fact that she’s reinforcing negative stereotypes and playing back into a narrative about how one can expect Julians to behave.

As a quick sidebar: I was a bit surprised to see that, in the future, Dinans are the leaders while Ivyans are the intellectuals. Based on their namesake characters, I would have expected it to be the other way around: Ivy was the commander of ISS at Zero, and the commander of Endurance during the Big Ride. We know from her background that she’s intelligent, but not much of that is on display during the book, and tends to be portrayed more in her handling of people and situations. Dinah, on the other hand, never has any direct reports under her, and is mostly defined by the advances she makes in robotics research and development.

But, the more I think about it, maybe this does serve to emphasize the triumph of deliberate genetic engineering and intentional acculturation, over simpler ideas of natural inheritance of traits. After all, the Eves didn’t just say, “Make more of me forever!” They individually decided what traits were most important to them - often in secret - and worked with Moira to ensure that those traits were passed on to their children. That’s much more interesting than “Ned was an honorable man, and so all of his descendants were honorable as well.”

And, finally, some random thoughts:

There are just a handful of illustrations in this book, which are superbly done. One thing that's missing and would have been very helpful would have been a scale representation of where the various celestial bodies are in relation to one another: the Earth, the ISS, Amalthea, Probst's comet, and the moon. Much of the book is taken up with discussing the "Big Ride" and the amount of propellant that will be necessary to achieve it, but while I was reading it wasn't all that clear to me why Earth didn't just launch its people directly into the moon's orbit. I had a sense that it must be because the moon was much further away; this is the sort of thing that people like Neal who have actually worked with space explorers would immediately know, but civilians like me have a hard time visualizing.

Anyways, after finishing the book I eventually did some Googling and finally found a good scale diagram of where various objects are in orbit. I really wish now that I had looked this up while reading the book, because it makes the immensity of their task so much clearer.

(Click that image to make it big.)
Now: I would need to re-read the beginning to figure out exactly where the ISS is in the novel, but presumably it's in its present-day orbit, about 200 miles above the Earth. This is the same orbit into which all of the Arks are launched. This does make sense since, for the last several decades, all of our manned missions have been confined to launches in this orbit, so we wouldn't have the capacity to send up manned missions to much higher altitudes in the very short timespan allotted in the book.

In contrast, the moon is [checks Google] 240,000 miles away from Earth. Wow! That means that the ISS is .08% (not 8%) of the way from Earth to the Moon. That's really astonishing; both in terms of the task that the characters in this book need to accomplish and, in the real world, it makes me retroactively even more impressed at the success of the Apollo missions. And retroactively sad that our species' capacity for spaceflight has apparently declined so swiftly over the past four decades.

Neal continues to demonstrate his fantastic skill at coming up with wonderful character names. My favorite name in this book is definitely Sonar Taxlaw. Sonar also continues a grand Stephenson tradition of characters who are introduced very late in the book but end up becoming surprisingly compelling, along the lines of Olivia Halifax-Lin or Jules Verne Durand. We don’t get to spent a whole lot of time with her, but she’s pretty fascinating, both in her own right and as a window into Digger society, particularly its quasi-religious approach to societal roles while also recognizing the characteristics of someone “on the spectrum”. There's a great line like "Sonar happily recited some facts, which was her favored technique for interacting with other people," which is something that I can certainly relate to.

One persistent criticism of Stephenson’s books is their abrupt or lackluster endings. I actually think that his last few books have all had nicely satisfying endings: The Baroque Cycle, Anathem, and REAMDE all wound down their main plots gracefully and gave a good amount of closure to their characters, while leaving their worlds open for future exploration. seveneves isn’t quite as tidy; you could easily imagine another five hundred pages being spent to wrap up the Red-Blue conflict. Of course, this isn’t the worst criticism one can imagine: coming to the end of a nearly thousand-page-long book and wanting it to keep on going says a lot for the quality of that book.


Okay! So, uh, I really liked this book. I was going to throw together a snap-in-time list of my favorite Stephenson books, but I’m finding it impossible to compare them (how does one judge the relative merits of Anathem and REAMDE?), so I’ll just say that seveneves is another great book. It isn’t as difficult to read as Anathem and The Baroque Cycle could be, but also has more engaging ideas at play than REAMDE or Zodiac, and is a good all-around example of Stephenson’s capabilities.

Also! I wanted to point out this fantastic interview between two of my favorite authors, Neal Stephenson and David Mitchell. They do get into some plot points of seveneves, so you might want to hold off on the interview if you're avoiding spoilers for the book. It's a lot of fun to see them interact, connecting in some ways and not connecting in others. I hadn't really thought of it before, but Neal and David are in some ways mirror images of one another, in that they both combine elements of genre fiction with literary qualities. But, David Mitchell is more firmly on the "literature" side of the spectrum, while Neal is more on the "popular" side. This interview also gets at another interesting distinction. One of the things I most admire about Mitchell is his keen moral compass; he's unusually willing to delve into questions of morality in his books. Stephenson, as the interview makes clear, takes a more detached view: he doesn't deny the existence of good or evil, but also views it as a kind of fundamental and permanent aspect of the human condition, to be recognized rather than struggled against. I get the sense that David writes, to some extent, because he hopes to help increase empathy and altruism in the world. Neal writes, to some extent, because he's interested in studying how humans work.

Okay! These scattered thoughts are now done. Good book.


  1. I just finished reading the book, and I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it. I guess I have some mixed feelings about Seveneves. I liked it for the same reasons you outlined, but I thought it could have been better. The characters did not seem as fully fleshed out as they could have been, and it was a lot darker and less humorous than previous Stephenson books that I've read, though I guess it's hard to be otherwise given the subject matter.

    One thing that I really liked that you didn't mention was the whole notion of the Epic, and how even the most minor actions of the space arkers were dissected by the descendents of the Eves. I really enjoyed the last 3rd of the book, and I wish Stephenson could have split it out into a separate book so we could learn more about the societies of the Reds, Diggers, and Pingers and how all the human races end up dealing with each other. It kind of felt like Neal was teasing us with a vague, mystical Purpose, but then left it to our own imaginations. But since he'd been working on this story for almost a decade, I can see why he wanted to "walk away from the flames and start looking for a new car to build."

  2. Oh, that's a great point! Yeah, the Epic was a really interesting idea. I was particularly struck by how limited in temporal scope it was: the idea that the founding mothers had ubiquitous surveillance that monitored their every stray comment, and then over centuries those devices broke and the record grew thin, until finally civilization's technological progress caught back up to the point where they could start taking selfies again. It's a bit reminiscent of how periods like the Roman Empire were relatively well-documented in history, then followed by Dark Ages of which we have comparatively few records. Anyways, it was an interesting counterpoint to the prevalent narrative today that "We record every trivial moment of our lives and nobody will ever care about it" - that's probably true, but if we somehow do become interesting, future scholars will have a ridiculous amount of material to research about us. (I hope none of them ever have to wade through this blog!)

    And yeah, totally agreed on the Purpose - there's some heavy mystery he implies around the Agent in the first couple of pages, then it totally disappears for virtually the entire book, before popping back up again in the last few pages.