Friday, July 10, 2015

A perspective on Seveneves

I'll write my own review of Neal Stephenson's Seveneves soon, and it will have very little in common with this one:
As my co-reviewer discusses elsewhere: on page one the moon blows up for no reason, and Earth is doomed. All life on the surface will be dead within a year. There’s barely any hope – the only conceivable path forward is, basically, to start launching rockets as fast as we can, and that won’t be fast enough to put more than a few hundred people with minimal survival infrastructure into orbit. It’s a rough situation, but I’m sure we can trust that Humanity will all come together as one in the face of this disaster and put aside our petty ahahahaha.

This story more than any other features a direct, explicit conflict between characters espousing pro-freedom/democracy/egalitarian principles and others defending order/security/hierarchy/meritocracy. Two teams shall enter a nightmarish swarm of tiny orbital habitats, one shall leave. So where does the literary simulation lead us?

The authoritarians consist of scientists, engineers and ex-military. They’re the guys who you would want in charge of a risky space mission. Note that Red Team don’t identify as authoritarians, they just want to accomplish the mission – a dangerous rendezvous with the fragmented core of the moon – and they think doing it right is more important than achieving consensus. Humanity is at stake, after all.

The collectivists consist of everybody else who was shot into orbit for various other reasons. Their plight is understandable. They mostly lack the technical skills to contribute to the mission, but that doesn’t stop them from having opinions on what needs to be done. Many of them don’t agree with the lunar rendezvous plan, for example, yet that mission requires that all available resources be devoted to it. Would you like to be dragged along on a dangerous Moon mission when you would prefer to try burning for Mars instead? Don’t you want a vote?

So naturally the two ideologies can’t cooperate. The collectivists retreat into a scattered swarm of tiny habitats, the authoritarians take the retrofitted International Space Station up to the lunar redoubt.

Both teams do pretty badly at the task of survival. The odds are stacked against them. The collectivists fly off in one direction and the authoritarians fly off in another and when they meet again, neither group is really too far behind the other in terms of body count.
It's interesting that in light of the reviewer's statement that Stephenson's "most interesting and subversive contributions lie in his sociological and political thinking" that he completely leaves the book's very strong socio-sexual elements out of this review.

I have to admit, I have seldom been more interested in interviewing an author, simply because I cannot tell if Stephenson is writing with a straight face, or, as I strongly suspect, taking the piss out of Pink SF. I mean, if I wrote exactly the same novel, word for word, there would be no question of the latter.



Blogger Ron Winkleheimer July 10, 2015 12:22 PM  

I don't understand the phrase " taking the piss out of Pink SF." Is that like "pissing on Pink SF?"

Blogger Ron Winkleheimer July 10, 2015 12:22 PM  

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Blogger Agnosiac July 10, 2015 12:28 PM  


I was trying to draw out a fairly specific thread from Stephenson's novels while keeping the article at a readable length. I could have drawn from the Baroque Cycle, REAMDE and even the Big U, but I felt that sticking to the trifecta of Snow Crash, The Diamond Age and Seveneves with a coda mentioning Anathem was the most concise approach that still communicated what I wanted to communicate.

Obviously Stephenson has a lot to say about gender. I could write an even longer essay about his recurring use of Athena/Artemis archetypes. That's just not what this essay was aimed at.

Anonymous Steve July 10, 2015 12:29 PM  

Ron - Pissing on something is easy. Anybody can do that.

Taking this piss, also known as extracting the Michael, is an art form. It requires wit and cruelty.

Anonymous Jack Amok July 10, 2015 12:31 PM  

From the Wikipedia summary, it sounds more like the backstory for a MMORPG than a novel unto itself. Welcome to Seveneves, please choose your character's race...

Anonymous Holmwood July 10, 2015 12:32 PM  

@Ron "taking the piss" is a Britishism. To mock.

@Vox John Derbyshire liked it. Of course the author of "We are Doomed" might be expected to like an apocalyptic SF tale.

Not usually moved by reviews, but Vox's views and those of others make me interested in this (thankfully) HarperCollins book. On my reading list after I finish Somewither.

Blogger Agnosiac July 10, 2015 12:38 PM  

God I hate blogger. Anyway, if it wasn't clear, I'm the above poster, I forgot to sign it, I wrote the linked article.

Anonymous Steve July 10, 2015 12:43 PM  

Huh. I've never read Stephenson before (I mainly read Golden Age stuff and military sci fi), but Agnosiac's review makes his books sound fascinating.

Anonymous Dave July 10, 2015 1:02 PM  


Start with Snow Crash. That will give you an appreciation for Stephenson's storytelling talent. If Seveneves is really a mockery of pink sf is the story any good? So far I'm not getting that ompression

Anonymous Crispy July 10, 2015 1:05 PM  

Just happened to finish Seveneves last night. There's definitely much more than the authoritarian vs collectivist element. Poe's law is definitely in effect here. One of the heroes is a clone of Neil deGrasse Tyson, and another is a clone of Malala Yousafzai. I looked for others, but those two were obvious.

Anonymous Sensei July 10, 2015 1:08 PM  

*Spoiler Warning*

The collectivists fly off in one direction and the authoritarians fly off in another and when they meet again, neither group is really too far behind the other in terms of body count.

That, of course, sort of blurs over the distinction that this is partly because the collectivists ended up devouring each other and upon meeting again attempt to eat the authoritarians too.

Blogger luagha July 10, 2015 1:11 PM  

I think it has to be a mockery.

In a disaster story, the 'villian' is the environment and the Conflict is Man vs. Nature. You would think that this is a disaster story, but over and over, it is not. The conflict returns to Man vs. Man and we (specifically certain types of people) are our own worst enemies.

Now, conflicts between characters in figuring out what to do are also big parts of disaster stories, but in the question of degree, in Seveneves, the disaster is us, not the moon breakup.

I did feel that the choice of giving a certain character a Down's Syndrome baby was so clumsy and direct as to be distracting, but hey. Any authorial tool in the bag, and it might suck in the liberal audience.

I had read an advertisement for the book before it came out indicating that in the end of the book we would have the different races of man be elves and dwarves and trolls and True Men and Wizards, and that that would connect with a lot of other statements that Stephenson had alluded to in the past, but it didn't quite work out that way directly. Maybe in the sequel.

Blogger Magson July 10, 2015 1:11 PM  

Plot sounds a bit like Jack McDevitt's "Moonfall" from 17 years ago, though his focused more on "lets get the folks on the space station home" rather than dealing with 2 factions like this.

Anonymous KBT July 10, 2015 1:30 PM  

"Plot sounds a bit like Jack McDevitt's "Moonfall" from 17 years ago"

The world in which the Cowboy Bebop anime takes place suffered an explosion of a hyperspace gate that blew a chunk out of the moon. The Earth-Moon system becomes littered with rocks and debris, and daily weather reports on Earth include a probability of meteor impacts for a given area.

Fortunately, humanity had already colonized much of the solar system.

Anonymous NZT July 10, 2015 1:34 PM  

Stephenson's strength was always inventing compelling "what-if" sci-fi scenarios: the Metaverse from Snow Crash, the nanotech from Diamond Age, the "concent" system from Anathem, etc. all were very imaginative and interesting hooks to build stories around.

His biggest weakness by far has always been characterizations. In his early books his characters were basically cartoons ("Hiro Protagonist"), and more recently his attempts to have more grounded and plausible characters has led to flops like the utterly forgettable Raz from Anathem.

Worst of all are his female characters. All of his books have women who are basically flawless and superhuman, usually with formidable athletic, combat, and STEM skills (i.e. they are high-performing male nerds or jocks in female bodies): YT from Snow Crash, Eliza from the Baroque books, America Shaftoe from Cryptonomicon, Zula from Reamde (this world-class hacker black chick was the least plausible element in any of Stephenson's books, and a painfully obvious sop to the political correctness crowd). Not a single one of them comes anywhere close to resembling an actual human woman. It sounds like Seveneves is chock full of these types, and I think I'm going to make the first Stephenson book I don't read.

Anonymous Randy M July 10, 2015 1:56 PM  

I've been trying to go through Quicksilver, but after a good percentage in (1/3rd or so? Not sure, it's on kindle) I still can't really find any plot. There's some interesting bits, but reading it has been a chore.

Am I alone in this? Does it get better, or should I maybe go to Snow Crash or something else instead?

Anonymous Richard Brookes July 10, 2015 1:57 PM  

NZT's account is accurate, and Agnosias's account is accurate too.

Stephenson's Buffyesque characters are what make his killing attacks on egalitarianism and popular sovereignty possible in the 21st century social environment. They are an adaptation, in the evolutionary sense. Whether their presence is a deliberate strategy on Stephenson's part, or merely a flaw in his worldview, doesn't ultimately make the slightest difference.

Blogger VFM bot #188 July 10, 2015 2:12 PM  

...this is partly because the collectivists ended up devouring each other and upon meeting again attempt to eat the authoritarians too.

Literally? As in cannibals? (If so, typical collectivists....)

Anonymous BGS July 10, 2015 2:13 PM  


"Lois Lerner and several other IRS officials “met with the section chief and other attorneys from the Department of Justice Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section, and one representative from the FBI, to discuss recent attention to the political activity of exempt organizations.” Those discussions focused on “several possible theories to bring criminal charges” against these conservative groups.

This level of collusion between the IRS, FBI, and DOJ at the time conservative groups were being targeted for their political beliefs by Lerner’s division of the IRS is suspect to say the least. However, it is exacerbated by the fact that Lerner and the DOJ continued these conversations for years. Nearly three years later, in fact two days before Lerner issued her faux “apology” for targeting conservatives, Lerner wrote an email to the Chief of Staff for the acting Commissioner of the IRS explaining ongoing discussions with senior DOJ officials to “piece together false statement cases about applicants.”

Blogger Cataline Sergius July 10, 2015 2:19 PM  

Do I buy the damn thing or not?

Anonymous BGS July 10, 2015 2:25 PM  

Welcome to Seveneves, please choose your character's race...

Do I want to be able to run fast and resist malaria without YT's meds or do I want 30+ more average IQ points?

neither group is really too far behind the other in terms of body count.

The smart competent people only do as well as the idiots great message there.

Anonymous shawn July 10, 2015 2:31 PM  

RM, I don't if you're alone, but I can say with certainty that I'm not with you. My first encounter with stephenson was the result of my mother finding System of the World in a 'discount' pile at shopco, and buying it for me for less thabn $7. My expectations were low since I hadn't heard of him at the time. Turns out I couldn't put the book down. What a treat.

I think I've read all of his novels since. Though I thought some were better than others, I enjoyed them all. And I'm looking forward to this latest one, as well. If there was one word I would use to describe him, it would be 'clever and extremely entertaining'... oh wait

CS, buy it already.

Anonymous Jourdan July 10, 2015 2:32 PM  

Sounds like an interesting storyline.

I'd bet on Morgan Industries or the Spartans over Gaia's Daughters or the Human Hive, but that's just from experience......

Blogger Marissa July 10, 2015 2:40 PM  

Does YT stand for Yours Truly?

Also, I noticed a Stephenson tweet about a term he made up, "Fake Internet Moral Panic. He also retweeted something about the improper use of the term binary by bloggers with humanities degrees. This can be applied to a certain group of people.

Anonymous BGS July 10, 2015 2:49 PM  

YT= whitey to get past Soros's paid internet army that searches for key words.

Blogger MidKnight (#138) July 10, 2015 2:50 PM  


Start with Snow Crash. That will give you an appreciation for Stephenson's storytelling talent. If Seveneves is really a mockery of pink sf is the story any good? So far I'm not getting that ompression

I'll have to tentatively second that, as the enxt two approachable ones are "REAMDE" and the Cryptonomicon in roughly that order. As much as I love Anathem, the combination of Math, Scinece, Philosophy, the slow introduction of the story make it a hard starter novel. No, he didn't start too early, but it certainly takes time to get to what's really going on and why teh events at teh beginning actually were important.

That said, unlike his later work, Snow Crash suffers a bit from "too clever wordplay for its own good" (And I want Reason....) - as in the naming of the lead character.

Blogger Marissa July 10, 2015 2:58 PM  

Ah, thanks BGS. I wasn't sounding it out.

Blogger aut0062matthew July 10, 2015 3:12 PM  

In this context, "YT" could be confused with the self-given name of a character in Snow Crash, a 15 year old girl.

Blogger Mindstorm July 10, 2015 3:53 PM  

Interesting storylines practically write themselves up. I guess you might like this one:
As usual, leaders of non-player factions are a bloodthirsty and backstabbing bunch there as well.

Blogger Marissa July 10, 2015 4:33 PM  

In this context, "YT" could be confused with the self-given name of a character in Snow Crash, a 15 year old girl.

Good point. Also makes me think not many Pinks have read this book or they'd be outraged at a certain scene involving her and an older male character. Or maybe they're okay with it because of what transpires in a, uh, very short time. (Trying not to give anything away here.)

Blogger murphaticlaw July 10, 2015 4:43 PM  

No the conflict is between those who believe politics defines reality and those who don't.

Which is why the disgraced SJW female president who only gets to the station by breaking the law believes she can stick her lying, surveillance wielding, trouble making ass into a decision she has no right to have an opinion on (because she doesn't understand the underlying reality).

If it weren't for Hillary, I mean Julia stirring up trouble in her quest to gain power she has no legal or moral right to, the situation wouldn't have been fubared all over the place when the environment started degrading the situation

If you like Stephenson I'd give it a shot, although I would have liked the book a heck of a lot more if the 1st half had been shrunk maybe 50% and that room had been devoted to the 2nd half.

Superhuman? Basically Flawless? Really?

None of his women even meet the criteria for a Heinlein level of super duperness, the closest to your description, Princess Nell has power thrust upon her, instead of seeking it out herself. Nor are here combat skills presented as flawless.

Don't make the mistake of thinking women are worthless just because worthless feminists hold themselves up as the pinnacle of femininity.

I really think you are projecting your own version SJW style thinking here, attributing values to characters, not because they are there, but because a SJW would want them to be.

AT 21

BGS, I read it more as a warning that if you don't get the idiots under control they'll mess everything up.

AT 24
Marissa, yes it does

And nobody's mentioned Zodiac yet, or Cobweb or Interface. Although to be fair he co-wrote the last 2. I enjoyed Zodiac and Cobweb at least as much as Snow Crash or the Diamond Age.

Blogger Eraser July 10, 2015 5:20 PM  

The story of Seveneves is interesting, apart from the implausible doomsday scenario (the seven pieces of the moon would just fall back together due to gravity). The style is typical Neal Stephenson: very detailed and imaginative world-building (Neal's imagination is fantastic), with lots of background info on science and technology delivered along with the story.

You'll enjoy the book if you don't mind the highest concentration of empowered women that has ever been crammed into a space station. Even the tough Russian astronaut / martial arts expert who does the most dangerous construction jobs around the station is a woman. In the end there is a storyline reason for all those women.

Blogger Jack Ward July 10, 2015 9:28 PM  

Finished Seveneves a week or two ago. I enjoyed Stephensons world building and detail. The science of moon breakup was believeable. Yes, there were a lot of womens here and there though the plot did seem to require that. Now, whether it was worth almost $17 dollars for an ebook I'm only renting from Amazon is another question. Something like Anathem, Reamde, Cryptomocron, yeah the money would be well spent. The final answer to the above question will be revealed in the obvious [to me] sequel[s] that will happen the next few years. NS may have something up his sleeve we don't expect. To spend that kind of money on a rent for use book [if via amazon] will be a stretch. I might give him one more try at those prices, but only one more.

Blogger John Wright July 12, 2015 12:10 AM  

Did the reviewer explain how a meritocracy (a system based on individual merit, i.e. each man has the place he earns) can possibly be the same as an authoritarian system (a system based on subordinating the individual to the authority, .i.e., each man has the place he is assigned) can possibly be one and the same? Or is this just more Newspeak bafflegab?

Anonymous Steve Johnson July 14, 2015 12:15 AM  

John Wright -

You have the position you earn on individual merit and you obey orders from those who have more individual merit. You don't vote on it.

Not much of a contradiction there.

Story-wise when the ISS was a few scientists it had a perfectly capable leader. She understood the technical challenges that her subordinates were dealing with and was capable of dealing with the bureaucracy. When the situation changed and ISS became a lifeboat for the remains of humanity she was ill-suited to lead that group and someone else took over running it - and did a very good job - until he was out of the picture. Then the original person took over again and made a bunch of disastrous decisions. The original leader earned the first position and was thrust into the second one. Both were authoritarian systems and both were individualistic as well. That character earned the first role and performed well as a leader - not so much for the second role. Meritocracy (and a light touch of losing the mandate of heaven due to bad outcomes highlighting bad rule).

Blogger automattthew July 14, 2015 2:28 AM  

The point at which I yelled at the book was when Awesome Nord Girl and Awesome Oriental Girl did not summarily execute Pseudo Hilary Clinton. That's also when I realized the level of shenanigans Stephenson was up to.

He's on our side.

Anonymous Steve Johnson July 14, 2015 3:09 PM  

automattthew -

Celt not Nord.

... and the event showed exactly why Oriental Girl was a terrible leader for large groups when Germanic man wasn't - she specifically gave a speech that if she drew the right conclusions should have lead to her executing Julia.

Also, Julia isn't psudo-Hillary Clinton - she's Selina Myer lifted straight from Veep. Hillary doesn't seek power - only graft and isn't even competent at politics.

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Blogger X June 26, 2016 2:14 AM  

Stephenson knows way too much about history and classics to ever be an SJW.

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