Seveneves – More Than Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast (with spoilers)

Warning. Ranting and raving (as well as ALL the spoilers) ahead.

I’ve decided to take my brand-new Hugo nominating capacity seriously, and so I read Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, to see if it qualifies – the first time I have read this author.

The beginning was fantastic. The moon’s disaster, the ticking clock on humanity, the perspective of the shamelessly transparent Neil Degrasse Tyson Clone – all set up so perfectly that I was happy to skim over the infodumps about space design, architecture and robots (my brain’s just not set up for those details – I was perfectly okay taking on faith the author’s reassurance that it all worked without going deeply into the how of it).

Oddly, I first felt a qualm due to an extremely minor detail – the part where Doob the NDTC guy and his new wife make an embryo for transportation to the ISS so their posterity can survive. They make this embryo by having sex, and then taking the embryo out of her body and freezing it. Now, I get that the world of this novel’s at least 20-30 years more advanced than ours. But we already have the capacity to make embryos for freezing and storage for future use. We make them in labs. We currently do not have the capacity to hunt down embryos conceived through sex, to scuba-dive into the Fallopian tubes to find a near microscopic cluster of cells and scoop it up in a net like a minnow, or to dig it undamaged out of the uterine lining when it’s already implanted. That capacity adds an extra complex and unnecessary step to the process of getting an embryo, based solely on a sentimental attachment to conceiving an embryo naturally. It’s interesting that this future world developed this unnecessary capacity, and that even a scientist like the NDTC goes along with it. Why, though? Did this future world develop this weird technique due to anti-abortion pressures forcing the invention of a way to ‘rescue’ an unwanted embryo instead of killing it? Does the NDTC have a revulsion against test-tube baby conceptions despite being a scientist? The author shows no interest in exploring these questions. This disengagement with the question of how human psychology interacts with the intimate intervention of future technology in their lives was only mildly distracting to me at the time, but it turned out to be a harbinger of future problems.

After a few other bumps (only ONE family on Earth is going to try tunneling to survive the catastrophe underground?) my falling-out with this novel really began at the moment of the Hard Rain on Earth, and the mutiny of the Swarm. This event required everyone left alive to act like complete idiots. Not just President Julia, the Hillary Rodham Clinton clone (with shades of Sarah Palin), and her frightened puppets; the Designated Good Guy scientist heroes of the plot as well. (I thought at first this was supposed to be an effect of their collective bereavement, but after reading tons of infodump about the desperate technological marvels the Good Guy scientists were accomplishing in that time, I decided they have no excuse. They were willfully being idiots.)

The way things go pear-shaped seems unlikely to me. Designated Bad Guy Julia escapes from Earth. She as president was supposed to have vowed to stay at her post to the end – a vow that all world leaders kept except her. She broke that vow and fled to the ISS after having ordered a nuclear attack the Designated Good Guys seem to believe was unnecessary. When she arrives, they disgustedly consign her to the Arks, where she swiftly gathers hundreds of willing followers. This is the part that seems utterly unbelievable. All those bereaved survivors left family behind who are dead. This woman broke her solemn promise and came up to save her own life after leaving her husband and daughter dead behind her, as well as ordering a nuclear attack that a large proportion of the survivors would have disapproved of. She stole the place of a person who COULD have survived the apocalypse – a person that could have been a friend or family of the other survivors. In my opinion, the Ark population would have wanted to string her up by the thumbs, not become her adoring acolytes. I could not believe in the level of charisma required for her to overcome that initial hostility. (That charisma certainly wasn’t conveyed in the depiction of the character).

But once confronted with the fact that Julia HAS that supernatural charisma, the Designated Good Guy characters – do nothing about it. Doob the NDTC sees the danger of her and her followers acting on their ill-informed fears, but he heroically and resolutely rams his head up his ass about it. He prissily refuses to speak personally to her and her followers, even though the only reason he’s ON the ISS at all is to serve as a liaison between the scientists and the non-scientists, to inform the second group and allay their fears (do your freakin’ job, man). Julia and her followers are a danger to ALL. By all means, talk to them, inject some reason into their fears, make Julia feel important and included if that’s what’s required to avert the immediate crisis. Hell, study her Charisma Superpower with SCIENCE!, learn to weaponize it in gaseous form, and use it to turn angry riots into orgies – it certainly seems strong enough. But Doob makes no effort to negotiate, and the crisis spirals into a disaster.

Earlier, the scientists mock the government for ‘refusing to negotiate with terrorists’ despite having no good reason not to at that point. But they end up doing precisely the same thing. Doob asks a perfunctory question about whether Julia is taking advantage of real grievances among the Ark population or whether she is inventing grievances to get more followers. Another ISS member brushes this off as unimportant. “Who cares? She’s making trouble!” The question is never brought up again. But when I look at the fact that almost half of the Arks do not follow Julia but stay faithfully with the ISS scientists throughout – and of all those Ark people only ONE survives, who bought the scientists’ goodwill by a huge act of self-sacrifice – I do get the impression that Julia and her followers might have had a bit of a point in believing the ISS scientists had no interest in helping the Ark population survive. We don’t hear about them being taken into the safer ISS. The core scientist characters don’t even learn their names, much less care about them. And IMO, it seems to be implied in the novel that the Ark population has the same role as the human genetic samples sent up from Earth – that they are an unnecessary millstone slung around the Good Guy scientists’ neck for stupid sentimental reasons that the Good Guys are better off without. This may not be the intention of the author, but when he refuses to draw the Ark characters with any sort of depth as compared to his ISS scientist staff, one can’t help but feel he’s playing favorites.

The last straw for me was the epilogue of the first two-thirds of the book, with the splitting of the races. I’m no scientist, but as I understand it the evolution of races on earth occurred because populations relatively isolated from each other at great geographical distances gradually diverged genetically over great periods of time. The idea that these seven women and their immediate descendants – who are all living in a tiny space for hundreds of years – manage to keep their own separate bloodlines so pure as to eventually create and maintain seven separate racial identities in that tiny space stretches credulity (to put it mildly).

Imagining it requires that one accepts that all seven Eves collude to pass on their origin story to their descendants when those children were young enough and impressionable enough to be inculcated.

They end up carrying on their ancestors’ feud for millenia to come (a feud at least partially based on the petty offense Dinah takes at Camila for saying that breeding for excessive aggression would be a bad idea in the tiny confines of the lunar base. Dinah takes this as a shot at her heroic late boyfriend for scant reason, and apparently holds on to this grudge, Mean Girls-style, to the extent of closing ranks with her core group of friends and shutting out Camila to align with Aida the crazed killer or no one in her own lifetime, and posthumously perpetuating the grudge for five thousand years. Which…WTF, Dinah, Ivy, all of you? Seriously?)

The Eves choose to pursue these vendettas and to hand them down to their children to pursue, pretty much intact. They manage to teach their descendants to sedulously hold apart from each other and judge each other’s descendants by the standards of the Eves’ experience. They taught their children to swallow whole the message that Biology is Destiny, that you ARE the child or the grandchild or the great-grandchild of the Hero, or the Dutiful Commander, or the Con Artist, or the Murderer – and it matters. It matters SO much that those children were indoctrinated early enough to influence who they would be attracted to and who would be their choice of mates would be. So much so that their children and children’s children ended up mating almost exclusively with their own near-twins – thus figuratively and literally fucking themselves.

Thus the Seven Eves manage the feat of ending up with seven separate races within the tiny confines of the lunar base…seven separate races that each hold on to stereotypes and prejudices about the others and foist responsibility for their ancestors’ actions unfairly onto the descendants. So successful are the Eves in perpetuating their feud that their descendants maintain their prejudices intact for five thousand years, maintaining separate racial purity despite being crowded for centuries in one tiny space together.

To manage this seems to be such a superhuman feat of sociological genius that I simply can’t find it believable…and it’s done for a purpose of such willful malign stupidity that I can’t believe that a society so built could survive centuries of close confinement under perpetual hardship and danger on a lunar base…and when it does survive in the story I can’t get over the uncharitable feeling that it doesn’t deserve to. Which naturally ruined the last half of the story for me.

I think the failure, for me, has to do with author’s failure of imagination regarding his own characters. He doesn’t really empathize with anyone but his Designated Good Guys, and in the process seems to give the reader to understand that there are really some types of people the world would be better off without.

The author pays lip service to the idea that the qualities of people like Aida, Julia and even Camila are needed in humanity. But in the follow up, Julia and her descendant avatars accomplish nothing that the designated Good Guys of the story ever recognize as vitally useful, as far as I can tell, and seems to do much harm compared to very little (if any) good. Even non-villainous Camila seems to be given short shrift. Her most interesting moment comes when she advocates for breeding less aggression into the human race in the future. This suggestion is treated with contempt and fury by Dinah, and not followed by any of the others. One would think that Camila might realize that if her descendants were non-aggressive compared to the others who decide to breed for average or above-average aggressiveness, she will be dooming her children to be eternal victims of the rest of the human race’s subjugating natures, unless she does something clever like breed for enhanced sociability, sexuality and fertility to spread her desired non-aggressive genes around more effectively. Camila, we are told, is one of the most prolific of mothers. It would be expected that she would have an influence in the society of the future in proportion to her numbers.

But Stephenson depicts the only Cami descendant described in any detail as a nondescript nursemaid, with no visible gender, sexuality or personality beyond her desire to be the very best servant she could be. She is only seen through the eyes of a Dinah descendant who views her efficient servility with dismissive, thinly veiled contempt. Of course, this may be just the character’s attitude, unshared by the author. But the fact that the author never gives the Cami descendant an interesting thing to say or do, or give the character who most knows and depends on her a single enlightening thing to say about her before he kills them both off (and never shows another Cami character as anything but a cameo servile spear-carrier) shows that the author does seem to share his character’s dismissiveness.

The second half of the novel, with its revelation that segments of population survived the catastrophe underground and undersea, did a great deal to undermine the premise of the first half…it seems to basically say that the huge investment the Earth desperately made in space to ensure the survival of humanity was a huge miscalculation.  It’s a lot simpler to dig 10 or 15 miles of tunnel for 100 people than to boost a tiny ark for 5 people out of a gravity well. The pros of doing “tunnel” instead of “space” is literally: it ain’t rocket science (and thank God). If one eccentric billionaire could manage survival in a mine, you would think the combined resources of government scientists and money could do the same. (The author seems inordinately fond of his eccentric billionaires.) For a fraction of the cost in resources, all Izzy and the Arks’ labs and resources could have been duplicated on Earth in underground bunkers and accommodated many more survivors, for the simple reason that they would not have needed to expend insane effort and resources to build rockets and haul everything up in relatively tiny quantities into orbit.

And it seems to me this problem with the novel is based in the same disinterest in the human characters that disenchanted me with this book. The governmental Powers That Be in the book considered the whole Ark program as a boondoggle intended to soothe humanity with a pretty story of how some of their children would survive in space – all while believing it would never work and everyone in space and everywhere else was doomed. The trouble with that idea is that it requires ALL world leaders (except nasty Designated Villain Julia) to accept their own imminent death and those of their loved ones with Socratic philosophical resignation – and calmly do nothing to try to avoid doom for themselves or their children. Is this true to human nature? IMO, no.

Also, it doesn’t make sense that Julia (among those world leaders), having the preconception that Izzy is a goner, chooses to flee to that Doomed Superboondoggle in Space that TPTB think won’t survive. Here’s an idea – why didn’t Julia flee to the Sealab that Ivy’s naval boyfriend fled to? She undoubtedly knows about it – he’s in the Navy, and he answered to her orders to the end (including that nuclear strike). It’s pretty clearly an American military project. Going there would not require her to go through a space launch she hasn’t been trained for, or violate a Crater Lake accord. All she would have to do is order a submarine to take her aboard, as their Commander In Chief.

And another thing – okay, she didn’t go to Sealab. Maybe a launch vehicle was closer than a submarine. But having gone to Izzy – why didn’t she ever tell them about Sealab? Why did she take that secret to her lunar grave? With the sketchily incomplete way Julia’s character is drawn, the only conclusion I can come to is that she is a Designated Bad Guy who therefore does Bad Things. Having designated her as a Bad Guy, the author liberates himself from the need for those Bad Things to actually make any sense on Julia’s own terms. She’s not written as a complete human being with her own reasons for doing what she does – she’s just a stumbling-block for Stephenson to put in front of his heroes so they can heroically overcome her, and so he has no need to understand her any more than he feels his readers need to. But doing that makes her a cardboard villain, which is something the best writers usually try to avoid.

Another failure of characterization that impinges on SF plot: We’re supposed to believe that the master geneticist fixes her offspring so that with any big stress she will collapse for days, need total care, and lose resistance to infection? This is a good idea in a tiny lunar base when everyone is likely to be needed at a moment’s notice to work or deal with danger for the next several hundred years? And the advantage is that she’ll eventually wake up with a completely different personality to adapt to the stressor – regardless of whether the stressor is likely to repeat itself or not? And somehow THIS is a survival trait? Jeez.

Why this failure in a novel that begins so grippingly?

Thinking it over,  the answer lies in the author’s lengthy descriptions of robots and robot chains and whips and rotating flying Manhattans and diagrams of space tinkertoys (all of which I skimmed hastily past, mea culpa).  I think he was just too much in love with all his cool robots and comet-taming and orbiting superstructure thingies to look at them objectively. Seems to me that he made this technological fairyland and fell in love with it, and invented his Good Guys on the basis of imagining scientist characters who would think that fairyland was the Most Awesome Thing ever and bend every effort toward achieving it. His Bad Guys often seemed to be people who doubted the Good Guys’ mission based on crass considerations like, say, a desire for their mere uneducated survival.

It seems to me that Stephenson started out with his cool concepts – his post-Eve space civilization, his new races descended from those Eves (as he mentions here, http://www.oregonlive.com/books/index.ssf/2015/05/neal.html), but he gives relatively little thought how realistically imagined people could get from point A to point Z. Stephenson certainly lavished far more love and care on his descriptions of space technology than he did in drawing his human characters – ANY of his human characters, even his Good Guys. There ARE great SF novels that concentrate on mindbending concepts and plot at the expense of characterization (I think Asimov wrote nothing else during his fiction career). But mindbending concepts and plot fail when the characters assigned to carry them out are too thinly drawn and their motivations too farfetched for us to believe they are capable of accomplishing them, or to maintain our sympathy when they somehow accomplish them anyway by inhuman contortions because of authorial fiat. Which is why, to me, Seveneves doesn’t deserve a Hugo.

And yet – and yet. I consider this book a failure. I wouldn’t vote for a Hugo for it – but I haven’t forgotten it yet, even if it is just to be annoyed at it. The beginning was so powerful that I could have truly LOVED this book, but the many ways the execution fell short made my disappointment all the keener…hence the strength of my annoyance. Which has motivated me to look up some of the author’s earlier novels which may have succeeded better than this one did in its aims. This author has power – and his failure is more intriguing than some authors’ successes.

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4 thoughts on “Seveneves – More Than Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast (with spoilers)

  1. jaynsand Post author

    Greg Hullender

    Where do you get eight women? I only counted seven Eves.

    Oops, thanks, will fix that. Though there WERE eight women, but only seven Eves, since the geneticist was beyond reproductive age (which, come to think of it, is dumb, since even in our day and age postmenopausal women give birth with donor eggs and all the first generation of kids were clones anyway – there seems to be no reason why the geneticist couldn’t have gotten a donor egg from one of the other women and given birth to her own clone while using appropriate hormone therapy.)

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  2. jaynsand Post author

    I beg your pardon for my brain-fart; you are indeed, correct. (Even in the body of my article I spoke of the geneticist’s offspring, and yet confused her with the menopausal character in the comments.
    Still, whichever character it was, it seems silly to waste a serviceable womb just because the owner requires hormone replacement therapy to make it work.

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