Since 2011, Neal Stephenson has been associated with Arizona State University's Center for Science and the Imagination, whose mission is to inspire endeavors on the level of the Apollo Moon Project through Science Fiction. Among the Center's first efforts are the collection Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future; to which Stephenson contributed a short story about a 20 kilometer high building entitled "Atmosphaera Incognita", and wrote the Preface (BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow also contributed a story, "The Man Who Sold the World").
In the Preface, Stephenson describes his sense of purpose for the project and science fiction in general: "SF inspires people to choose science and engineering as careers," and "Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternative reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place" (xiv). He further argues that "the imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale no longer seems like the childish preoccupation of a few nerds with slide rules. It's the only way for the human race to escape from its current predicament" (xv).
Stephenson's vision for SF is compelling, optimistic stuff. However, Stephenson's new novel, Seveneves, doesn't generate the kind of excitement for the future that we've come to expect from the author of Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and Anathem.
Seveneves is divided roughly in half, with the first half told in two sections, the second half in one long section. Like Anathem's section late in the book where the group of avout go into space and spend a long time getting ready to invade the alien spaceship, parts one and two of Seveneves are deeply technologically detailed.
It's not the technological details that are the problem — but to better understand the issue, let's turn to Melville as perhaps no other American writer before Stephenson offers works of equal technological and psychological complexity.
For his presentation of all things cetological, it's the humanity in Melville's Ahab, Starbuck, Queequeg, et al. that gives readers reason to invest themselves in the breadth and depth of Moby-Dick. While there is no lack of detail on how the International Space Station operates in Seveneves, Stephenson invests too little humanity in the characters living on it, dwelling instead on the working of the try-pots, with too little of the work detailing the characters going after the whale.
As he does in each of his novels, Stephenson opens Seveneves with an arresting image: "The Moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason." Within two years, life on the planet's surface will cease to exist. The ISS is retrofitted into a kind of Ark in a gripping vision of what humanity can accomplish under stress. As always, Stephenson's boundless imagination and ability to make complex technological issues understandable is well on display here. However, we do not see Stephenson's usual skill in creating interesting characters.
Among Seveneves' characters is a scientist clearly modeled after Neil deGrasse Tyson. Dubois "Doob" Jerome Xavier Harris has more than four million Twitter followers, appears on a popular television show, and is the first to realize that the Moon's break-up will lead to the extinction event he names the "Hard Rain."
Doob is a well realized and likable-enough character in the novel, and Stephenson uses him as an expository voice, but there isn't much emotional investment in Doob or any other character in the first half of the novel—each seems to be less realized as a unique character than a collection of traits. In a novel about the need to collect and preserve humanity's genetic diversity, this may not be entirely accidental. But while characters are given a great deal to do before the Hard Rain begins, few inspire much empathy or interest. They complete necessary roles in the various missions and are then pushed off the page.
Even the titular Eves are reduced to racial, national, and/or cultural stereotypes, a move reminiscent of the racial essentialism Stephenson occasionally falls back on—The Diamond Age's fanatical and voiceless "Mouse Army" being the worst example in his oeuvre to date.
Many readers love the ~3500 pages of Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle because of the dozens of memorable characters: Eliza; the Shaftoes, Waterhouses, Hacklhebers, and their diverse cabals; the enigmatic Enoch Root; and historical figures such as Gottfried Leibniz, Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Louis XIV, William of Orange, and Alan Turing fairly well jump off the page. As with Ahab and his crew, these are engaging, complex characters with competing, and often shifting desires, loyalties, and schemes. I found myself invested in their stories while being treated to Stephenson's customary deep digressions into all matters technological, historical, and/or masticate.
Melville gets away with three long chapters on the history of whaling and images of whales, both "erroneous and true," in "paint, teeth, wood, sheet-iron, stone, mountains, and stars" because elsewhere he delves so deeply into the complex psychology of our often consuming desires. Such explorations of human emotion are largely absent in Seveneves, even among those characters whose losses we know most about.
While the Waterhouse clan is shown to have deep predilections for math and science, Daniel, Lawrence, and Randy are not simply math geeks, nor are the Shaftoes solely cunning opportunists and/or soldiers. Each character has his or her morals, strengths, and weaknesses. Such detailing is too often limited or absent in Seveneves.
Although two of the seven Eves are well developed, in a story about the near-extinction of the human race, there are too few characters whose fates we are interested in. After the jump ahead 5000 years, even as more developed characters emerge, too often, these characters appear to exist solely to demonstrate racial tendencies engineered by the Eves after the Hard Rain rather than as unique individuals solving problems through their skills and intelligence.
Readers who appreciate Hard SF will likely enjoy Stephenson's exacting discussions of the coming praxis of robotics, asteroid mining, space propulsion systems, and the challenges presented to electrical, environmental, and mechanical engineering in orbit. A great deal of Seveneves describes how ISS trusses are connected and built on to each other, how the ISS vents excess heat, how human beings handle defecation in space, and similar technical issues.
I recommend Seveneves, as even a lesser work by this singular writer is worth reading, but I do not think it shows Stephenson at his finest. By no means a failure, Stephenson's latest falls short of his work before Reamde, and these last two novels may well represent a relative fallow period in this important contemporary SF voice.
Perhaps this is an unfair benchmark; the period from Snow Crash through to Anathem represents a massive achievement in SF. But by such standards, Seveneves is a good yarn but a lesser work than I had hoped for. There are suggestions in some statements Stephenson has made about the novel and in the epilogue that he will add to this world with further books in a series, in which case Seveneves seems like a very long prologue, and less than a strong, stand-alone novel.
Neal Stephenson wants us to dream big to solve intriguing and even terrifying predicaments, and perhaps no writer today engages readers' imaginations with such passion for the details of technology. Ultimately however, Seveneves offers us more about the rendering of whale fat than the drama of Ahab's frenzied quest and its impact on those aboard the Pequod.