Friday, December 04, 2015

SevenEves: 600 pages of info-dump leaves little room for plot

Neal Stephenson doesn’t shy away from big concepts, long timelines, or larger than life events. His most recent novel, SevenEves, begins with the moon blowing up. Readers never find out what blew up the moon, because all too quickly humanity discovers that the Earth will soon be bombarded by a thousand-year rain of meteorites — the remnants of the moon as they collide with each other in space, becoming smaller and smaller — which will turn Earth into an uninhabitable wasteland. Humankind has a 2-year deadline to preserve its cultural legacy and a breeding population. The solution is to make extended life-in-space a possibility. The first two thirds of the book follows a group of astronauts and scientists who are among those who will form the new colony orbiting Earth, waiting a few millennia for it to become habitable again. The last third shows us what has become of humanity after 5,000 years in space, as they begin their slow return to the surface of the planet.

From the first sentence of the book (“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason”), I thought this concept had brilliant potential to be both scientifically and emotionally compelling. But about 200 pages in, I realized that not much had happened yet … well, you know, other than the moon exploding. Further, I realized that I still didn’t really have a strong sense of the main characters. I flipped back through what I’d read and saw that for each single line of dialogue, there were about two dense paragraphs of exposition — essentially infodumping — usually geared towards explaining complex engineering or physics problems with which the human race was now faced.

Infodumping isn’t a dealbreaker for me, nor is a little educational material in my fiction. Some of my favorite facts come from fiction, such as the idea of a tesseract in A Wrinkle in Time, the curvature of space and time as explained in Michael Crichton‘s Sphere, the explanations of seventeenth-century trade and economics in Stephenson’s BAROQUE CYCLE, or literally anything about rabbits from Watership Down. But when I’m reading fiction, I also expect to equally enjoy other aspects of the prose, such as, for instance, character building, internal and external conflict, scenes, dialogue, or even just “events that are happening.”

The first 400 pages of SevenEves, on the other hand, functioned mostly as a lecture to the reader so that a) they could appreciate how hard the task of creating long-term self-sustaining space habitats is, and b) marvel at how Stephenson, a scientist himself with a background in computing, geography, and physics, had come up with workarounds for the problems inherent to the task. Part of me wanted to say, “Well, goody for you, Neal; you figured it out. Can we please get back to the task of creating a story now?”

One of the reasons I never connected to the characters is that Stephenson spreads himself too thinly by following a few different point-of-view characters, instead of one particular character. This strategy works for a lot of books, but in such an information-heavy novel, which already skimps on character development and scene-building, it would help to at least anchor the readers with one p.o.v. character. However, since SevenEves didn’t do that, I felt relegated to the surface of each of these character’s interior lives, instead of getting to know one of them more deeply. I wasn’t sure why Stephenson chose to follow the characters he did, either. One of them (a clear reference to Neil DeGrasse Tyson) didn’t contribute much of essence to the plot. While he was intelligent and relatively sympathetic, he ended up playing the role of a very highly-educated observer. His life and efforts neither helped nor hindered the plan for human survival. However, Julia, an appealingly Machiavellian former U.S. President who cheats and manipulates her way up to the space colony instead of dying on the surface, was not a p.o.v. character. I would have liked to hear her internal monologue, especially as she ended up playing a large role in the eventual outcome for humanity.

Around page 400, things really picked up and conflicts exploded — political, personal, practical — across the page. The second half of the book had a plot that I would even deign to describe as “rip-roaring.” As if the moon blowing up and destroying life on earth wasn’t enough, after a few years in space, the survival of the human race is put up against odds that are practically insurmountable. The last third of the book occurs 5,000 years in the future and we get to see how humanity has met those odds, succeeded, and (most thrillingly) evolved. And there are wonderful surprises waiting, too, that Stephenson has seeded into the plot from the beginning. The end of the book made me want to cry, not only because of feels (*sob* “Life really DOES find a way!” *sob*), but also because of the beautiful way in which Stephenson wove his ending together.

This does not, however, erase the fact that the beginning of the book also made me want to cry from frustration and anger that such a great idea had been squandered.

It pains me to say anything bad about Stephenson’s books. In addition to writing lots of books that I love, he wrote Anathem, my favorite book. And the ironic thing is that, for many readers, SevenEves may not feel that different from Anathem, which also has lots of infodumping, in this case regarding philosophy and theoretical physics. Much of Anathem consists of philosophical lectures in the form of dialogue between characters. But the concepts Stephenson expounded in those lectures ended up being thematically central to the plot of the book, whereas in SevenEves, I felt like it was too much engineering talk for a book that was not really about engineering.

Maybe I’m being condescending to the practical sciences here. Why can one book be “about” philosophy, and another one not be “about” engineering? Perhaps Stephenson, and other readers, might argue that the book isabout engineering: all of the human knowledge and ingenuity that is devoted to guaranteeing the survival of humanity. It’s for those readers that I’m loath to give SevenEves a low ranking. I believe that many people will love this book, perhaps with the level of fervor that I feel for Anathem. However, despite the impressive ending, I felt largely frustrated and let down by a sub-par execution of a fantastic story.

This review originally appeared on, where I gave the book 3.5 stars.

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