Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Not Even Heinlein: Is SEVENEVES the Worst Book of 2015?

In a year in which Chuck Tingle prolifically described various ways of getting pounded in the butt by implausible objects, it may be beyond the ability of any one human being to choose a worst book from the year 2015. Yet a strong case can be made for Neal Stephenson's Seveneves, which was without doubt the worst book published in 2015 that I have read to date.

Ordinarily I do not make time for bad books, and decide within the first few pages of a novel whether I should just return it to the library as something not to my taste. So it is at least arguable that Seveneves, having caught my attention in its first sixty pages with the fundamental physics of its conceit, is superior to the many books that I set aside. It is likewise arguable that the subsequent 800 pages of mounting disappointment, its incapacity to logically describe the implications of the initial event--a mysterious astronomical event has shattered the moon into seven pieces, setting in motion (according to Newtonian mechanics) a series of events that could portend the end of the human race--are so colossal in their failures precisely because they vitiate the book's early promise.

Seveneves is a retreat to a kind of "science fiction" in which the only "science" that matters is, first of all, physics, and secondarily, computer science and robotics. I am inclined to call this "Not Even Heinlein," as in, not even Heinlein could write something so ignorant of psychology, sociology, linguistics, biology, geology, and even chemistry.

The psychological failings are the most obvious. Characters function either as thinly veiled glosses on public figures (Neil DeGrasse Tyson as Doc Dubois; JBF, a harpyish fusion of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Carly Fiorina as POTUS; "Camila" [sic on the spelling], a Pakistani girl who resembles not so much the real Malala Yousafzai with her actual bravery and complex opinions on world politics, as the whitewashed media-friendly image of her that is used to sell books in the West) or embodiments of ethnic, national and occupational stereotypes: Dr. Ivy Xiao, the Chinese-American physicist and captain of the ISS, whose voice, whenever she speaks about science, reveals "a little-nerd-girl sense of wonder" and "goes into a vaguely Mandarin singsongy lilt"; Dinah, a robotics engineer who is more or less the heroine of the first two parts of the book, the Scots-Irish all-American problem-solving shitkicker; Tekla the brutish, inscrutable Russian Olympian athlete, out-manning half the men around her. I could go on with more of these examples, but I will spare you. Worse even than the caricatures are the ways in which the characters' thoughts and actions are bent beyond any imaginable plausibility to accommodate absurd authorial musings. Stephenson has Doc Dubois, finally making love to his new girlfriend the night after humanity has learned of its grim fate, "already thinking about the videos he was going to make to teach his baby about calculus when he climaxed." Dinah, as one of two surviving members of a risky expedition, looks at her surviving yet doomed comrade's eyeglasses and wonders how long it will be before humanity can once again "support an eyewear industry with different styles." Ivy, when she realizes that her Naval officer fiancé has nuked some hapless Venezuelans, the first thing she can think to say is, "I guess what sucks is that all I'm going to have of him is memories, and I was trying to cultivate some good ones to carry with me." To which Dinah replies, "You know he had no choice. The chain of command is still in effect." It's as if Lena Dunham were on the sidelines of the Nuremburg Trials.

The nuclear incident brings out the absolute worst of Stephenson's characterizations, since he cannot imagine anything that would shock these characters out of their banality, going on to describe another character who "had walked in aspiring to somehow re-create the experience of breakfasting in a sidewalk café in Europe and instead been treated to half an hour of nuclear warfare, mass incineration of protesters, and serious ethical discourse, mixed in with a suddenly keen sexual tension between her and Tekla. Like quite a few other people on the Cloud Ark, she hadn't had sex since she had come up here." Thus we go from nuclear warfare to lesbian sexy times in a single sentence!

The psychological absurdities distract from the story, but the sociological ones render key elements of the plot fundamentally implausible. We live in a capitalist society where the vast majority of humanity engages in productive yet alienated labor, with the threats of unemployment, homelessness and starvation as their primary motivations. What would you do if you got the news that you and everyone you knew were doomed to certain death in less than two years? Continue oiling the machine in hopes that it might contribute in some way to saving the lives of a minuscule fraction of the allegedly best and brightest? While the answer may be yes for some fraction of the population, I very much doubt it would result in a large enough volume of human labor-power to create something as grandiose as the Cloud Ark. Since that presumption underlies the transition from Part 1 to Part 2, the larger portion of the plot has all the structural integrity of a space elevator anchored in sand.

It gets even worse in Part 3, whose premise I will describe in detail since it is impossible to "spoil" something that is already terrible. By the end of the Cloud Ark expedition, only 7 women of childbearing age have survived, and no men. Fortunately, one of these is Moira, who happens to be Ms. Nuclear Sexy Times from earlier, but more importantly is a genetic engineer. Why she doesn't just create X-chromosomed sperm cells and use them for in vitro fertilization of the Eves' eggs is a biological mystery. Instead, Stephenson has them repopulate humanity via a more convoluted method of modified parthenogenesis, at least for a few generations until Moira and her descendants manage to synthesize Y chromosomes. (Heaven forbid we should conceive of a society without men!) Yet even though all 7 Eves, despite their varying levels of biological literacy, are aware of the need to maintain heterozygosity (i.e., avoid too much inbreeding), we are somehow to believe that their descendants, once they had the option of old-fashioned heterosexual procreative sex, maintained endogamy so strict that, 5000 years later, resurgent humanity in its billions is composed primarily of 7 distinct "races" lineally descended from each of the Eves, with the occasional racially-mixed "breeds" being not only rare but mistrusted. It is as if Stephenson had set the whole thing up in order to reconstruct a biological basis for "race" and have it be the motive force in the plot, yet not be accused of old-fashioned 19th/20th (and 21st) century racism. Except each of the Eves is herself an ethnic caricature. I've already mentioned JBF, Ivy, Dinah, Camila and Tekla; there's also Aïda, the hot-blooded Italian. The only one who doesn't fall into caricature is Moira, a Londoner whose West Indian heritage I half-suspect was a late addition to the manuscript in order to avoid creating a future without black people. (Instead, her descendants manifest a kind of "epigenetic" sensitivity that suggests major misunderstandings of what epigenetics is on Stephenson's part.) So the biological and sociological idiocies combine into a toxic ideological swamp of scarcely disguised Rassentheorie.

To avoid having this review resemble the book in its long-windedness I will summarize the linguistic, chemical, and geological absurdities more briefly. Linguistic: Somehow, 5000 years into the future, three mutually isolated strains of humanity, upon meeting each other once again, have undergone so little linguistic change, or retained enough working knowledge of the phonology, grammar, and vocabulary of pre-impact English, that they can understand one another with minimal effort. Geochemical: Despite water being one of the most stable compounds in the universe, and thus likely to have survived the Hard Rain in the form of atmospheric water vapor (with some evaporative loss due to atmospheric expansion), re-terraforming the Earth apparently requires slamming comets into it for their water. Instead of just waiting for things to cool down enough for it to start falling out of the sky again. (On this critique, there may be a geophysical explanation that is beyond my ken, in which case I wouldn't have minded if Stephenson, who provides lengthy descriptions of so much else, had given it. It would have been better than his absurd detailing of why a space-based civilization would have electronic communications inferior to our present state.)

Yet even the things he gets mostly right, i.e. the physics, are told in a boring way. The most immediate contrast, among this year's science fiction, is to Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora, which manages to evoke sublime beauty and high drama from Newtonian orbital mechanics. But it is not just that I have read more entertaining descriptions of orbital mechanics than Stephenson's in science fiction, where one would expect it: I have read more entertaining descriptions of orbital mechanics in physics textbooks, grant proposals, and NASA technical papers. Beyond his sins against science, Stephenson is just a bad writer, as evidenced also by the fact that the book does not really end so much as run out of propellant.

As the five pages of acknowledgements at the book's end make clear, Stephenson is well-connected to the subculture of West Coast billionaire techbros, so if nothing else reading this book has given me insight into dismal banality of such people's worldview. And as a science fiction writer, I now have an excellent example of what to avoid doing if I am ever possessed of the desire to write a novel that could double as a doorstop.


  1. Thank you for this - I'm even happier now that I put this book down after about my fifth try to get through it. Surely hope it's not on the Hugo shortlist this year. :-/

  2. I just finished the audiobook. I wish I had seen this review prior. 30 hours of listening, hoping it would pick up, or improve, or not shoehorn more sex in, or that it would stop interrupting dramatic tension with 20min mind numbing explanations of only slightly relevant topics. It almost feels as though I have just attempted to memorize an encyclopedia volume, only someone took out the interesting bits.

  3. I read this entire ridiculous book because of the genius of The Baroque Cycle. Then Bill Gates is pushing this thing on his book reading list web site. I thought I must be crazy. But no it's Gates. This book is trash.