Thursday, August 18, 2016

Space is the worst frontier, part 2: Neil Stephenson's Seveneves

There's an old, old argument in science-fiction that goes a little something like this:

"You can't judge SF by the standards of literary fiction because it forms a separate tradition, two parts pulp, one part hard science. It's written for an audience with different expectations to the typical reader, who prize scientific speculation over character, action over introspection and guess what - they like it that way!"

Granted, this is often the battle cry of a subculture when someone from outside takes a dispassionate look - which is to say, a critical one - at what that community purports to value. And it's also fair to say this particular argument rests on a diminished view of what science-fiction is and has always has been - a pluralist school with at least one foot in the mainstream.

But there is a germ of truth to the suggestion that you can write a classic science-fiction novel that flouts literary conventions, that dumps scads of info left, right and centre, neglects a conventional plot in favour of engineering problems, and is happy to ignore psychological depth because the surface is where everything is going on.

Or to put it another way - SF valorises this kind of 'bad book'. And Neil Stephenson's Seveneves is one of them.

And so help me, I voted for it in the Hugo Awards as my pick for Best Novel.

Seveneves presents an artificial crisis - the destruction of the Moon rendering the Earth uninhabitable - and covers the attempt to survive by establishing a viable orbital colony before Armageddon strikes. In effect, it holds a gun to Humanity's head and says 'Space is beyond tough, but you've got to solve a long list of physics, engineering, robotics, biology and sociology problems before an immovable deadline.'

Part One: the Scientist as Hero

The first two thirds of the book are essentially about how those problems get solved, with a side order of elegy for a dying Earth. It doesn't soft-pedal on the human cost of the project either; many characters in space, never mind those on Earth, don't make it out alive. 

But at its core Seveneves is hugely pro-science, confident that the application of ingenuity can solve the problems before us. Like The Martian on a macro level, you can read it as an attempt to revive for  the classic 50's trope of the scientist as hero. It's not a nostalgic or sentimental novel by any means, but the positions it takes serve as a useful corrective to cultural pessimism and the seemingly endemic distrust of expertise.

The race against the clock to build a viable space colony is also gripping to read. Stephenson doesn't stint on threat, piling on problem after problem onto his hapless band of astronauts, geeks and space cadets. The fact that Seveneves maintains interest despite pages of techno-fetishistic info-dumping is tribute to the tension he creates

Now, I am one of those who hold to the view that Stephenson has seemingly become impossible to edit, turning out one research-ridden thick book one after another. And while I tend to prefer my SF writers to be more artist than engineer, poet not plodder, I will happily concede that for Seveneves the technical content more often that not serves the plot.

Also, one can always skim the good Dr Stephenson's digressions into, say, orbital physics, secure in the knowledge that he will eventually get to the point. Which in this book is usually: Peril! Or more rarely: Solution! 

Part Two: Anthropological Parlour Games

The final third of Seveneves, set thousands of years after the cataclysm, is an interesting attempt to imagine an orbital civilisation. It's hard to say more about its content without delivering massive spoilers (yes, you do find out how the book gets its name) but as a Tomorrow's World fantasy cum anthropological parlour game it diverts but inevitably lacks the spectacle of the first section. 

It's not bad, but the novel does rather go off the boil at this point, with its flaws (chiefly, too much info-dumping, not enough character drama) becoming more exposed in the absence of exploding moons and such. I agree with those who've suggested it should have been ideally expanded into another book.

Attack of the Straw Politicians 

One thing both halves of Seveneves have in common is a profound distrust of politics. In as far as the book has villains that aren't large moon rocks, they are straw politicians and journalists who rabble-rouse, dissemble and betray. They undermine not just the work of heroic scientists, but (dah dah DAH!) the human race itself.


The issue is that Stephenson's so relentlessly one-sided about his pathologically conniving vote-peddlers that his love for letting the science geeks save the day starts to look a little authoritarian in a peculiarly Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs For President sort of style. And it's frustrating when author who's clearly thought so much about the science of his novel cannot rise above the sophomoric with his cultural criticsm.  

But still - a necessary book

I started out by suggesting that Seveneves was a good bad book, and I'd stand by that assessment. In fact, it's a very good bad book let down somewhat by an odd final act that should have perhaps been shunted into a sequel and the aforementioned political crudities. Stephenson's seemingly endless license to explain is again a double-edged sword but on balance this time does less harm than good.

Seveneves is also a good-but-bad-yet-necessary novel - it felt like it had to be written and the only other one you can really say that of on the Hugo shortlist is N K Jemisin's The Fifth Season. While the crisis the novel presents may be artificial, the questions it asks are very real ones: how will humanity address the crises and challenges of the twenty-first century? How will science and scientists in particular respond?To what extremes could living through a crisis bring us?

There are a number of things in Seveneves I would take issue with. But the point is that I am taking issue. I am engaging with what it has to say and it's making me think. That principle's pretty foundational to what good science-fiction should be in my world. So in a year with only a fair to middling shortlist it did enough to get the nod for Best Novel from me.

Note: Seveneves was on the Rabid Puppies voting slate that dominated the Hugo shortlist through block voting. However, to the best of my knowledge, Neil Stephenson is neither involved on the slate nor has commented publically on proceedings. 

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