Screaming about Neal Stephenson and wolves in the middle of the night

A crescent moon. Photo by Haseesh Rahithya on Unsplash.

As I write this, it is 1.30am, and I cannot sleep.

Inside me, there are two wolves, and the wolves are locked in an eternal battle.

The battle is because one of the wolves thinks Seveneves by Neal Stephenson is great, and the other wolf thinks it’s shit.

This war has been raging for two years now, ever since I read the book, and it still drives me to distraction on a regular basis, and so here is a blog post to try to settle this furious internal disagreement and make the wolves shut up.

I don’t think it will work though. I think both the wolves are right and also wrong. Seveneves is brilliant, and it’s also terrible, and the result is that it’s just infuriating and I can’t stop thinking about it.

(I actually would have preferred it if it was terrible. If it was solely terrible, then I would have forgotten about it ages ago.)

So why is it great?

The first line

Seveneves starts like this:

“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.”

Perfection.

We don’t need to start with characters, or foreshadowing, or anything before the inciting incident. Stephenson skips straight to the good stuff: he blows up the fucking moon.

Immediately you have to read more: why did the moon blow up? What are the consequences?

It turns out the moon blew up for complicated astrophysical reasons that can basically be summarised as “bad luck”. The main thing is what happens next.

The moon shatters into seven pieces. But then two of the pieces collide, and they shatter into smaller pieces. And scientists realise that this will continue to happen at an escalating rate, and these moon fragments will inevitably begin to fall to Earth, resulting in an exponentially growing meteor shower that will last for 5,000 years and wipe all life from the surface of the planet.

Which is wonderful. This is great, right? What a premise! You can keep your Bildungsromans and your gothic horrors, this is what I want: death by exploding moon.

Survival against the odds

Earth has about two years before the ultimate meteor shower of death commences (an event known as the Hard Rain), so humanity has to decide what to do.

Some people opt to hide in their survivalist bunkers, or look into sending submarines to the deepest parts of the ocean, which they hope won’t be boiled away by the meteor onslaught. But the main plan is to send as many people as possible to orbit the destroyed Earth, and maybe some day their descendants can return.

Pretty much everything that can go wrong with this plan does go wrong. There’s a very strict deadline to get things done. The tech is dodgy. Infighting is rife. Everyone’s mental health is absolutely dreadful. It’s all very exciting.

And then two years pass, and the Earth is annihilated, and the people who did make it to space have to keep going, except now they’re totally alone and have no way to get more resources. And things get even worse, and even more exciting.

At this point I am devouring every page, wondering how these people can possibly make it.

But the problems are already apparent.

These people

Consider our intrepid survivors, determined to escape Death By Moon.

Some of these characters are pretty good. Seveneves has some likeable, memorable heroes, particularly in its female cast.

But some of them are weird. I don’t necessarily mean the characters themselves, more Stephenson’s approach to writing them.

One of the characters is pretty much Neil deGrasse Tyson. Another appears to be Elon Musk, or at least Elon Musk before he got really into tweeting weed memes.

A third character has clear similarities to Malala Yousafzai. This character probably gets the worst deal, as she’s one of the thousand or so young people (“Arkies”) nominated to go into space. For some reason, Stephenson writes the Arkies exclusively as easily-manipulated idiots or devious cannibals. (Kids these days!)

I found this all pretty distracting.

Stephenson also elides over character moments that feel like they should be more important. One main character falls in love, gets married, sees their spouse die in the Hard Rain, and then moves on. This happens in about five sentences total.

Do not mistake this brevity for an attempt to keep the novel concise. The book is 880 pages long. This is because Stephenson will not talk about humans when he can talk about:

Technobabble

Do you ever end up on some fan wiki to see an article about, like, Han Solo’s blaster, or a ship that was in the background of an episode of Firefly, or Cardassian space yahtzee, and find that some nerd has written thousands of words explaining everything about it, down to the most intricate detail?

When the blaster was manufactured, its model number, what material the holster is made out of, the thermodynamic properties of that material, a lengthy meteorological study of the planet where they manufacture material blaster holsters, etc. It’s all there.

But really all you need to know is that it’s a space gun and Han Solo can shoot things with it.

An absurd amount of Seveneves is like that wiki page. Stephenson clearly did a lot of research, and he puts all of it straight into the novel.

In the event that the moon does explode without warning and for no apparent reason, then Seveneves may become a useful textbook. But as a novel in our still-mooned world, it is infuriating. The heavy exposition regularly kills all the momentum. I’m sure it would make a delightful appendix or something, but as it is: my god.

This becomes even more of a problem in the final third of the novel, which is itself a massive problem.

The final third of the novel

Because Stephenson is so much more interested in the logistics of his premise than in the story’s characters, he is determined to follow through to its conclusion.

And that conclusion is when the Hard Rain recedes and the Earth becomes habitable again.

Which is 5,000 years after the plot begins.

So two thirds of the way in, we skip 5,000 years into the future. All the previous characters are long dead. Now we have entirely new characters, living in a different world. And best/worst of all, they have loads of new technology for Stephenson to explain.

The nadir of this is probably when a character has to go from the surface of the Earth back into orbit, which takes place via some sort of complicated pendulum system, and the description of how all this works goes on for what feels like 30 pages, all to get a character we don’t care about from point A to point B. Nothing narratively interesting happens during this journey. The book could just say “she went back to space” and it would achieve the same thing, except Stephenson wouldn’t have an opportunity to once again destroy the book’s momentum by showing off how smart he is.

The final third of the book isn’t entirely pointless – it’s interesting to see how things turned out for humanity, and get a happy ending of sorts – but what could have been a satisfying epilogue is instead hundreds of pages. It feels like an awkward appendage mounted onto an otherwise self-contained novel.

All the character’s arcs are resolved, their story ends, and then the book just… continues for hundreds of pages. It’s so bizarre.

I guess Stephenson is just Too Big To Edit and people expect him to do this sort of nonsense. But I still hate it.

Aaaarrrggghhhh!!!!

Seveneves is a brilliant 440-page novel trapped in an 880-page wiki.

It thrilled me to my core and it bored me to tears. I devoured it while on holiday in just a few days and it still felt interminably long.

It is now 2am and I have written this post on the Notes app of my phone. My hands are cramping. My sleep schedule is shot. This is what Seveneves has done to me.

These are the sorts of books that wind me up the most – books which are sprawling, tedious, pretentious, in desperate need of some vicious editing – but also have that spark, some unique gleam that makes it impossible not to press on.

Another book that comes to mind is Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway, a book of nightmarish complexity that crawls endlessly up its own ass until it forms a sort of ouroboros. But Gnomon haunts me too, although not to the extent of Seveneves. Maybe some day I’ll write about it and explain why I never want to read the word “hierophant” ever again.

Enough. I need to try to sleep. Hopefully this has shut the wolves up.

To finish, here’s a simulation of what the moon blowing up would be like.

Sweet dreams!

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