SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson

A bit of late-breaking news, but thanks to a surprise gift from my lovely partner, I now have a Kindle! There will probably be a post about my experience with it in the future, but first I have to tell you about this book. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson came highly recommended to me by some trusted sources, including Jaime Green, the host of my former favorite (currently on hiatus) bookish podcast The Catapult. I went into Seveneves knowing almost nothing about it other than it was a dense and lengthy science fiction novel. I figured that not having to carry around a thick book was a large part of the appeal of my new Kindle, so my reason for picking out Seveneves was mostly convenience. All of which is to say, I had no idea how much this book would astonish, captivate, and utterly destroy me.

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Seveneves opens as an unknown force collides with the moon, breaking it into seven pieces. Initially, life on Earth remains largely the same, but as scientist Dubois Harris observes two of the pieces colliding and breaking into three, a terrible reality becomes clear to him. He and other scientists calculate that these pieces will continue to collide and break off exponentially, eventually resulting in what was once the moon turning into Saturn-like rings of debris around Earth–after a period of thousands of years of rocks raining down upon the Earth’s surface, rendering it an unlivable, fiery wasteland. The novel also follows a crew of astronauts aboard a space station that has been mining an asteroid. The crew learns that they will never be returning home; instead, they must help scientists and researchers on the ground ready the space station to become bigger and better able to accommodate a small population of experts, humanity’s last hope of survival.

I don’t want to give too much else away about the plot. This book carried me through so many unexpected twists. Just when I thought I felt comfortable with what was happening, it changed. I spent a lot of time reading this book next to my partner, and he slowly became accustomed to my gasping, groaning, and biting my knuckles as I read. “Still on that end-of-the-world space book?” he’d ask. “Yes,” I’d answer, “and MORE bad things are happening!” To be certain, this book is completely devastating, in part because it is so thoroughly imagined. The world ends, and it ends in a way that feels completely tactile and inevitable to the reader. At the moment the Hard Rain (the term for the onslaught of moon debris) begins, a member of the newly formed space station community–all that’s left of humanity–looks down and reflects, “He wanted to know how big it looked to them; he wanted to know how it felt […] to know how it was to stand there on terra firma and to see it and to know it was death coming.” The enormity of this book is impossible to escape.

So, yes: this is a book in which nearly everyone on Earth dies. There were moments that actually made me sob as I was reading. But I probably wouldn’t have been able to get through this book if it were only a downer, and instead I was turning the pages (metaphorically, because Kindle) feverishly. Stephenson keeps the book from wallowing in melancholy, and I think it’s because the book is interested in so many big questions. For one thing, Stephenson clearly did a lot of homework. This is one of my first forays into what’s called “hard science fiction,” meaning science fiction that lives up to the name by focusing on technological accuracy. This book really gets into the tactile and pragmatic solutions humanity would need to carry on after a disaster of this magnitude. Stephenson presents his characters with a plethora of problems, but instead of pitying them, he puts them to work fixing those problems.

These imaginative technological questions are not the only thing Seveneves tackles, though. The book really grapples with how we understand our own humanity, interrogating concepts like race, mythology, religion, and purpose. Even as the book revels in these larger abstracts, its strongest point might be the way it treats personal relationships. As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear how seemingly simple connections between people come to have huge consequences–and without giving too much away, I don’t mean this just in a metaphorical sense. Even though I anticipated a couple of the twists as they were unfolding, I hadn’t ever considered them when their initial framework was built, and that’s because that framework–the simple ways we reach out to each other, the simple ways we impact each other–seemed so small in the face of the end of the world. In his unique storytelling, Stephenson gives so much gravity to these personal connections, and this pattern nulls the bleakness of the book’s premise, enabling it instead to thrum with a sense of meaning and purpose not in abstractions, but in tangible reality.

I have a feeling some of my friends are going to give me strange looks when I start telling them, “You NEED to read this book. It’s about the moon breaking into pieces and killing us all. It’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.” But I’m begging you to trust me. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with compelling characters, masterful plotting, some of the smartest problem-solving I’ve ever read, and a renewed sense of value in the conversations you have every day with the people you love.

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