Sunday, September 04, 2016

Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson's Seveneves is a fun read — it won this year's Prometheus Award against a strong field of authors including previous winners and SF greats. That's most of what I can say without spoilers. Alright, also this: the story starts with an unidentified object causing the breakup of the Moon into seven large chunks. Scientists and astronomers quickly run their simulations and analyses and agree that it'll be about two years of bumping against one another and breaking into finer and finer pieces before it all ends in a "White Sky" where fragments blanket the sky and soon start falling in the "Hard Rain" which will kill basically all macroscopic life on the surface. The initial breakup of the moon and the subsequent analysis happens in the opening pages, so this doesn't feel like a spoiler to me. If you're likely to read the book (it's Neal Stephenson, and it won the Prometheus Award), and don't like spoilers, I recommend reading just to the end of this paragraph. I enjoyed the book, and it qualifies as a Prometheus winner because nearly everything that happens does so without the presence of anything like a government. There are many failures of coordination but also a lot of successes. The ending is hopeful.

The first part of the book is about what happens over those approximately two years as everyone pulls together. The next part is what happens next to those who survive in space, and the final section is about what happens much later to the descendents of those who survived. In the first part, there's a lot of cooperation even though everyone agrees that the vast majority are going to die very soon. An astonishing number of people and institutions pull together to do what can be done to save a representative sample of humanity, and ensure they have enough supplies and tools to stand a decent chance of surviving. There is a little bit of cowboy heroics, but for the most part, people are putting the species before themselves. Stephenson does a good job of depicting the impact of politics and struggles between factions, while also showing the technology that could make it all work, and the interesting personal dynamics that go into creating a new society from scratch in an inhospitable environment.

The main conflict in the second part is set up because the President of the US violates the broad agreement that politicians wouldn't be allowed on the rescue fleet. At the very last minute before it becomes impossible, she gets on the last rocket to take off and joins those expected to survive. She is not welcomed by the leaders of the expedition, but being a consummate politician, she recruits followers from the least powerful, and ends up splitting the escape fleet into two that are both too small to carry out the planned mission. The survivors face the challenge of moving from a low orbit under constant threat from the remaining chunks (which are predicted to eventually coalesce into a ring) to someplace higher and safer. Disastrous events ensue, and a tiny remnant group manages to find refuge in one of the remaining large chunks of the Moon, a nickel-iron lump with a crevice big enough to shelter them while they recover, repair, and deploy their remaining technology to sustainably feed themselves and begin the process of procreation so there can be a next chapter. Most of the action is interpersonal, with politics and factional struggles driving the plot. Stephenson keeps this section short, and skips fairly quickly to a time a few thousand years in the future.

The ring has stabilized and civilization has spread around it and developed in some interesting directions. This is where the projections of plausible technologies get extra interesting. What kinds of technologies would develop in a society with an abundance of hard metals and no gravity? Where the challenge isn't getting into space, but getting around in the vast emptiness? The society takes advantage of their location (it's easier to build a sky-hook from the middle than from the ground) and finds ways to thrive.

Stephenson's expectation that starting from a very small base the population would fracture into competing polities and separate societies seems thin to me, but he uses it to drive the plot in interesting directions. At the end the residents of the ring start making attempts to explore the newly habitable surface of Earth and encounter descendents of two groups of people who found ways to survive the "Hard Rain" on the surface. One of them seems somewhat plausible, and was reasonably foreseeable from the first part of the story. The other group seemed like a real stretch to me, and the mechanism of their survival is just hinted at. But that's a small part of the story.

Stephenson tells a fascinating story about the struggle to survive and the collaboration it takes to succeed in an extreme situation. Along the way, we meet some interesting characters, and read about some new technologies that it would be great fun to play with.