Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

There are certain people—artists, writers, performers, musicians—who are so breathtakingly good, such absolute masters of their craft, that I can only stand in awe of their work and think: It's not fair. No one has the right to be this talented.

This is especially true every time I read a novel from Neal Stephenson. Seveneves proves once again that he possesses an imagination of staggering inventiveness and scope. For him, an event that most of us would find unthinkable is where he starts the story.

Seveneves is somewhat unexpected. Unlike much of Stephenson's oeuvre, this book is classic hard science fiction. It is set in the future, where large-scale engineering and physics play a central role in the action.

The novel is divided into three parts. Parts One and Two take place contiguously in the near future, with the same group of characters traversing a unified narrative arc. Part Three skips ahead 5,000 years and introduces new characters in a radically different milieu.

Parts One and Two rank among the very best of Stephenson's writing. He renders the world of these sections so vividly, in such fine-grained detail, that I honestly believe I can see the dust bunnies under the furniture, the scuff marks on the floors. The devil is in the details and it's all utterly believable and immersive.

As impressive as his imagination is, it's easy to overlook how good Stephenson is at creating characters. Every character feels complete and fully rendered from the moment they first appear, like Athena springing fully formed from the head of Zeus. The individuals who people these pages carry a sense of reality that's more than you typically expect from characters in a novel. They're real in a way that's rare and very self-assured.

The stories told in Parts One and Two are grounded in the characters. This isn't a just a tale of humanity and disaster, this is the story of individuals and how they cope—snapshots of moments and complications, conflicts and repercussions. I found these parts to be some of the most affecting work Stephenson has produced to date.

Simply put, Parts One and Two of Seveneves make up my new favorite Neal Stephenson novel.

Part Three is a disappointment. It's still staggeringly imaginative—indeed, set 5,000 years in the future, it's more unrestrainedly speculative than Parts One and Two—but it feels less immersive.

The world of Part Three is rendered in less detail. It's multifaceted and fascinating, but it's as if Stephenson imagined it at a lower resolution than the world of the first two parts. As if he hadn't spent quite enough time envisioning it at as completely as he could have. For all that it presents some amazing concepts, it's fundamentally less engaging.

That may be unavoidable—the world of Parts One and Two is based very much on the real world we live in today. The details are easy to see. The messy, complex reality of it is apparent.

A far-future world, by contrast, can only be imagined. It's probably inevitable that Part Three feels less realistic.

But the characters in Part Three are also less believable. They feel more like characters than real people, ideas that haven't quite fully taken flesh. Again, the ideas are wonderful but they're not alive in the same way that the characters in Parts One and Two are.

As a result, the exposition in Part Three becomes more burdensome. Because this section is more about concepts than about people, it necessarily means that there's more telling and less showing. This makes it more difficult to invest in the story.

Inexplicably, there are several descriptive sections in Part Three where Stephenson summarizes important events that took place in Part Two, recapping things I had read just a day or two before, as though he thinks that I won't remember them. These sections actively put me off.

Part Three comes across as incompletely developed. The narrative is inelegant, choppy and disengaged. The characters are less authentic.

It's frustrating—the ideas for the world and the characters in Part Three are so good, so intrinsically interesting, packed with so much potential, that they deserve to be as well developed as what we get in Parts One and Two. But they're not. Part Three reads as though Stephenson said, "Meh, good enough," and just left it at that.

It feels like Part Three belongs to a different book than Parts One and Two. It feels like the outline of a sequel, stuck on the end for lack of a better conclusion.

And that's what I wish had happened here:

Seveneves should have ended with Part Two. Stephenson should then have spent more time developing Part Three more thoroughly, expanding it, discerning a more elegant narrative for it, and breathing more life into the characters. Part Three should have become a full sequel novel.

Taken all together, even with a disappointing third act, Seveneves is still one of the very best books you're going to read this year. It's worth it just to experience Parts One and Two.