Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

God this was a slog. I’m sorry, Neal Stephenson is great and everything, but yeesh this book was hard to finish. But it did give me some more insight into my grumbles with SF, and particularly hard SF, so it wasn’t a wasted slog. And that’s something.

A… not-insignificant portion of this book is exposition. I’ve said before (e.g. in my post on Dune), I need a book to be more than just a good idea. If it doesn’t have characters and plotting I care about, I’m not going to be all that interested. Turns out, this isn’t strictly accurate. It felt it, for the first 2/3 of Seveneves. My god it felt it. Stephenson is very very heavy on the science and slightly light on the plot, so that 500 pages or so didn’t feel like a 500 page story. I felt like I’d read a whole lot less, just because I’d been skimming the orbital mechanics stuff, as I have an extremely limited amount of patience for legrange points and other such things. So I was all set in my head to do another “lovely science, can we have some plot please”, and then the book changes. We shift from lots and lots of physics exposition to genetics-chat. The science density is approximately the same, but we just shift to a different science… and suddenly I’m all over it. I am perfectly happy to sit through several pages about epigenetics, in a way I’m really not about orbital plane changes. And because of how much more I was enjoying that aspect of it, it suddenly felt like a better book. It felt less sparse, less unplotted, less unpeopled… and I started genuinely enjoying myself.

So what can we conclude? I’m a massive hypocrite.

That being said, however much I enjoyed the tenuous genetics (and yes, I feel like at times, it did get tenuous in a way I don’t think the maths did – though please correct me if I’m wrong because my maths knowledge is… um… not?),  it probably could still have been dialed back a bit. And I’m fully prepared to be told that this view is silly. After all, it is SCIENCE fiction. And yes, I do understand that. But it’s still science FICTION. And I really do think there needs to be a  balance for it to be enjoyable. I happened to enjoy this one after the first two thirds, because it happened to hit on a bit of science that I found neat. But I think if the whole book had been neat science (instead of maths), I would still be sitting here asking for more plot, more people, more… story.

Maybe I shouldn’t read hard SF. This is what I end up grumbling about every time… except when they’re about science I really enjoy (cf Embassytown… is that hard SF? I can’t tell… but I would definitely read hard SF about Linguistics). Well, “enjoy” isn’t the thing, really. It’s “understand”. I just… don’t have anywhere near the understanding of maths I’d need to actually get and enjoy what Stephenson is doing. Not that my genetics knowledge is particularly great either, mind… we’re talking A2 versus GCSE here… but it’s enough of a difference. I almost feel like if someone kindly enough were to come and explain it all to me beforehand, I might get rather more out of it. But also that it’s not really worth all that much effort.

Because for all that I did enjoy everything more once we got to a science I enjoyed… it still was a sparse book. It’s 800 pages for 300 of plot and story and character, I feel. And that’s not what I ultimately want. If I want science, I’ll read science (and I do). But if I want science FICTION, it better damn well have some of that fiction going on.

What fiction Stephenson did do wasn’t bad, I’ll admit. There are some likeable characters (Rhys, the British engineer with a thing for chains, particularly stands out… or Moira, the geneticist… or Doob who is basically Brian Cox and anyone who says he’s Neil deGrasse Tyson can fight me) and some fascinating characters and some characters that make me judge Stephenson a bit (he does seem to have something against politicians… like… a lot). But they’re not stunning, and there’s simply not enough of them. They feel like a vehicle for science exposition, not an end unto themselves, and that’s just… dull. Likewise the story just feels so buried under the mountains of legrange points and plane changes and whatnot that I just… what was there, while good, was not worth the effort I had to expend to get to it. In a thinner, lighter novel, I’d have enjoyed it a lot more. But it’s just so dense that I really didn’t want to plough through it for the sake of a so-so story. And I know Stephenson can do better than that. I’ve read Anathem, and that was fantastic… and equally huge. He still writes lovely prose, and a varied cast of potentially fascinating characters… but ugh.

On another point of personal preference… my god this book is sad. I mean, so very sad. He really does drive home the whole “end of the world” thing, in a way nothing else I’ve read really accomplishes. It’s very good… but also more sadness than I could really handle in a novel that wasn’t gripping me in other ways. More than anything, this was what drove me nearly to give up on reading it. The unrelenting depression of it all, and the uncaring, arbitrary way it feels like he handles his plot and stories. You know how GRRM will kill everyone you ever loved? He needs to bow down at the feet of a master at work, here. But that’s not for me.

Which is what I have to say about the book as a whole, really. It is very very much not a book for me. It hits on several of the things that really cheese me off, and doesn’t tick enough happy boxes to get away with it. Some of what he does is, objectively, very good. Some, I think, less so. But ultimately, I am just totally the wrong audience.

So far, I have two of the Hugo nominees in the novel category crossed off my list:

  • Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
  • The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher (Roc)
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
  • Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow)
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik (Del Rey)

Of the two, Ancillary Mercy is, unsurprisingly, my far and away favourite. I think Leckie handles what she’s done with more ingenuity and skill than Stephenson does, and hasn’t sacrificed writing a good novel for the sake of impeccable science. I’ve also finished The Fifth Season, by Jemisin, and will be adding my thoughts on it shortly (though, spoilers, Leckie’s still in the lead).

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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