Neal Stephenson – Seveneves Audiobook
Soon. Very soon. An unexplained event, the Agent, destroys the Moon, reducing it to seven fragments which continue, as if nothing had happened, their orbital round without moving away from their common center of gravity. Surprising, pretty even, new anyway. But very quickly, calculations show that the fragments will collide with each other, more and more frequently as their number increases. They will then divide into smaller and smaller pieces whose orbit and erratic movements will eventually lead a good part to fall to Earth, causing a meteor shower of several millennia that will obliterate all life on the surface of the globe. This chilling information, Stephenson gives them in very few pages at the very beginning of the enormous novel (14,400 Kindle units, connoisseurs will appreciate). Afterwards, the big one takes place in orbit. Little Earth, no more pathos.
What to do when the immutable laws of physics say it all ends in two years?
Humanity, for once more or less united, decides to save what can be saved by taking the crazy bet of a space survival while waiting for the distant but foreseeable end of the Hard Rain. A distributed Space Arch is being built at lightning speed around the ISS. The crew that was there will never come back down, and it will be gradually joined by more than a thousand specialists and M / F pairs selected by their respective communities. Their mission: to preserve the sample of the human race that they constitute, to take care of the real and digitized genetic samples sent to the Ark, to preserve scientific knowledge, and to wait for the day when everything can return to an Earth to terraform.
“Seveneves Audiobook” is a novel divided into three identified parts. The first part (from destruction until the onset of Hard Rain) is the most successful, the second (from Hard Rain to establishing a stable “colony”) less, and the third (5000 years later. , as a ring-dwelling society thrives and the return to Earth begins) is disappointing and boring. In fact, “Seveneves Audiobook” has as many speculative qualities as it has literary flaws.
On speculation, Stephenson is brilliant. Starting from contemporary research and pushing it to its limits, he imagines a new technology based on swarm robotics, orbital mechanics, and giant machines, including whips and articulated chains. We are in a simultaneously steampunk and hitek version of the space conquest. Capture of asteroids, comets, improvised nuclear propulsion, Stephenson does not dodge any excess in a breathless first part as it is so worrying: is it indeed possible to give even a reasonable chance of success to the the craziest enterprise that humanity has ever attempted? We also see the usual priorities reassessed: individual human life losing all value in itself and no operation is too risky not to be attempted. The sacrosanct rule of “safety first in space” is shattered against the wall of necessity. Especially since the innumerable and permanent dangers of space such as radiation, cars (huge or microscopic), and accidents take their share of deaths, without even having to move a finger.
In the second part, Stephenson adds to these dangers political unrest within the distributed Ark. There, the novel begins to drift towards the less good. On the one hand it was useless in view of the risks encountered to lengthen the sauce even further, on the other hand the way in which these troubles occur smacks of the Deus Ex Machina of poor credibility in addition to being atrociously agreed in their very nature ( do not spoil). This part ends with a stabilization, as the Hard Rain is on for millennia. The emergency phase is over.
But, of all the human Ark, all in all, only eight survivors (plus a few thousand small robots) remain. We will have to be part of the long term and repopulate using all genetic artifices, including modifying the heritages to create specialized and, or not, complementary lines.
The third part, finally, which seems excruciatingly long as nothing happens, offers a concluding plot that mixes improbability and coincidence (do not spoil). All that I love.
We could have suspended our incredulity very strongly, not wondering too much about the real capacities to develop almost ex-nihilo a civilization in near space, enjoy the spectacle of destruction and survival, marvel – and learn – in front of very long and detailed descriptions of physical phenomena or innovative technologies imagined by Stephenson. The results, for a reader of Hard-SF, could have been generally positive.
Unfortunately, after the first part, the novel lacks credible and interesting plots. One has the impression (and this is not just an impression) of reading dozens of pages of technical developments vaguely interspersed with human interventions, a detrimental discontinuity from a literary point of view. What if it was just that. But, both at the beginning and at the end, the characters are hollow. Even the few who appear more and have a little more background generate no empathy, to the point that the many deaths (even the heroics, there are) do not inspire the reader. Humans are narratively crushed by orbital mechanics and big machines, to which are added in the third part an omnipresent genetics and epigenetics to the point of making characters (new of course) simple carriers of innate characters occupying the psychological niches that their designers, thousands of years ago, imagined for them. As for the socio-political reality of the space society, Stephenson takes great care not to go further than a vague Cold War between rival factions and a “Goal” of which we do not know the exact content or the carriers, even if we understand that they must be active and influential.
The result is that after the first few hundred o_O pages, even the technical stuff ends up boring deeply. We finish the book because we say to ourselves that it would be a shame not to have a return on investment after such a high cost in reading time. Unfortunately, the payback is not up to par. It lacks a story at least a little believable and characters a little worked. Where Egan manages to blend hard science and individual destinies in thetrilogy Orthogonal, Stephenson fails. Where Wilson puts human and society in Spin, Stephenson fails. “Seveneves Audiobook” made me think of those 3D documentaries of scientific channels in which the director places human figures to give the simulation a little life while everyone knows that most of what he wants to tell is not there.