In Seattle writer Neal Stephenson’s amazing new book, “Seveneves,” our planet is in for a pummeling from pieces of the exploded moon. People must flee into space, stay safe for thousands of years, then go back and start over.
Neal Stephenson has outdone himself, and that’s saying something.
Seattle novelist Stephenson has published speculative fiction in the alternative present or near future (“Snow Crash” among others), and historical fiction in the distant past (the Baroque Cycle). He even consulted on Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space project, though he can’t say what he did (“The first thing I did was sign an NDA” — nondisclosure agreement).
But his new novel “Seveneves” (Morrow, 857 pp., $35) represents an imaginative leap, even for someone with a powerful imagination.
The author of “Seveneves” will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 10, at Barnes & Noble in the Alderwood mall, 19401 Alderwood Mall Parkway, Lynnwood (425-771-3193; http://store-locator.barnesandnoble.com/event/87690).
Note: The store will begin distributing wristbands for this event at 9 a.m. Wednesday, the day of the reading. For book-signing guidelines, please contact the store.
The premise of “Seveneves”: Something hits the moon, and it starts to break up. Earth’s leaders have two years to figure out how to preserve the human race before the planet’s surface is destroyed by the “Hard Rain,” a continuous pummeling of pieces of the former moon. Up on a space station of sorts, about 1,700 survivors have to figure out how their descendants will stay alive for the 5,000 years it will take for the Hard Rain to stop falling.
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Reading a Stephenson book takes some effort, but the rewards are legion. A member of a family of engineers and scientists, Stephenson loves technology and cryptography, physics and genetics. He grasps concepts that we all live with but only dimly understand.
Jason Sheehan, reviewing “Seveneves” for National Public Radio, came up with this apt description: “Where most hard SF really means ‘a bunch of ray guns, then some talk about wormholes,’ he plays with hard ballistics, hard genetics, hard sociology. And what thrills me is that he makes it interesting. That he makes life and death in space about actual life and death — about the million things that will kill you and the two or three things that really smart people can do to stay alive.”
Stephenson, currently on a national book tour, answered some questions about “Seveneves”:
Q: In “Seveneves,” a conflict develops between governments, who are grappling with impending catastrophe, and private space companies. One entrepreneur, Sean Probst, responds to the emergency more swiftly and successfully than the world’s space bureaucracies. Do you see that conflict playing out in real life?
A: What I tried to do is extend some credit to both kinds of space programs. The achievements of the old-school programs of NASA and the Russian programs were fantastic and laid the groundwork. There’s no way private space entrepreneurs could have done it.
Those programs continue today, and they continue to do impressive things. But there’s also room for the upstart private programs. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. Sean Probst just shows up, he has the resources, he causes some resentment. The members of the traditional teams hate him on sight and want to confiscate his stuff. Rather than advocate for one or the other, I’m trying to be more of an observer of the way things are in that world and tell a story that I think makes sense.
Q: In many science-fiction movies, when catastrophe is about to strike, people freak out and behave badly. In “Seveneves,” for the most part, people behave pretty heroically. Do you think that is more realistic than the movie scenario?
A: I read a lot of history. My general observation about people who have been in wars, and disasters, is that there’s always instances of bad behavior. But for the most part, people tend to rise to the occasion.
I see a tendency in media to assume the opposite. Whenever there’s a train wreck or a car wreck or a bombing, newspapers — particularly British newspapers — the word “panic” is used. In fact, it’s mostly people keeping your cool. I wasn’t interested in writing a book where everyone loses their minds.
Q: Many different aspects of science and technology are discussed in “Seveneves’’ … one is the way the descendants of the “Seveneves” are bred for certain traits that their ancestors valued — strength, courage, cunning, intelligence. Are we close to an era where people will manipulate the human genetic code for certain traits?
A: The ability to do that, at least theoretically, is almost upon us. It’s very, very close.
History shows that everything is always more complicated than you think. My guess is that people in the next 10 years will be trying to do this, if they’re not doing it already, and they will discover glitches and problems and drawbacks that will force them to go back to the drawing board. But I think within a few decades people will know how to do it.
Q: The end of “Seveneves” cries out for a sequel. Do you have one in mind?
A: There’s nothing currently in the works. A lot depends on what happens in the next few months, how people respond to the book, if there’s any interest in doing media adaptations.
All science fiction and fantasy is about building worlds. When I was a kid, I remember reading Frank Herbert’s “Dune” for the first time. (There’s) a glossary of some of the unfamiliar terms used in the book. At first it was off-putting, though now it’s commonplace … by the time I had read through the glossary, I had a picture in my head of the way that this world works. It’s not just one story, it’s a whole world. … Almost any successful fantasy or science-fiction book is going to leave you with the sense that there could be more.
Q: Which do you enjoy the most, writing in the future or in the past?
A: The years I spent writing the Baroque Cycle were very enjoyable years. Not that I didn’t enjoy writing the other books, I derived a lot of enjoyment from going through and reading all those books about history.
I loved that and would like to do more of it. I’m actually well into another book that’s another one of those. I made the decision to put it on hold to get “Seveneves” out.
Q: This book made me appreciate our natural environment. I would get so engrossed in it, imagining these people living in a confined space with very little hope for survival, that when I would look up and see the sky I would think, “Oh, thank God, it’s still there.” Was that your intent?
A: I’ve heard other people make similar remarks, so thank you for that.