In his post-apocalyptic novel “Seveneves,” Seattle author Neal Stephenson imagines the end of life as we know it and the return of humanity to the planet, thousands of years later. Stephenson appears May 18 at Seattle’s First Baptist Church.
by Neal Stephenson
Morrow, 880 pp., $35
“The Moon blew up without warning,” this novel begins, its first words driving readers outside our comfort zones fast and hard. There’s a brief lull as we follow the investigation, under the auspices of a Neil deGrasse Tyson-like astronomer, of the explosion’s cause. Was it aliens? A wandering black hole? But before a decision can be reached, Tyson analog Dubois Xavier Jerome Harris realizes that the consequences of the Moon’s destruction are far more important than its cause: The result will be a global meteor bombardment destroying not only all humanity, not only all life, but the entire planet’s atmosphere. A meteor bombardment lasting more than 5,000 years. Beginning in two.
Though the idea of a suddenly uninhabitable Earth is horrible, it’s also a favorite nerdish thought-experiment. In a way, contemplation of such a scenario resembles childhood reflections on whether it would be better to be blind or deaf: No one really wants a major disability, but most of us have considered the choice theoretically.
Stephenson, a multiple-award-winning Seattle author and a darling of technology fans everywhere, is exactly the right person to explore the ramifications of this deeper direness. In previous novels such as “Reamde” and “Anathem” he focused on guns and online games, or clocks and philosophy; here he asks and answers several of the daunting questions raised by the end of the world as we know it. Could the human race survive? How would we pull off such a feat? What would we look like afterward?
The author of “Seveneves” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 18, at Seattle’s First Baptist Church, 1111 Harvard Ave. Sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co. Tickets ($35 admits one and includes a copy of “Seveneves”) are available from Elliott Bay via phone 206-624-6600, in person or online at elliottbaybook.com.
The 570 page-long first section of “Seveneves” deals with the means by which humankind could salvage enough of itself and Earth’s ecology to make a go of life elsewhere in the solar system. Piggybacking on our current offworld toehold, the International Space Station, Stephenson’s racially and sexually diverse cast of biologists, entrepreneurs, lottery winners and ex-miner astronauts do their grim best to preserve the planet’s heritage. Aside from a few sad farewells — a ceremony enacted by silk-clad Buddhists in a soon-to-be-scoured-to-bedrock Himalayan valley, the last lovemaking session between Harris and a doomed schoolteacher — most of the action takes place near Earth rather than on it. Stephenson’s descriptions of hastily constructed habitats and rocket ships are easy to visualize, and his crisp narration and deadpan humor render the counterintuitive orbital mechanics that are crucial to his storyline entertaining as well as comprehensible. He also pays realistic-feeling attention to the physical effects of weightlessness and exposure to radiation, and the psychology of isolation — factors that reduce the number of former Earthlings, at one point, to eight. Seven of these eight are the source of the book’s title.
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In the novel’s shorter second section (at only 310 pages the equivalent of many authors’ entire books) we see how humankind has changed — both culturally and genetically — in the wake of catastrophe. Yet descending from their celestial homes as the millennia-long meteor bombardment ends, these far-off inheritors of a renewed Earth must deal with the same political divisiveness plaguing us today. Stephenson’s storytelling style combines the conversational and the panoramic, allowing him to turn his piercing gaze on the familiar aspects of a strange future, encompassing the barely conceivable detail by detail, striking vista by sweat-covered heroic gambit, and telling us how it might be possible to regain what we could so easily lose in so many heartbreaking ways.