“Seveneves” is in the classic “what-if” tradition — in this case, what if humanity had two years notice that the Earth was going to be rendered uninhabitable for 5,000 years? Neal Stephenson comes up with a technological solution, setting the story a decade or so in the future, far enough that there’s enough capacity to launch a few thousand people into space with arguably enough capacity to provide life support until human beings can return to Earth.
There’s a lot more to the story than that. There are social problems — how to keep 7 billion people from rioting or disrupting the survival effort. There are political maneuvers, including a U.S. President (apparently modeled on Hillary Clinton) who sneaks into space, in violation of an agreement that world leaders will step aside and go down with their planet. There are the intricate details of how the disaster is set into motion and even more intricate details of how to create livable habitats in space on a technological shoestring.
“Seveneves” is focused on survival — the eventual survival of the seven women who give birth to a whole new human race (hence the title). It doesn’t give much space to the other 7 billion people who must come to terms with not only their own deaths, but the death of the entire biosphere. Some current science fiction writers, given such a scenario, would have given more weight to those who would not survive. Stephenson tells a bit of those stories, mostly people with money who visit as many places as they can before the end. But one could imagine much more creative and interesting responses.
Stephenson has little patience for politics. He imagines a fairly objective process for choosing who gets to survive, run by technocrats, begging the question of whether there are some inherent political biases in how the technocrats do the choosing.
But, more important, the plot makes it clear that Stephenson sees politics as standing in the way of survival — as when Venezuelan protesters attempt to stop rocket launches because no Venezuelans have been chosen for space, or when the former U.S. president organizes a split in the new space colony that proves disastrous.
The final part of the book jumps 5,000 years into the future, when the descendants of the seven Eves are finally able to return to Earth. The human population has expanded, and with that has come a renewal of political strife comparable with what existed before everything ended. The set-up stretches credibility as Stephenson describes a space-based culture of billions of people that seems not that culturally different from our own society. Five thousand years is about the distance separating us from the builders of Stonehenge and the earliest pyramids, and, according to Stephenson, in a comparable period of time there would have been no significant religious or political movement to alter the way that people understand themselves or the universe.
What is changed, however, is the nature of race. We’re just beginning to understand, at the beginning of the 21st century, that the racial categories that were set up in the 1800s are social constructs; that the personalities and capacities that were attributed to different races were stereotypes, not biological inheritances.
Now Stephenson has postulated a human society in which race is quite literally biologically constructed — seven races, each descended from one of the seven “Eves.” Each race has distinct capabilities and personalities. Individuals within the races seem like types. Playing with this idea of biological race could have been an interesting exploration of the concept of race. What about people who don’t fit into their racial stereotypes or choose to live against type? But Stephenson plays it pretty straight.
Although the new society of “Spacers” hasn’t quite gotten up to 21st century standards in terms of microchips, it’s more than made up for that by innovative ways to build and travel in space and to Earth’s surface. In fact, that’s basically what the final part of the book is about: all the cool toys that this new society has, and the cool ways that humanity has been altered by breeding and genetic engineering. This part has pages and pages of exposition, and even a color plate, illustrating the arrangements of space habitats and how transportation and trade work. While this kind of exposition has a long history in literature, going back at least to Victor Hugo’s detailed examination of the history and functioning of the Paris sewers in “Les Miserables,” it’s something that has mostly, and thankfully, disappeared from mainstream fiction.
There is a thin plot overlaid on this gee-whiz society, having to do with the discovery that there are actually “root stock” humans descended from people who survived the cataclysm on Earth. In spite of the 300 or so pages devoted to this section, Stephenson is probably just setting the scene for what will be another novel (or two or three). The reader would do well to read the exciting first sections of the novel, and save the final part to skim as the prelude to the sequel.