The inevitable mechanics of Seveneves

seveneves-coverI don’t know if I’ve done a book review since school. So I’m not about to start now. But I read a book, and it did a lot of things to my brain. A lot of making me think. A lot of wondering. And a surprising amount to my gut too.

So it’s worth talking about.

Seveneves snuck up on me. I thought I would notice when an author I enjoy (sometimes) so much had a new book out, but now I don’t work in a library, I guess I actually need to make an effort to spot things. The instant I saw it, I ordered it, which left me going in absolutely blind as to what to expect. The only thing I knew before I opened the book was that ‘it’s mostly orbital mechanics’, which seemed to be a warning from my housemate.

It’s not untrue. But it also misses the point a little.

Anyway, if you’ve not read the book, you should stop reading this, and start reading that instead. If you have any interest in space and/or people, it’s probably worth a shot. It’s not without faults, but it rips at a good pace, and had me (mostly) enthralled despite it’s weaknesses.

But I’m not here to review the book, I’m here to try and sort through some of my thoughts on the whole thing, and more particularly, a lot of the details. I won’t really be telling you those details, but some of it is inevitable. So this is only really going to make sense if you’ve read the book, and it’s certainly going to ruin a lot of the potential surprises. I’m going to start with how the book almost immediately spoils itself, but going in blind is probably recommended. So probably stop yeah?

Spoilers

That’s not a spoiler warning (well, it is that too) but my first talking point.

I found it a really weird experience reading this, as some of it’s trappings got in the way of an imagined perfect enjoyment. The blurb on the back of my edition (which I only read about three hundred pages in) gives away the way the temporal location of the final third of the book. The name of the book starts mysterious, and I like the bluff/foreshadowing of the seven lumps of moon rock in early section, but once combined with the diagram on the inside cover, becomes an enormous spoiler. Giving you a list of at least seven survivors (and a set of names to look out for).

Iseveneves-inside-covert’s either frustrating or brilliant. I loved looking at the A+5000 diagram and not having a clue what it meant. Trying to decode it, trying to work out what it was telling me. When it clicked, it gave away the ending of the near future portion of the book (but little or nothing of the route), but that sense of predestination made a lot of sense to the broader themes, the broader motifs. Or at least the ones that I picked up.

So I want to tell everyone not to read the back of the book, but I’m not sure it matters. On some level, I think the book wants to feel like a puzzle. Like a game. Having those particular shreds of information adds to the experience. Gives you something to chew on. A thread to pull.

A Seveneves ludography

Okay, okay, so I’m obsessed with boardgames. There’s a good chance this is just me. But as I was reading I spotted three connections to games that I think are worth talking about. There’s also one revealed in the acknowledgements at the end. So I think I’m okay here. Stephenson was involved in a (failed?) kickstarter for a game peripheral, so I think I’m allowed to guess at ludic connections.

First of all, the most tenuous. One of the first things that impressed me about the book, was how smoothly it taught. It makes sense for a book that makes a hero (clearly some inspired by Sagan and Degrasse Tyson) of a television scientist to pay close attention to how it teaches, but I was struck by the particular way it happens. It reminded me mostly of Valve, and the way they teach puzzle mechanics in Half Life 2 or Portal (and beyond and, now everybody is doing it, even further beyond).

Basically, if you’re going to have to learn something complicated, it’ll break it up into component elements, and make sure you understand each bit in isolation before throwing you in at the deep end.

The book spends a lot of time explaining rocket science to you, but it only does it at the exact pace you need it, and it often feels like incidents are injected just to give you an opportunity to learn the building blocks of science you need. It works brilliantly, almost invisibly, but it means you learn a hell of a lot. I couldn’t work out whether I was more into the mechanics or the plot, but both pulled at me, and both pulled each other.

The process felt very carefully designed. Which is an odd statement to make about a book. We tend not to think of authorship in that way, one of those weird pseudo-elitist distinctions, like between craft and art. But there’s no shame in design, and it makes the book more readable, more gripping and more educational.

Which is great.

The second ludic root is revealed in the acknowledgements. Some of the thought processes for the TeReForm project to rehabilitate the planet were borne out of a game design project for an unfinished game. Actually, terraforming is a pretty popular theme right now in boardgames (which have realised that colonising Mars is much more palatable than colonising the real people of history, a topic we’ll return to later, funnily enough) so it’s not unsurprising.

The main thing I want to note here is the retroactive easter egg to be found. Finding out TeReForm was a game system, makes it make even more sense that the ONAN pods create a hex based network of life on the planet. It’s a smart visual pun, and a pleasing nod to the ideas that made the book happen.

Third is simplest. Just wondering how much time was spent in Kerbal Space Program before the book got made, and whether anyone has yet reconstructed the entire narrative in that particular simulation. The two probably just share a heritage (marvelling at the mechanical miracles of space travel), but I couldn’t quite get it out of my head. I should really give the game a go. I wonder if the book will have made me any better at it.

The final one is a bit more niche, but was a strong feeling I got. It could be seen as a criticism, but it’s hard to be sure.

Microscope is a world building role playing game, using index cards and strict structure to lay out entire histories. You have a start point and an end point (potentially separated by thousands of years, this is supposed to cover the rise and fall of civilisations), and you fill in the gaps.

The reason I mention it, is that at times it feels like the Seveneves was structured using Microscope as a tool. The key element of Microscope (and the reason it’s called that) is that as you’re fleshing out your timeline you are supposed to pause whenever you reach a critical question, assign roles to the group, and act out the moment where that decision was made. As soon as the question is answered, you stop, pull back out to the big picture, knowing the answer, and wondering how that effects the rest of your history.

If you’ve read the book, I think you’ll see what I’m getting at.

I guess it’s how you’re always going to tell huge stories, cutting off extraneous layers, and focussing on those important details. Picking out the broad strokes with intimate moments.

Certainly for the first two thirds of the book, the Microscope structure is held to almost perfectly. Whole swathes of detail that you might expect in a more traditional piece of story telling are missing. We don’t get all the details of Doob’s last year on Earth, we only get the moments where he decides a thing, or makes a thing happen. We don’t get to see most of the reaction of Earth to the apocalypse, because (and this is emphasised again and again) it is broadly irrelevant. The story of Earth ends on the first page, it’s only the survivors that matter when we’re looking at this scale.

And it might just be the only scale that matters.

But we’re people, and it’s only possible to see the big picture through small lenses.

And so that’s what the book provides.

The big picture – whatever that means

If there’s one message the book wants to ram home, it’s that the big picture is too big, and we’re broadly ignoring it. The whole book is at pains to emphasise the huge undertaking that is humanity, and how weirdly individuals relate to it.

The agent is a trigger, an excuse, a way for Stephenson to pressurise humanity, and give it a sense of purpose. Everything that happens is through that one happening, and really, it’s an inevitability.

It’s the strike of the cueball that sets everything in motion.

The book is full of orbital mechanics, but I think the important ones are figurative. We spend a lot of time learning about the inevitability of trajectories, the effort required to push from one course to another. The delta vee.

It is not the most subtle piece of metaphor, but it works.

The whole book is about those delta vees. Not the ignited propellant in the engines, but the effort of individuals, organisations and social structures.

It’s about small choices dictating the course of the future.

That future though

I didn’t gel well with the final third of the book. It was a wonderful piece of sci fi,  necessary part of the narrative and an obvious challenge to write. Effectively an entire extra novel, held within the novel. New characters to establish, new stories to tell. It felt too thin in comparison to the depth of feeling I had before.

But it was so important. It was the arc etched by the delta vees of the seven Eves. We had to hear at least some of the answers, and I loved the way it still cut off at just the right time.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a brilliantly realised world, exploring some really challenging ideas, and told well. It just didn’t rip through me like the first parts of the book.

Some of this was a particular type of disbelief. A hand wave I couldn’t quite stomach, despite everything.

I dream of eugenics

I just don’t think the people we’d been introduced to would be quite as okay with the racial lines drawn in the culture they built. I understood the choice of the eves (particularly under the civilocidal threat of Dinah), in that incredibly brief fulcrum, the council of Seven Eves. But I just can’t imagine (all of them) doubling down and reducing heterozygocity for those first few generations. It smells too much like the nastiest eugenics, breeding for purity. I could understand how it happened from A+250 to A+5000, as by then the culture was embedded, but if there was a viable explanation for why they didn’t mix the races in the early days, I missed it.

And it frustrated me.

I know it was necessary for the narrative and the, well, orbital mechanics of the whole thing. We were supposed to see a set of trajectories that conjoined in the council, and then diverged for 5000 years. We needed to see inevitable outcomes, and interbreeding would’ve broken that.

And of course, the world building around those seven races was incredible. A wonderful piece of sci fi, intensely evocative, making the most of the preexisting relationships we had with the eves. I want a role playing game based around a newly formed seven (and beyond). I want to spend more time in that world, although I think ending when it did, right in the middle of a brand new story, was the perfect way to do it.

Despite everything going down pretty badly towards the end, there was a real hope there, even just conceptually, the idea of a new nine was a romantic one. The Purpose was a bit contrived, but made sense. The micro-robot warfare was not my thing, but it was smart.

I just never quite believed that my eves would have let that happen.

But there you go. It’s all about the decisions people made, and some of those are always going to be obscured.

But it really is all about those decisions, and their effects.

Amistics

I’d not heard the term before, so I’m unsure if it’s a new coining, but I think it’s one of the most useful terms I’ve heard in science fiction.

On an authorial level, it’s a great thing to remind people of if you’re writing sci-fi. If you’ve got someone who likes picking holes in your technology, remind them that societies choose how they relate to technology in very specific ways. It’s a good way to paint over cracks in your technoscape. Every possible thing will not be everywhere. People make weird choices, especially at high scale.

Which is so useful for understanding society. Any society, real or fictional. And any future, for that matter. Remembering that we have choices about technology we’re using. Remembering that we might not understand the choices we’re making about the technology we’re using.

And how we’ll be judged on them.

Tav’s mistake

Of all the little digs and prods at ‘modern life’ Tavistock Prowse’s fate felt the most snide. The social media fiend who eats his own legs and validates cannibalism in the process. It lacks subtlety, and smells a bit like a cheap shot. People love hating on social media, casting it as a demon of our time and bane of our attention spans, so this fate for its ambassador in the book, and the judgement A+5000 takes on him, seems unnecessarily cruel.

But it is a fine example of one of the things I love most in the third part, the Epic.

The idea of casting all the scenes we’ve seen as something approaching a holy text. Pulling the surveillance state around from nightmarish invasion of privacy to historical tool. It’s no justification, but it’s a great plot device. It’s one of those things that makes the finale feel grounded. It cannot float loose when it is tethered tightly to the  story we’ve been poring over for the last 600 pages.

It’s a great touch, and affords us some of our chances to try to reassess some of the missing sides of the story.

JB fucking F

Oh my word have I ever hated a character so wholly. It took a while, but I can’t remember a book making me feel as sickened by a person as when Julia nearly destroyed Izzy, on top of everything else.

I was reading the book at a festival, taking every opportunity to sit down with nice music and just drown in this wonderful book, and I found my stomach turning in my tent, and couldn’t let go of the rage as I wandered off to try some expensive food and loud music.

The enormities on Earth. The exploitation of privilege to escape her fate. The manipulation and lies. It was horrific. Genuinely painful.

And it only got darker.

It was pure emotion. Not rationality. But I’m impressed that the book managed to make me feel so strongly, and the weight and difficulty that gave to everything. It made me realise how much the stakes had changed. How my perspective had shifted to focus on this tiny orbital population.

How much I wanted someone to blame.

Aïda almost seemed mild in comparison, which is obviously ridiculous.

I think both were demonised by the lack of time spent with them. We didn’t get their emotional background, didn’t have a view to care about them through. I still can’t decide if they felt real or not.

But by god, did I feel affected by Julia. And finding my loathing acted out by another character was an intensely disquieting moment.

It’s all terrifying.

Those orbital mechanics

I guess we needed the caricature, to accept the caricaturisation of 5000 years of inbreeding. We needed definite enough information to foresee arcs of that scale, and then watch them unfold.

I’ve obviously only just finished, you can tell by my focus on the final portion, despite my dismissiveness.

But this idea of inevitability is so present in the opening sections. From the opening moments, we see a path set in motion, even if it only really becomes clear once Doc Dubois does his calculations.

When Doob paints the picture of the white sky and the hard rain, it’s an overwhelming moment, but it only changes what we know, not what was happening. Various characters work it all out immediately. Or at least enough of it. Obviously Stephenson feeds it to us in little pieces, at least as much to give us a chance to get perspective on it as for any other reason.

And so everything gets lost in a fine mist of bolides, delta vee and foreshadowing. The narrative sketches out arcs and sends you along them at a meteoric pace. It teaches you everything you need to know, as soon as you need to know it, so that you can just drown in it.

A thousand more tiny motes

So many things I’ve missed, even this far down.

There’s a note in the acknowledgements, that the mining company Stephenson consulted was really happy to see a story where the mining company weren’t the bad guys. Making me wonder about why we hate mining, even in space. Is it a projected guilt, knowing that we’re still calling it colonisation, but it’s far enough from the real world cases that western history doesn’t have to erase that guilt at every opportunity? Or is it just because space is the only place that hasn’t been corrupted by capitalism?

Doob falling in love just as everything became clear was everything I could ever have wanted.

Doc Dubois, was, in fact, everything I ever wanted. Such a warm character, with just the right number of hard edges.

Dinah felt like a shadow of characters from so many other Neal Stephenson books, so it was refreshing for Ivy to be something so different, and I loved all of their scenes together (and was amazed I didn’t like their descendants more…although I guess Einstein got me a little).

Ooh yeah, Einstein’s habit of mispronouncing details of the information he’d read on (not) wikipedia was so well observed. This is what the world is going to sound like, if it doesn’t already. This kind of person, excitedly knowing everything, but saying it wrong, is what the internet creates. If you don’t know someone like this now, you will do by next Tuesday.

Where do you put your optimism when it’s all so grimly inevitable?

The single oddest choice, and the most optimistic, is that the world doesn’t fall apart. It’s a point that is returned to in A+5000 with the Purpose. The idea that enormous societies are capable of agreeing that one thing is important enough to subsume everything.

I struggle to believe it, but it’s nice to hope, and again, it serves the purpose of the narrative. Would humanity band together, knowing that it was all pointless? Two years without any more than footnotes worth of rioting. Only one uprising against the Casting of the Lots?

I guess it’s a matter, as usual, of perspective. We see the world mostly from Izzy, or from Doc Dubois, and both are far too busy.

There’s always hope, in this story, even when there’s no hope.

So I think it’s pretty optimistic. Except the eugenics. And Tav’s Mistake. And Aïda’s Curse. And the fate of the swarm. And the annihilation of civilisation as we know it.

It’s amazing that it is so optimistic. Really, considering how much happens.

But it’s got a (likely somewhat false, but who cares, this is part of what even the hardest sci fi is for) message, running right through everything it says.

With enough delta vee, everything can be changed. Working out how it will change is less predictable than orbital mechanics, but as inevitable.

Except with more delta vee.

This works on every scale. It’s talking about civilisations, nations, communities and people. It’s not the platitude it sounds like though. It asks for an amount of responsibility, and acknowledgement of just how easy it is for you to crash and burn as to take the big ride.

It’s a bit judgey, maybe, but all for the sake of the message.

People make choices, they have big impacts.

 

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One thought on “The inevitable mechanics of Seveneves”

  1. Thanks for writing the review – I don’t get to see enough other opinions about books I’ve read. I really appreciated your insight about the explicit teaching, as well as how the might have been influenced by gaming. That makes a lot of sense. I love your idea of “surveillance state as historical tool”. The historians of the future have a tough job ahead of them.

    For some reason, the end of the world in Seveneves terrified me. I had more nightmares about that book than any other one I’ve read.

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