August 4, 2016 12:04 AM - by Neal Stephenson - Subscribe

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Anathem, Reamde, and Cryptonomicon comes an exciting and thought-provoking science fiction epic—a grand story of annihilation and survival spanning five thousand years. What would happen if the world were ending? A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in...

Has anyone else made it through this and if so, did you find the first two parts more absorbing than part 3?
posted by Lynsey (35 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I finished it, want exactly taken with any of it but part 3 does get worse. For me it just played up the weak characterisation throughout that each section of the later community literally only had 2 defining characteristics. The while thing really seemed to be Stephenson having interesting ideas about surviving a disaster then sticking in some thinly sketched characters to move forward bring able to take about the sciencey stuff. The submarine people surviving seemed a bit crap also.
posted by biffa at 12:31 AM on August 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

The first two parts were fantastically engrossing competency porn, the latter third was great golden era sci fi schlock. I loved this novel.
posted by books for weapons at 4:02 AM on August 4, 2016 [9 favorites]

I did not love it. I loved the idea and the plot, but the book gets so, so bogged down in the minutiae of the science. Even for Stephenson, it was a lot.
posted by something something at 5:48 AM on August 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

This book was so enraging its ridiculous. Why the fuck they repeatedly let Julia live, knowing that she was the worst was beyond stupid and unbelievable.

Then letting the admitted cannibal on board was just...I can't even fathom. At that point, one character says "Are we not going to let Aida on board, just because she gives us a weird feeling. No course not." All I could think was "You fucking idiot, you have the weird feeling because she admitted to cannibalism and shows no remorse for it."

The long and repeated technical discussions were jarring and annoying, as they were portrayed as more important than actual character development.

Really great idea and I loved the names of the big concepts (Hard Rain, White out, Big Ride etc) but characterizations were just incoherent at times.

The first part was ok. The 5,000 years later part was not as strong as the first.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:52 AM on August 4, 2016 [7 favorites]

While reading the first two sections, I really felt like I was living through the end of the world. The loss of billions of lives felt very present and looming throughout.

I liked that it was not just an examination of the problems of surviving in space, but getting anyone to do anything at all in the face of impending doom.

The religious tone around "dirty space" and "clean space" seems really plausible. That it led to various political problems in the Swarm felt quite on point.

5000 years later was like, yay, we made it. But, hey, we may not yet be out of the woods. Then it was mostly a struggle to decide if Stephenson is embracing squicky ideas about race, or if he is trying to say that the descendants of the people who survived would embrace squicky ideas about race? Cuz there's a whole lotta squicky ideas kicking around in here, and that should not go unexamined.
posted by rustcrumb at 9:56 AM on August 4, 2016 [6 favorites]

So many things in this book are ridiculous that I could just sit here naming them all day. And in a different book, maybe I wouldn't care. When you start pretending to be hard science, though, you leave yourself open to readers nitpicking your realism. Here are the first ridiculous things I can think of off the top of my head, having read this a year ago:

1. They use the same shovel or whatever it is for 5000 years and the branding hasn't worn off of it yet? Even if I buy into his 5000-year later society, this is just too much.

2. In 5000 years, everyone just slept with people within their family the entire time? The idea that there would not be more genetic diversity, especially considering the close quarters, is just preposterous.

3. Is Sarah Palin president? That's a step too far, Stephenson.
posted by tofu_crouton at 10:41 AM on August 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

There was a lot to like and a lot to hate about this book.

- The people in the swarm ark were all in the same situation, but still couldn't ever agree what the best plan to survive was. Then you have random Silicon Valley types saying "I'm going to Disrupt the future of humanity by capturing a comet chunk. You're welcome."
- Despite lots of Scary Nuclear Power talk the depiction of a Fuel Element Failure in the comet retrieval ship and how rapidly it fucks over everyone is pretty accurate. That whole mission was a terrible ordeal and nobody even survived long enough to know if it was even going to make a difference.
- Even after the end of the world the Internet remains home to the shittiest part of humanity.

- Sure, most of humanity is dead we need to stick together whatever, but why let the Cannibals come back? On that note, it would've been better if the cannibals didn't end up trying to violently overthrow Izzy
- It seems crazy that people survived underground and underwater during all the devistation, but no crazier than people surviving in space I guess. It's just easier to accept the space people because we witnessed all their travails. Likewise, it seems weird that only the space folks ever progressed technologically or socially after 5000 years, although the water folks were clearly busy fitting a couple million years of evolution into 5000 years.
- After reading The Last Policeman I'm having a hard time imagining the world banding together to put the whole planet's GDP into rockets in the face of impending doom. I'd expect a lot more disjointed attempts at survival and deep underground bunkers if anything at all.
- I've read a bunch of Alastair Reynolds lately and it's weird how many parallels there are in his works here, namely the Glitter Band from his Revelation Space series and the Aquatics from his Poseidon's Children series.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 11:26 AM on August 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

I've never been more gripped by descriptions of orbital mechanics. I think the first two parts of the novel are wonderful! and wonderfully exciting. It was much more about Plot, much more than Character, but i didn't think the characters were that bad. I think it's a great read on near term spacing.

Which made the "5000 years later" part awful, like a ripoff of Octavia Butler gone horribly wrong. It demonstrated that Stephenson has a bad grasp of biology, sociology, and how culture works. Stick to Physics, man.

Kudos, i suppose, to an attempt at a plot that describes how a culture would preserve itself 5,000 years after a near extinction event. That's a pretty rad concept. It was just executed in such a schlocky way, for the purpose of Action! that paled so greatly next to the orbital mechanics part of the novel. enh. I remember wondering how this could be the same author that wrote Anathem...

I still think about the person gliding into orbit from the ground, though. on a weekly basis.
posted by eustatic at 12:38 PM on August 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

I read the last book of the Last Policeman trilogy pretty much back to back with Seveneves. The difference in writing a convincing humanity and convincing individuals facing the end of the world was particularly striking.
posted by biffa at 12:42 PM on August 4, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think everyone has an author/artist/actor/musician that they just can't help but love everything that person does uncritically, and for me, for whatever reason, that's Neal Stephenson. I've read the Baroque trilogy four times. What threw me about this book was, though I try to go into his books as unspoiled as possible, all the advance media focused on this plot about humanity's descendents 5,000 years in the future. So I was exceedingly confused when the first two thirds were essentially a totally different book. I read somewhere (the back matter of the book maybe?) that this setting originated as a role-playing game idea for him, and I think it really shows. You've got your races, which are essentially also your classes, your defined geographical areas, etc. It doesn't work so well as a novel, but I love it anyway.
posted by skycrashesdown at 1:45 PM on August 4, 2016

Hey did you know technocrats are awesome and brilliant and only make mistakes due to insufficient information? Because if you didn't, Seveneves will inform you of this repeatedly.

I liked the book -- the first 2/3 especially -- but wow did it suffer from SFF Syndrome (there is One Right Answer and All Right Thinking People Know It).
posted by jeather at 3:26 PM on August 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

Same boat as many others; found the first two parts engrossing and the third part just kind of okay. That's still a dang good average level of enjoyment.

I was bothered when they let the President on board. Call me evil or whatever but I would have had her spaced immediately. Seriously, how did anyone not see the disaster coming? You are humanity's last hope! You have emergency powers! Get rid of her!
posted by Justinian at 7:31 PM on August 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

I don't get why Dinah or Izzy just didn't close the airlock when then realized it was her. She put the entire colony at risk and that was just at her arrival. It wasn't going to get better.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:39 PM on August 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Right. "Bye felicia".
posted by Justinian at 7:57 PM on August 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

I finished reading this just before the Hugo voting deadline. I enjoyed it, especially the first two-thirds, but the third part started to drag. I can see how it would make a really interesting RPG sourcebook, though. Personally, I'd be interested to see some of the details of all the massive orbital machinery. (I was hoping that there was an appendix online showing the calculations for how to glide to orbit or run the Cradle, but a quick search didn't turn up much.)

Does anyone have a good explanation for how the Pingers survived? Is it plausible that a submarine crew could survive for even a couple years underwater, let alone long enough to breed for gills?
posted by ectabo at 8:47 PM on August 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Like many others I found it lacking, but the thing that I really don't like about it is that it's so damn voiceless. One of the things I like about Stephenson is that strong authorial voice... most obvious in first-person books like Anathem or Zodiac, but even his third-person books like Diamond Age or Cryptonomicon have a clear narrator with a distinct personality and voice.

And it's just... mush. Honestly the longer disaster section is more or less indistinguishable from Niven/Pournelle.

And OH GOD THE TERRIBLE PROSE AND AWFUL HABITS. He's developed this tic where he writes "blah blah blah extraneous detail. For longwinded explanation of why that extraneous detail." Unggggggh.

And it's so terribly structured. I mean, have you ever read a book that just cried out to start in the year 5XXX AE (AD 7XXX) with a ton of weird details and had the disaster story interleaved in?

And it's such a shame because there's so much that's interesting about it -- one of the things I liked, though one that Stephenson doesn't play up much, is that here's this society with a founding epic except their Aeneid is captured on thousands of hours of video. They know exactly what their founders did and said, and can refer to the direct images of them saying and doing it anytime they want to.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:18 PM on August 4, 2016 [7 favorites]

I unabashedly love this book and have reread it once so far. I admit the "5000 years in the future" shift really threw me the first time, and it's not my favorite thing about this book by any means, but it is an interesting way of making it "character driven" - by reducing the characters to a set of essential characteristics, interests, and talents, and designing humanity around them.

One of the things I liked best about it was that I believe every single POV character was either female, a person of color, or both. What a nice change for sci-fi.

I still don't really know how I feel about some of the characters being obvious parodies of real people - Neil Degrasse Tyson, Malala, the young Elon Musk comet dude, etc - but it all still kind of worked for me. As a robotics engineer myself, I liked Dinah a lot. I enjoyed the overall sense of impending doom and "what's the point" reactions to a lot of stuff in the first two sections.

And I did totally geek out over all the technical detail and I have no complaints about it whatsoever.

What I do have complaints about were the illustrations included with the Kindle version, which is to say basically none that were readable or easy to peruse to understand all the complex infrastructure. I would have liked a lot more stuff online immediately that I could have referred to to better understand the structures. I'm not very good at picturing things described in books so the Cradle and Chainhattan and all that really did me in until I finally saw some artists' concepts.
posted by olinerd at 5:09 AM on August 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

I don't get why Dinah or Izzy just didn't close the airlock when then realized it was her. She put the entire colony at risk and that was just at her arrival. It wasn't going to get better.

This is why I didn't finish the (audio)book. I keep meaning to, but oh god I was so mad at this. I kept going for a while after, but a few hours later I was already so tired of the incredibly obvious "Julia is going to lead a populist revolt because obviously it's so clever that the one politician to make it off earth would doom or nearly doom mankind" subplot that I just gave up. Then I read the Wikipedia summary and that justified my decision, because as far as I can tell there was at least 3 or 4 more hours of that shit I'd have to listen to before it even began to meaningfully move forward.

Neal, why do you always hurt me like this?
posted by tocts at 5:31 AM on August 5, 2016

I mean, if you're sort of part of the ruling elite of the last remaining vestiges of an entire species and the entire Earth has just started burning everyone you know and love below you, are you really going to kick one more human out of the airlock? Yeah, they couldn't stand her and what she did was wrong wrong wrong, but I can see the desire to continue our own species interfering and saying "okay, well, I can't in good conscience end her right this moment."
posted by olinerd at 5:35 AM on August 5, 2016

I mean, if you're sort of part of the ruling elite of the last remaining vestiges of an entire species and the entire Earth has just started burning everyone you know and love below you, are you really going to kick one more human out of the airlock?

When it's a known shit stirrer who defied agreements and risked the entire project to save humanity, just to save herself? OH HELL YEAH.

That's the big problem with the book, to get to the seveneves, people have to repeatedly do incredibly stupid things and the narrative suffers.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:52 AM on August 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

I mean, if you're sort of part of the ruling elite of the last remaining vestiges of an entire species and the entire Earth has just started burning everyone you know and love below you, are you really going to kick one more human out of the airlock?

You sure as fuck are because if you don't you'll have to answer to the remnant Tibetans who ask why they couldn't bring the Dalai Lama and to the remnant Brits who ask why they couldn't bring a young heir to their throne and to a large segment of your population who all resent that they couldn't bring any of their leadership with them.

AND THEN the book descends back into Niven / Pournelle crapland where of course the Politician Lady is bad and evil because Politician People are bad and wicked and stupid people who only exist to sow and exploit discord and distract people from the TRUE TRUTHS about how we should run society that physicists and engineers will reveal to us.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:21 AM on August 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

I hated the book when I first read it.

Then my wife accidentally got me a copy for my birthday, and I found myself without something new to read so I read it again. And I liked it better.

There's another book here - one that could be written to explain the histories of the Submariners and the Miners. I was a little annoyed that so little was known/learned about them.
posted by Thistledown at 10:32 AM on August 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Part 3 reads to me to be very much like the novel NS wanted to write, but for some reason he (and we) had to wade through every-lengthening Parts 1 and 2 to get to Part 3. Seriously, part 3 is like essence of Stephenson. Srap Tasmanr, Sonar Taxlaw, verbal and postural duels of manner and custom that instantly turn violent, a conceptual shift that reveals a hidden history behind everything that has happened so far, and a hopeful ending.

When I re-read this, I'm going to start with Part 3 and see if I enjoy it more as a sink-or-swim far-future SF short novel.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:05 PM on August 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

I enjoyed it. I mostly enjoyed chewing on the ideas it brought up, which were chewy indeed.

It also brought to mind an old SF short story, The Cold Equations—they both revolve around the theme "space is a bitch."
posted by adamrice at 1:41 PM on August 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

I like Stephensonin general and the first third was a joy - he's gotten better at making his literary masturbation more enjoyable to more readers. Thought that Anathem was terrible at this (and what was up with the CGI portraits of some of the characters?) and I tolerated it in the Baroque trilogy.

The middle section was half awesome, half annoying. Internet trolls in space? Sarah Palin in space? Ugh. Although it makes sense that the young Arkies totally screwed things up - they're just stupid random kids, after all. Jebus, Space Sarah Palin makes me so so so angry.

The transition to the third part felt rushed (well, 5000 years go by) and ... yeah, the Craftsman (cяaφtsman) joke was pretty implausible. The entire third part felt compressed and unfleshed out.

What I wouldn't mind, though, is a part 2 treatment of the Pingers* and Diggers surviving through the hard rain.

> The idea that there would not be more genetic diversity

The Rufus clan might have had enough individuals for it not to be a problem (there's reasonable evidence that all of the indigenous peoples of the Americas descended from only about 70 individuals); they also limited population expansion through quasi-religious societal engineering.

No idea how many people went underwater.

As for the spacers, they thinkered with their DNA although almost all of the 'science' writing was gobbledygook.

* I wonder if he had any influence from the 'Slashers' in Alastair Reynold's Century Rain?
posted by porpoise at 1:44 PM on August 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yeah, like some of the other Stephenson books, this had a ton of good stuff and a ton of really lame let-downs.

Good stuff - like books for weapons (fantastic username!) said upthread, the competency porn was engrossing. If we were all going to die, I hope that we'd pull it together enough to launch this kind of last-ditch emergency effort. And the technical response to each challenge throughout the first two parts was well done.

The bad - why oh why must the characterization be so awful? I couldn't believe that they'd get the politics of the cloud ark so very wrong. And how do you expect me to believe that they just happened to create 7 races that each decided to breed true to their founder characteristics over 5000 years? I understand that purebred dogs exist, but they're plagued by health problems and vastly outnumbered by mutts, aren't they? Or are we envisaging a Jew / Arab or Hindu / Muslim sort of dynamic here, where the antagonism is passed down generationally?

Some books grow in my estimation after a couple of months. Not this one, though - I enjoyed it quite a bit while reading it but wouldn't pick it as a recommendation to someone else, I don't think...
posted by RedOrGreen at 2:25 PM on August 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

My favorite thing about the book was also the competence porn aspect of smart, talented people taking on the work of preserving humanity with seriousness and a comparative lack of drama. Like, I feel like a lot of post-apocalyptic narratives don't have this explicit, big picture focus of "the species must survive," and to me that was an interesting reconfiguration of the usual stakes of apocalyptic narratives. Usually one person/group stands for the whole of humanity in a sort of synecdoche: no one's constantly thinking about humanity as a whole, they're worrying about themselves, and as an audience we can get invested in their survival and see it as symbolic of the survival of all of humanity. In Seveneves, most of our characters are almost entirely concerned with humanity as a whole, and the centuries and millennia-long big picture; as individual characters, they don't matter that much. There was something very appealing and refreshing about that to me. The fight to save the species was a real page turner.

That said, I'm always a characters-first reader, and literally no one in this entire brick of a novel stood out as a memorable or even especially likable character. Also, while I can accept the lack of sentiment as a stylistic choice, I kind of wanted more sentiment about the destruction of most of planet Earth and its inhabitants, you know? In some senses, this was the literary equivalent to big budget movies wantonly destroying entire cities. The emotional weight of the narrative was almost entirely lacking, and it lent the whole book the air of a thought experiment more than a novel.
posted by yasaman at 12:32 PM on August 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's my least favorite Stephenson book by a fair margin, which is to say that I liked it, but its flaws took me out of the story too often.

I have to say that I kind of disagree with all the comments slagging him for having people constantly doing stupid things, though. Of course people do stupid things. These are people we're talking about. People are the dumbest, and especially when they're desperately trying to find a balance between doing good and doing right. I think the constant battle against bad choices is possibly the most realistic thing in the book.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:59 PM on August 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Yes, Stephenson has a dim (which is to say accurate) view of human nature. The part where Venezuela has a legitimate grievance about none of their citizens being selected and their protests and interference with the daily launches of supply rockets to the Ark leads not to a resolution of their grievances at the UN but to their being nuked after the US, China and Russia all agree that there is no time to be wasted, was cold blooded.
posted by mlis at 9:34 PM on August 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

With the caveat that I enjoyed the book (like most of Stephenson's work) more than the vast majority of books I've read. . . this one definitely falls into the category of things I don't recommend to people because I'd get tired of all the caveats required to justify doing so.

The premise is great fun, and it's the first genuinely new lifeboat scenario I've read in decades. I found a lot of the characters compelling, and the decision making and social interactions felt plausible and far more interesting than the usual spaceship crew novel. Most of the specific science seemed competent.

But, there were just too many little stickers hiding in the blanket to make me want to cuddle up with it. It's been well over a year since I read it - so I hope I'm not misremembering too many details - but I certainly remember the annoyance at a book that was mostly great and failed in ways that were so easily avoidable.

To pick the first obvious example, that the entire scientific community of the Earth would have had no idea that seven moon chunks orbiting each other would be unstable and might threaten Earth until, many days after the event, our science-outreach hero suddenly has a flash of brilliant insight and decides to model the system is just silly. I don't actually know whether the accelerating pulverization thing is plausible; but I know that hundreds of people would have been modeling the system before the newscasters finished their first sentences, and that no astronomer on the planet would have ever imagined the system could remained stable for long. "Brilliant scientist realizes material from undergrad science textbook applies to classic textbook problem" may be better than getting the science wrong; but it sure gets mankind wrong.

Even harder to stomach is the idea that human cultures and languages will naturally remain fixed and recognizable for thousands of years. Isolated, resource-starved human populations that have been separated from each other for five times as long as the span that separates this novel from Beowulf suddenly come into contact. And, instead of spending a year learning to communicate, they settle down to reminisce in a common language about their shared history. And it's not even a cause for surprise or explanation that they are able to do so. It makes the idea of thousands of years of perfect racial segregation and the preservation of genetic and personality traits among the spacers seem downright plausible.

In fact, the end of Seveneves is so unexpectedly full of ham-handed, golden-age-of-science-fiction nonsense it almost works as a parody of the genre. All it needs are a few psionic robots who've been working behind the scenes to restore the planet, and I'd believe it was intentional.
posted by eotvos at 12:39 AM on August 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

Seveneves is on the president's summer reading list.
posted by yasaman at 7:32 PM on August 12, 2016

Oh that poor man, why won't people let him relax?!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:12 PM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's my least favorite Stephenson by far - so far that I nearly threw it across the room at the 5000 years later point - but even a year later, I'm still thinking about it. I took Julia as a dig and a nasty one at Hilary, so I'm glad that others are saying Sarah Palin. I don't have a clue about Stephensons politics, if any. And then it got so implausible - yeah, let's build a culture around 5000 year old iPhone footage, that shit lasts forever, and of course a jeep on the surface of earth would be fine after everything else is completely destroyed, take down Paris but this shovel is A-okay, gah. But I enjoyed the first third and the last third. I don't care about delta v, so I skimmed it. Pages and pages and pages of it...

Anyway, I keep thinking that it was the start of a trilogy or more. I mean, he's basically got an epic fantasy space opera setup here, with seven races (dwarves! Elves! Aquaman!) and instead of going anywhere with it he just lets it end with a thud. I think there's more coming.
posted by mygothlaundry at 6:24 PM on August 15, 2016

and instead of going anywhere with it he just lets it end with a thud. I think there's more coming.

But he ends virtually everything with a thud...
posted by Justinian at 9:17 PM on August 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a White Out
But a thud
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:50 AM on August 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

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