Review by Curtis Cole
A planet: culture, religion, philosophy, race and ethnicity, sexuality and gender, technology, and nature. These are some of the defining aspects of this planet and of humanity, that biological organism crawling on the husk of the planetary body known as Earth. Such a differential plethora, that vast multitude constituting the near-infinite intertwining of purposes with agents is the focus of Neal Stephenson’s latest epic: Seveneves.
Set against a backdrop of Earth in crisis and a future spawned from that terrible chaos, Stephenson’s thread weaves together narratives of the highest order—the reason for events, human mission in a seemingly mission-less world, etc.—to depict something of a postmodern flare: a story about the production of myth and how metanarratives lead to societal parody, the semiotic becoming satirical in—and for—itself.
Earth of the not too distant future is the setting of the story. In this timeline, however, not all is well. One day, out of nowhere, an unknown force—evocatively called ‘The Agent’—destroys the moon, shattering it into seven gigantic pieces. Unfortunately for humanity though the disaster doesn’t end there for the pieces soon begin to collide with one another. The proliferation of new pieces continues unabated and soon a new disaster is predicted: in but a few years’ time the pieces will reproduce to such an extent that as soon as the moon’s mass falls into the atmosphere (“The White Sky”), and onto the planet’s surface (“The Hard Rain”), the resulting destruction will wipe out all of humanity during a five-thousand year extinction.
With this prediction, the die is cast!
All the nations of the world scramble to save the human species. Humanity endeavors to build a space arc, a massively refitted and expanded international space station, to house the best and brightest minds of the human race; the idea being that humanity will save themselves by roughing out the storm in such habitable environments, to which after the Hard Rain ends, they will remake the Earth and live there once more. Fast-forward five centuries to witness the reclamation of the Earth, along with the social discord which follows: first contact, Cold War-esque stand-offs, and the meaning of duty all make their mark during this epoch, the ‘era of the seven races’.
Divided into three parts, the novel’s first two parts focus on the trial and tribulations of 21st-century humanity in saving their skins while the third part concerns itself with the journey of their ancestors to reclaim the planet. With a whole new set of characters from the first two parts, the third installment, although radically different from the first storyline, offers some startling observations of social customs, revealing the, what in semiotic terms is called “the referent”, or the original sign, of present day society. Though not expecting a treatise on semiotics and grand narratives when I opened Stephenson’s novel, the third installment screams for the semiotic treatment (something which, unfortunately, will only be touched upon in this review).
If the pieces of the moon represent anything, it is what poststructuralist semiotician Jean Beaudrillard called (and I’m paraphrasing here), “the evasion of the dialectic of meaning”, of how the “infinite proliferation of things” managed to dissociate themselves from the original signification. As the catalyst for the whole plot the moon’s fragmentation represents the culmination of the decay of the chain of signification: from the moment the moon dies to the final chapter five thousand years later, the (semiotic) sign, riding on the coattails of culturally constructed ‘metanarratives’ of struggle and survival, degenerates until nothing but parody remains, the base of the sign which had originally, before the Agent battered the moon, existed as a hidden regulatory function; the sign which informed cultural and social reproduction.
The post-“Hard Rain” society bears the wounds of this decay extravagantly. From the two great powers dubbing one another merely as “Blue” and their foe as “Red”, to the casting of television producers as military generals (in order to literally direct, as in film directing, the armed engagements so as to garner societal support for any armed confrontations; manipulation of the fighting, accordingly, of how the battle is handled, who is killed and who is shown mercy, becomes all mere factors in engagements. Truly, wars in this society are truly televised as neo-Roman spectacles), the realities of contemporary (21st century) society reflect their future parallels as the pale and sickly phantoms of their formerly full-blooded selves: no grand labels or names are superimposed on conflicts—a war which happened in the woods is merely known as “The War in the Woods”, media is spotlighted as just as important to the war effort as the soldiers themselves. The masking of the pre-Hard Rain epoch, as framing conflicts as grand tapestries of emancipation or of mass-media outlets acting as supposedly impartial observers, in actuality acting as impromptu public relations firms for the military, has been thoroughly effaced. The function of society, its bare bones, and how it truly functions, becomes perceptible in Seveneves through its semiotic deforestation.
Of Neal Stephenson’s previous works Seveneves stands out. Said another way it is either greatly enjoyed or hotly despised. I tend to side with the critics of the unfavorable disposition. Across the board, the writing is inferior to Stephenson’s previous novels; while a reader could devour a work such as “Reamde” and enjoy every second of the narrative’s pacing, stellar character development, and universe, without becoming fatigued, the same cannot be said for Seveneves. Each and every character is one-dimensional, often offering little—if any—in originality, save but for a quip here or there; the pages are filled with monotonous tech-jabber that becomes unintelligible unless one has an engineer’s degree or a sophisticated understanding of the sciences, and slows the reading down to a barely managed crawl every time the author starts a track concerning the logistics of how the space station is expanded or how a certain machine functions; and the story, while ultimately one about cultural parody, is still nevertheless, a silly idea—the “Agent” is never identified (the moon was simply destroyed and nothing more is said on the cause), the actions of the characters swings between wildly perceptive, the sort of which is only possible in Hollywood-style movies where the protagonist has a one-in-a-billion hunch which turns out to be correct, and those characters which are dizzyingly irrational (infighting on humanity’s only hope for survival over trivial political matters? You bet!); and then, the worst offender, being that of Stephenson’s reactionary depiction of race which borders on the legitimation of racialism: aside from the genetic alteration of each of the so-called seven “eves”, or the most prominent woman capable of procreation, being a laughably absurd happening, even after one takes into account the satirical angle offered through the decay of (semiotic) signification attached to (pre-Hard Rain) conceptions of race, the discourse of each of the Eve’s races possessing genetically defining traits determinative of how they cooperate, or lack of, therefore, with the other races, becomes at once both a kindergarten-level understanding of racial dynamics, as well as a deeply insulting characterization of race through the erection of contemporary racial stereo-and-arch-types. The novel ends with an unsatisfying conclusion which, though meant to draw readers out on the question of metanarratives, fails to make its point suitably perceptible to the average reader.
As it stands Seveneves is a mixed bag. While the world-building is fairly well-done, if not a bit opaque and ponderous at times. For better or worse, Part Three stands out as a defining point in the novel; still, for everything which has been said, one cannot ignore that there are qualities to this novel worth mentioning, the best of which is Stephenson’s ability to keep the story moving forward with the big picture in mind. Some readers this will find this to be an (inter-)stellar time: something that combines some hard-nosed geeky research with a fantastical social-sciences adventure through the cultural stars. For others, however, it will be the opposite: the literary equivalent of a leaky spacesuit. Whether this is a suit you want to wear, I will leave for you to decide.
861 pages. Published by HarperCollins. $16.99 (Kindle), $35.00 (Print). 2015.