2019年10月3日 星期四

"Seveneves" by Neal Stephenson (2015)

Warning: spoilers follow.

"The failure of the radio, shortly after the beginning of the mission, had been caused by a defective part for which there was no replacement: a simple, stupid oversight.  The longest leg of the trip - the year and a half spent coasting from the L1 gate to Grigg-Skjellerup - had consisted of lengthy stretches of boredom interrupted by occasional panics, most of which had to do with the life support system.  This was based on using sunlight to grow algae, a process that worked well in the lab but turned out to be difficult to sustain on Ymir.  The newest arklets in the Cloud Ark had benefitted, in this respect, from lessons learned operating such systems in the time since Zero, but Ymir had been built and launched very early, using systems that now seemed painfully out of date."

Neal Stephenson is a science/speculative fiction writer living in Seattle.  Degrees in science run in his family, but he doesn't have any PhDs to boast of.  Seveneves is his most recent novel, and the only of his books I've read.

In this lengthy tome, which is divided into three lengthy parts, a mysterious force known as the Agent causes the moon to shatter.  This event triggers a frantic scramble to establish a viable colony in space.  The old International Space Station (ISS) serves as the nucleus for this colony, with smaller crafts/habitats sent up to join the ISS as the Earth is bombarded by lunar fragments.  Various power struggles also come to the fore as governments worldwide come to grips with the extinction of all terrestrial life, and the politics of who and who isn't allowed to immigrate to the orbiting colony divide friends, family and even whole cultures.

So much for the first part.  After that point those inhabiting the colony begin a years-long struggle for survival, predicated upon the allocation of resources, and methods of organizing the colonists into a self-perpetuating community.  The colony's primary goal is achieving a higher orbit, away from the more dangerous pieces of lunar debris.  Two powerful factions emerge in a debate over how to attain this higher orbit, one faction led by the scientific personnel aboard the ISS, and another faction led by the former President of the U.S. from a smaller craft/habitat.

All of which leads to the third and final part, in which the descendants of the remaining colonists resettle Earth and create a new civilization.  Seven of these descendants, each descended from a particular survivor of the factional struggle described above, are sent to investigate an anomalous sighting on what used to be North America, and also to solve the mystery of what this sighting holds for the future of humanity.

All of which sounds GREAT, doesn't it?  It sounds like a stirring epic along the lines of Asimov's Foundation or Frank Herbert's Dune novels.  It sounds like something you could lose yourself inside, something you'd treasure long after the last chapter (and the next 5,000 years of human history) is concluded.

But there's a problem.  The problem is that Neal Stephenson absolutely DROWNS this narrative in details, to the point where finishing it becomes a real chore.  Keep in mind that I have no problem with hard science fiction.  It might even be my favorite genre.  But even I had to roll my eyes at certain points in this book.  Another discussion of orbital mechanics?  Another discussion of genetics?  Another discussion of how human culture has changed over the last few millennia?  

All of these discussions/digressions might add an element of realism to Seveneves, but they do nothing to add interest to the story.  If you're looking for character development, look elsewhere.  If you're looking for dramatic conflict, don't bother.  Both of these things are present in the novel - and when they finally do make themselves known it's SO much better - but in-between their sporadic appearances are pages of scientific detail, backstories, and asides that do absolutely nothing to advance the plot.

This, and the last part of the book is both a fairly derivative AND a fairly anticlimactic science fiction adventure story, not unlike Star Trek III: The Search for Spock meets Larry Niven's Ringworld.  And once you start thinking about Ringworld and Star Trek III you can't help but arrive at the conclusion that they're both more concise and more entertaining stories.  Stephenson's details - for all their hundreds of pages - do little to disguise this fact.

In this I can't help but contrast Neal Stephenson with Andy Weir, another science fiction author who's gotten a lot of attention recently.  Weir, like Stephenson, also adds a lot of detail to his off-world adventures, but the scientific details found in The Martian and Artemis are central to those stories.  Even if I do have certain reservations about Weir (and Niven), it's significant that the details they provide allow the reader access to their plots, whereas most of the details in Seveneves 800+ pages could have been edited out of the book entirely.

Will I be reading more Neal Stephenson in the future?  Well, after asking about his bibliography on r/scifi I was told that his best novel is/was Snow Crash, written 23 years before SevenevesThe Wikipedia synopsis for that book seems to indicate it was a more concise effort, and I think that in Stephenson's case a little less detail might be a good thing.  Some authors just work better in that kind of medium, and I have the suspicion that Stephenson is one such writer.

Related Entries:

"The Wandering Earth" by Cixin Liu (2017)
"Orion" by Ben Bova (1984)
"The Artificial Man" by L.P. Davies (1965)
"They Shall Have Stars" by James Blish (1957)

1 則留言: