Neal Stephenson’s “Seveneves”: Thoughts on an Impact Event

The International Space Station gets a snapshot of the Moon.
I’ve been deeply affected by Neal Stephenson’s latest novel Seveneves. While I am often a slow and somewhat lazy reader, I found myself taking every opportunity I could to dive back into it. While my favorite novel, Anathem, also by Stephenson, presented a world I wanted to explore more deeply and spend more time in, I found that the story of Seveneves was one that I wanted to tell everyone I spoke to. I didn’t of course because everyone would hate that.

But this is the kind of book we’re talking about, where each event, each decision, and each change of fortune filled with suspense and excitement for what came next, and an enthusiasm to share with others what novel and evocative things I was experiencing.

I’m left with so many thoughts and questions. I don’t necessarily consider the fact that these questions haven’t been sufficiently answered to be a problem or a mistake by Stephenson, but immediately after finishing the novel, they are swirling in my mind, demanding my attention.

Here are some of those thoughts and questions, in no particular order, a few of which are simple questions about “what happened” to certain characters or with certain events that simply aren’t told, and others are more nuanced regarding motivations, character, and connections.

An obvious warning: If you haven’t read the book, I’m going to spoil pretty much everything here. It’s like a nuclear-spoiler bomb. If you have no intention of reading the book, or don’t care about spoilers, there’s probably no reason for you to read this post anyway.

Quickly: In Seveneves, the moon blows up because of unknown “Agent,” which humanity learns will kill everyone on Earth within a couple of years due to pieces of the Moon raining down like fire, wiping out everything. So the people of Earth send a select few into orbit with the International Space Station to begin the “Cloud Ark” to live in space until such time, thousands of years later, that they might return to Earth. Lots of awful things happen which lead to there being eight people left, all women, seven of them able to have kids. Through genetic manipulation they propagate the species on an asteroid where they parked the space station. 5000 years later, we see what humanity has become, an orbital species of seven races, only now beginning to dip its toe into repairing and repopulating Earth. Got it?

* * *

The book handled well the curious and difficult balance between the enormous impact of the end of life on Earth and the relatively smaller crises and concerns of the Cloud Ark population. This is a book about those people, not those lost in the Hard Rain, but I would have loved (in another volume or book?) a deeper exploration of how humanity coped with knowledge of its inevitable demise in one fell swoop. My brain would often hang on questions about how governments, economies, and institutions could continue plodding of their own inertia over the two years of preparation. The book cites isolated incidents of violence and riots on Earth (not including the zero-hour standoff in Venezuela), but my mind reels at the idea of a planet full of people all processing their absolutely-assured deaths. Maybe no book could handle it.

* * *

One real triumph for Stephenson in this book is how he brings to bear his penchant for detailed description. In The Baroque Cycle, I was often entirely lost and confused by his meticulous and lengthy descriptions of each setting’s most micro and macroscopic details, or long events with several characters all doing a lot of things I couldn’t keep track of. Anathem occasionally left me a big agog in a similar fashion in terms of architectural descriptions. (Not so much with Reamde which was a non-sci-fi suspense thriller.) But the intricate descriptions of Seveneves almost always served a definitive purpose. Even if at times I felt the lengthy descriptions of minute orbital mechanics were less than thrilling, they almost always paid off, anchoring me in the physics and the challenges they posed, or allowing me to better grasp the enormity and complexity of things like the Great Chain.

* * *

Why did the descendants of the Seven Eves avoid interbreeding to such an extreme degree? While it is explained that Moira finds ways to mitigate the genetic problems of inbreeding, one would presume that as soon as there were sufficient numbers of humans that they would immediately start mixing with the other “families,” increasing the (incredibly small) population’s genetic diversity by traditional means. I understand that the Council of the Seven Eves left us with seven women who each had very strong and differing opinions about the kinds and character of humans they wished to spawn, but I don’t understand how such an ideological point of view (and we are led to understand that “Blue” is averse to ideologies) could have been followed so rigidly, except perhaps by the presumably indoctrinated descendants of Aiïda.

By the time people are sufficiently numerous and have divided themselves into orbital territories in the Grain Chain, it makes more sense that folks might tend to reproduce with others who are like them and in relative proximity – traveling from one part of the ring to another was doable, but not simple. It’s simply difficult for me to understand why such a strict adherence to seven distinct racial lines would or could have been maintained in the first few generations on Cleft.

* * *

What happened to the Mars expedition? I suppose we are meant to assume that whether they got to Mars or not, given the upheaval of the Break and the inability of the Mars mission to subsist for more than a year or so, that they were simply lost. Certainly, the people of A.5000 would have been able to find out whether a human mission to Mars had ever made it there, and it’s never mentioned.

* * *

What is the story of the Pingers’ Epic? How did they manage to change themselves so (relatively) quickly? How many of them are there? What kind of society do they have? Could they have communicated to the people of the Great Chain if they’d wanted to? It is all clearly a book unto itself, not that we should presume that such a thing will ever come into being. I suspect it’s one of those things that Stephenson is just going to leave there for us to wonder about. But given all we hear about how the Cloud Ark was more of a pacifying story for a doomed population than a genuine long-term plan, it does seem like the underwater gambit could perhaps have been not a Plan B, but a Plan A; the actual best hope for humanity that was better-designed and better-prepared.

* * *

President Julia Bliss Fletcher. It’s not entirely clear whether she was always cynical and conniving, but as I always say, one doesn’t become President of the United States without being at least partially sociopathic and messianic. Compound the unspeakable stress and pressure of leading a nation of humans that are all about to die, along with the loss of her own family, and the need to drop nuclear bombs on fellow humans, it’s easy to see how muted or dormant tendencies may have blossomed when the shit really hit the fan (or the Moon really hit the Earth).

That said, as the only successful unauthorized stowaway to Cloud Ark (I don’t count Sean Probst who had his own operation going and immediately sacrificed himself for the larger cause), I’m flummoxed by the leeway granted Julia by Izzy’s command structure. Certainly, bigger problems existed, and surely no one wanted to cause more grief and confusion by “jailing” the just-until-recently President of the Newly Pulverized United States. Still, it seems to me that her obviously violent and desperate route to the Cloud Ark should have led to far more scrutiny of her activities, and that she would face some form of justice for her (and call it what it is) crime. Perhaps none of that would have mattered, and she’d have caused the chaos that she did one way or the other. In a way, Julia was like a second Agent.

An Agent that allowed someone like Aiïda to really fuck things up. Of course with the population of all humanity reduced to eight, I can understand why she was allowed to remain free and alive, but I can’t help but think that considering all the horrible things she’d done, and her obvious hyper-aggressiveness and hostility toward the others, that she might have been considered too great a risk and too great a threat, and done away with before the regeneration of the species got going. Again, I get the need for genetic diversity, but it’s not as thought they really took advantage of that diversity, and who knew when she might snap and just kill everyone?

I also wonder why Moria couldn’t have found a way to carry on Luisa’s genetic lineage along with the others, perhaps with one of the other women acting as a surrogate. Seems a waste of perfectly good DNA.

* * *

And what the hell was the Agent, anyway? This is another one of those things that I’m comfortable not being told – it’s not a story about why the Moon blows up, but what happens next. But of course you can’t help but wonder if the answer will reveal itself throughout the entire book. It never does. Some poking around the web tells me that several folks theorize that the Agent is related to events in my favorite novel, Stephenson’s Anathem, which certainly could be the case. One of the mind-bending things about Anathem is how its multiverse setting could have tendrils into myriad stories. The way Julians are described in Seveneves remind me of the first “aliens” the people of Arbre encounter in Anathem, and if any race was going to make sure they got good seats on the multidimensional spaceship, it was going to be the Julians.

* * *

I was pleasantly surprised by how Stephenson made some of the characters so obviously analogous to known figures in real life. Doc Dubois was, to me anyway, clearly meant to mirror Neal deGrasse Tyson, and Camila was of course a take on Malala Yousafzai (though of weaker character than the real Malala, too easily overcome by charismatic personalities). The eminent scientist near the beginning to addresses the world at the Crater Lake event was probably meant to resemble a less-debilitated Stephen Hawking (and perhaps Dr. Hu Noah was as well?). And if Sean Probst wasn’t Elon Musk I’ll eat my hat.

I also think Stephenson often puts himself into his books (think Dodge in Reamde or Erasmus in Anathem), and it seemed to me that this time he was personified by Rufus. But that’s just a guess. I should say I don’t think Julia is meant to be an analog to Hillary Clinton at all: no one could accuse Clinton of being able to form a cult based on her charisma.

* * *

When Moirans “go epi” and experience changes in their phenotypes, to what extent are they really entirely different people? Kath Two is said to have “died” when the transformation to Kathree begins, but is that accurate or a kind of shorthand? They don’t eject all their memories, it seems, so perhaps it’s not dissimilar to the Trill on Star Trek, continuing on with new identities, anchored somehow with the memories of “another person” that you used to be.

* * *

Oh, there’s so much more. Will the Spacers, Diggers, and Pingers eventually interbreed? Who are the Owners? What is the full story of Sonar Taxlaw (perhaps the best-named character of all time), and what will her life be like now? Are there efforts underway to terraform Mars or other asteroids and moons? When do we get a Seveneves Sid Meier-style turn-based strategy game, and will it run on my current Mac?

And here’s a thing that strikes me about Stephenson more broadly. In all of the books of his I’ve read, as “out there” as his science fiction might get, one thing holds true: The aliens are always us. Be they from parallel universe, hiding in mines, adapting to the deep sea, existing in a virtual world, or simply an ocean apart in preindustrial times, we never need non-human extraterrestrials to “alienate” us. Humanity serves exceedingly well as its own threat, its own contrast, and its own focus of awe.

When emerging from the world of this book, I have a powerful sense of Earth’s fragility. Not just in the sense of what might slam into the planet, but of the permanence (or lack thereof) of the everyday objects around me. I have a sense of gravity as something not to be taken for granted, an ecosystem that is so battered and yet so resilient, and an entire universe that is such a relatively short distance “up.” The stark plausibility of this end-of-the-world scenario (like that of Station Eleven which I’ve also recently read) fills me with a kind of dread for how temporary our situation here on Earth inevitably is, and even if it doesn’t happen for millennia, how it really all could be taken away in one macro or microcosmic event. It made me want to hug my kids, not just for our shared precarious position in existence, but also for the incredible potential they possess to make things like orbital habitats for billions of people possible.

I didn’t want this book to end. I want much more of this story. To help alleviate that pain, I think I’ll dive back into Anathem.

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The Power and Pathos of Optimus Prime


As you might know, I am a great fan of the old-school Transformers, the 1986 Transformers animated film in particular. (I even hosted a whole podcast episode about it.) For all their flaws (which are plentiful), the franchise was a watershed moment for me, introducing me as a child to a kind of storytelling, a style of animation, and a degree of out-and-out violence I’d never experienced, for better and/or worse.

What stays with with me more than any other aspect of the franchise, more than the novelty of form-shifting robots or the grandeur of heavy-metal space opera, is the character of Optimus Prime. This is not simply due to the fact that he was the “leader of the good guys,” or that he was strong, or visually striking, all of which are true. But there is a kind of nobility to Prime that permeates every manifestation of Transformers, be it the old cartoon, the animated film, the comic books, or even the recent Michael Bay movies (of which I have only seen the first). Though astoundingly powerful and even deadly, Optimus Prime has always been at the same time almost naive in his idealism, his self-discipline, his personal sense of morality and honor.

My friend Kyle Calderwood directed me to an interview with some of the folks behind the 1980s show and film, and one part stood out to me. Here, voice director Wally Burr described creating the Prime character’s voice with the man who would play him, Peter Cullen:

We were auditioning lots of people for the show, and he was auditioning for Optimus. [Cullen] didn’t have it yet, but he was well known, so he was obviously going to be one of the best candidates. And I was pushing him pretty hard at that audition. And he’s a big guy, a master of everything. And he said “Wally, I’ve got about thirty promos to do for ABC tomorrow, can we back off a little bit?” And I said, “What if we back off a lot and just make Optimus a very nice gentleman who doesn’t shout at anybody, because he knows what the hell he’s doing?” And so Peter softened his voice, and became noble! Instead of a shouting boss, he was noble. And he credited me once at a convention when someone asked him how he created the character. He pointed to me at the back of the room. He agreed with me that we could soften him, yet still make him a very strong character. And he’s been doing it for over thirty years now!

It feels kind of obvious thinking back to it now, but it makes sense that this decision by Cullen and Burr to “soften” the character’s delivery, rather than voice him as some kind of ultra-macho task-master, made all the difference in making Prime a character with a palpable pathos. It spoke to Prime’s strength that he didn’t feel the need to constantly project it. It spoke to his authority that he didn’t need to reinforce it. It spoke to his determination that he didn’t waste effort making grand protestations about it.

I am reminded of Optimus Prime’s entry in Marvel Comics’ Transformers Universe series, a kind of Transformers encyclopedia in comic book form, and even though I last read them at the age of 9 or so, the closing lines stuck with me. I rediscovered them archived here at this website, where, under the entry for Prime’s weaknesses, it says:

Otherwise the only weakness he could be accused of having is being too compassionate and concerned about the safety of others. He would be a more effective military commander if he were more ruthless, but then he wouldn’t be Optimus Prime.

The Martians’ Singularity: Thoughts on “The War of the Worlds”

Correa-Martians_vs._Thunder_Child
I’ve just read H.G. Wells’ original The War of the Worlds, and it was nothing like I expected. I have a completely unfounded prejudice about some of this classic sci-fi literature, wherein I presume it to be either vapid pulp or unnecessarily stuffy. (Frankenstein suffered a bit from the latter, I thought. Come on, Victor, get yourself together.) But just as I was delighted by my first reading of Jekyll and Hyde, I found War of the Worlds to be incredibly rich, suspenseful, and insightful.

Prophetic, even, as I suppose the best speculative fiction must often be. This blog’s fascination is with the intersection of technology and human life as it is lived, and in this book Wells gives us a glimpse of the future, where the Martians stand in for the marriage of human beings and machinery. Indeed, in a strange way Wells seems to be foreshadowing the Singularity, the moment that some believe is inevitable, when computing power becomes so great we fully merge with our machines, uploading our consciousness to the cloud for a kind of immortality.

Wells’ Martians were just about there. Of course, Wells had no concept of computers as we know them, but his Martians have an utter reliance on mechanization. It may be that they were physically adept on Mars itself, but on Earth the Martians, left to their own physical devices, were stultified by terrestrial gravity, and were almost totally dependent on their machines. But even if their bodies were better suited to Mars, Wells makes clear that their bodies had developed (“evolved” may not be quite correct since we don’t know whether natural selection was involved) to be physically limited to bare essentials: a powerful brain and nervous system along with grasping appendages, and almost nothing else. The machines handled the rest.

Wells’ narrator explains it this way:

[H]ere in the Martians we have beyond dispute the actual accomplishment of … a suppression of the animal side of the organism by the intelligence. To me it is quite credible that the Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves, by a gradual development of brain and hands (the latter giving rise to the two bunches of delicate tentacles at last) at the expense of the rest of the body. Without the body the brain would, of course, become a mere selfish intelligence, without any of the emotional substratum of the human being.

So before we ever hear tales of heartless machines like HAL or emotion-starved androids like Data, here we have Wells giving us a near-perfect biological analogue: Intelligent creatures whose reliance on technology has allowed them, perhaps encouraged them, to jettison inefficient emotion. So really, the Martians are as close to the Singularity as anyone in the 19th century could have possibly invented.

What may be even more remarkable is how Wells refuses to cast the Martians as total villains. Yes, their aim is clearly to unfeelingly harvest Earth and humanity for their own consumption, but Wells ascribes no malice. The narrator, remember, has witnessed more of the horror of what the Martians are capable of than almost anyone alive, and yet he warns against judging them “too harshly,” because “we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought” upon indigenous human cultures and animal species. “Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

What will the singularitarians and transhumanists think if our machines outpace us and, rather than bonding with us, decide to erradicate and harvest us just like Wells’ Martians? Will we be capable of making that kind of leap of perspective to understand our enemies?

There is a lesson, of course. The superior Martians, as ruthlessly efficient as they were, could not imagine that their undoing might come from beings too small to be seen by the naked eye, trusting in their superior firepower, and failing to fully grasp Earth’s biological nuance. What might we be neglecting as we bound toward the future during our own present technological revolution? What metaphorical (or literal) microbes are we overlooking?

But The War of the Worlds is not technophobic, for though it does present a powerful case for humility in the use of technology, it also admires it. The narrator makes several references to how humanity adopted much of the Martian technology all to its benefit after the invasion had failed. He speaks with esteem and awe of what the Martians had accomplished, and how they had developed genuinely meaningul efficiencies, not just in machinery, but in their own biology. For all the horror they brought, there is so much the Martians got right.

H.G. Wells may not have been a Ray Kurzweil of yesteryear, but I think he did at least intuit that humanity and technology were converging, even as far back as the 1800s. We may find that we achieve as a species much of what Wells’ invaders had, and may also be wise enough to avoid their fatal level of hubris. If Wells’ story proves prophetic, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, those Martians were us.

Of Muggles and Mutants: Sci-fi’s Concern for “Better” Humans

I’ve moments ago finished The Bone Season, a novel by Samantha Shannon that I quite enjoyed, about a near-future world in which “clairvoyants,” those born with an ability to interact with the spirit world, are considered riffraff at best and plague-carrying criminals at worst. The layers of the world are rather quickly shown to be numerous, with a number of possible answers to the question of who is really in control (and it does get complicated). For this post, I’m primarily interested in how an aspect of the book’s premise compares to that of some other fictional universes. So be warned, ahead be great spoilers.

(Not for nothin’, but I was very glad that the protagonist was an ass-kicking young woman, and not the standard “chosen one” male messiah we usually get. Paige Mahoney is powerful, but she’s not fulfilling any prophecies, just discovering, and struggling with, the extent of her considerable abilities.)

The idea of a special subgroup of humans being singled out by the less-special majority is not a new concept. The mind immediately jumps to X-Men, in which mutants with superpowers are mistrusted and feared, but there is still a semblance of struggle to integrate mutants with the rest of society. I think it’s safe to say that as the audience, though, we are generally expected to see the mutants as “better” than non-mutants. They are humans-plus.

Another version is the world of Harry Potter, where witches and wizards aren’t persecuted because they’re not known, other than to a handful of people. Magical folk, again, are presented as “better” than non-magical people who don’t get the benefit of amazing powers or insight into a universe beyond their graps. They even get a kid of abysmal name, “muggles.” Again, wizards and witches are humans-plus.

Unlike with X-Men or The Bone Season, we don’t get to see what might happen if the magical and muggle worlds were to try to integrate. But I think it’s not too hard to imagine that the non-magical world would be scared shitless to know that a race of superpowerful sorcerers who could defy the very laws of physics with magic wands were now part of society. Just as “normals” are afraid of mutants in X-Men, and afraid of clairvoyants in The Bone Season.

I don’t know enough about X-Men lore to say exactly how non-mutants are presented and treated generally, but Harry Potter’s good guys at least make a point of standing up for the right of muggles to live without the threat of Voldemort, and for the equality “half-bloods.” The wizards and witches are humans-plus, but they still care about us.

The characters of The Bone Season seem to care little for normals. Our only exposure to non-clairvoyants is negative, be they agents of the fascistic government or one of the few passerby characters who have little to say or do beyond being a threat. Once the main story gets moving, essentially all of the action takes place in the Rephaim’s cordoned-off city, so “muggles” become quickly irrelevant. Though treated like dirt by both pan-dimensional beings and regular old humans, the reader is expected to see the clairvoyants as, largely, superior to normals.

So why am I hung up on the presentation of normals in these worlds? Perhaps I have some kind of paranoia that the creators of these worlds see either themselves or some other group in the real world as being analogous to these humans-plus. There would be some subset of people in real society who have an ability or an insight that the masses do not possess, and are as a result either reviled and persecuted, or at least forced into total secrecy.

Who would that be? Intellectuals or academics? Certainly we have our “ivory tower” universities that are in a way analogous to the wizarding world, at least in as much that what goes on and is discussed in them seems weird and troubling to many on the outside. That almost makes it a good Harry Potter analogy, except that unlike Hogwarts, everyone knows that Harvard is there. This is more of akin to Neil Stephenson’s Anathem, in which an agreement is struck between the academic world and the rest of society that the academics should generally keep to themselves in their monasteries. So maybe it’s supposed to be artists and other creative types? Certainly the real world suffers through times and places in which academics and the arts are seen as too subversive and dangerous to be allowed to flourish.

People of particular religious worldviews could easily see themselves in the role of the humans-plus in these stories, for what is it to follow a religion but to suppose one has a special understanding of Life, the Universe, and Everything that the rest of the heretics and infidels of the world do not? (Unless of course you’re a progressive religious believer, in which case you believe every faith is an equally valid path to God, etcetera, etcetera.)

Yes, atheists easily fit this mold, too, perhaps better than those of any supernatural worldview, for our stance – atheism itself – is based on the idea that everyone else is doing it wrong. (Which, it happens, is probably true.) And if my time as a professional skepto-atheist has shown me anything, it’s that our crowd is particularly adept at feeling superior to believers, so much so that we often have to turn that smugness on each other just to vent some of the excess pride.

But I honestly don’t know. If these stories were simply allegories to help us shed new light on how we treat those different from us, such as racial, religious, or other minorities, that would be one thing. But instead the persecuted (or secreted) minorities are born “better” than their persecutors. They are not just “different” by way of look or language or origin, but enhanced.

So the metaphor then becomes one focused on how society treats those who are in some form or other “superior” to the majority. That’s uncomfortable for me to say the least. And I’m frankly not too worried about how we might treat humans-plus. I think the way we treat “the least of these” is probably a more important story to tell.

I just don’t quite know how you make that into a compelling sci-fi adventure. But I’ll bet someone has.