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

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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.

Jekyll and Hyde: Forefathers of Internet Trolls

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There is a degree of serendipity to my first reading of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I downloaded it to my iPad mostly on a whim, thinking it might be a good idea to dip into some of the 19th-century science fiction to which I am almost entirely unread, save for Frankenstein. (Next up, War of the Worlds!) I expected, similarly to Frankenstein, a book-length recounting of Dr. Jekyll’s agony as he is compelled to rent himself in two. I presumed it’d be chapter after chapter of his turning into Hyde, doing bad things, turning back to himself, and feeling shitty about it, and the moral would be something to do with how dangerous it is to mess with the science of life.

Not at all! You know this, of course, if you’ve read it yourself. (And if you haven’t, spoilers ahoy.) But what a refreshing surprise it was that the very premise of the crisis, a man who has learned to transform into a kind of bizarro version of himself, isn’t even revealed until quite near the end, when Jekyll himself is already dead. It was quite a wonderful book. (And it helped that it was short, as I’m a painfully slow reader, and even I finished it in a single sitting.)

To the serendipitous part. There was something about the specificity of what Jekyll identifies about his Hyde side that screamed contemporary relevance to me. In his closing letter, Jekyll reveals how he was surprised to find that his division of personalities was asymmetrical; there was no even split between Good Jekyll and Bad Jekyll. Rather, changing into Hyde was a way to release all the nascent ugliness within him, and changing back, he found he remained his whole self. Hyde was the monster within Jekyll, but there was no pure angel to balance. Hyde is always part of Jekyll, even when contained.

Here’s how he puts it. When he turned into Hyde…

…my virtue slumbered; my evil, kept awake by ambition, was alert and swift to seize the occasion; and the thing that was projected was Edward Hyde. Hence, although I had now two characters as well as two appearances, one was wholly evil, and the other was still the old Henry Jekyll, that incongruous compound of whose reformation and improvement I had already learned to despair. The movement was thus wholly toward the worse.

Reading this, it immediately occurred to me that Edward Hyde is a 19th-century version of the Internet troll. Ostensibly normal people, whose moral compasses seem more or less calibrated, when introduced to the power and anonymity of the Internet often unleash the absolute worst sides of themselves.

In the most egregious cases, we have trolls who threaten and harass and cause real-world damage. What are these people like in their day-to-day lives, in person? I doubt that most of them would be immediately identifiable as the monsters they become online.

But even for the most well-meaning among us, including myself, the immediacy of the social web can make it too easy for us to slip into hostility, arrogance, and hubris, at degrees we’d blush at if given a moment to pause and consider.

There is a little troll in all of us. There is a little Hyde in all of us.

Henry Jekyll was an entirely upstanding and moral man in his daily life, but he found a way to create a Victorian-era avatar, and project his inner troll into physical world to satisfy his darkest impulses, and add kindling to his baseless rage. In his confession, he notes how Hyde began his independent existence as small and emaciated, having been largely denied sustenance within the whole of Jekyll. But now free, he could nourish himself and grow stronger by acting on his aggression and hate.

That’s right, Jekyll fed the troll. And look what happened: Confusion, fear, chaos, and death.

And what might the future hold? Perhaps Robert Louis Stevenson saw it, and we’re already living it. Jekyll also writes in his confession:

With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point. Others will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines; and I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens.

We are not bound by the limits of Jekyll’s story, where a chemical concoction manifests only one additional “self.” On the Internet, it is trivially simple for one person to contain – and project – multitudes.

We have always had Hydes among us, I think, but the Internet has made them more visible, and better able to organize and combine their loathsome efforts, under cloaks of obscurity. In the midst of things like “Gamergate” and the non-stop torrent of rage and abuse to which the social media landscape plays host, it seems to me that there might never have been a time when this book was more relevant. The case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde suddenly doesn’t seem so strange. Indeed, it feels very familiar.


Image by Shutterstock.

You Can Be Jailed for Internet Blasphemy Before You’ve Even Committed It in India

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If you use the Internet in a particular state in India, you might be jailed for pre-crime.

I wish I was being overly dramatic, but it really does seem to be the case that a law amended earlier this month assumes authorities in the Indian state of Karnataka to have Minority Report-like precognitive powers, allowing them to arrest someone who they think might at some point violate their Information Technology laws.

Let me back up a bit. What first caught my attention was a bit of news hitting the tech blogosphere that Karnataka police were letting it be known that citizens would be violating the law by the mere act of “liking” something on Facebook that has “an intention of hurting religious sentiments knowingly or unknowingly,” and that folks should report any such activity they see to the police. (Never mind that it doesn’t make sense that something could have “an intention” of doing something “knowingly or unknowingly.”) This is reprehensible on its face, criminalizing not only “blasphemous” content, but even the appearance of approval of said content. It’s a human rights violation of the most obvious sort.

But following the links deeper into the originating reports, I find that this is just part of the problem. It seems that this is a way of enforcing what’s called, amazingly, the Karnataka Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Bootleggers, Drug-offenders, Gamblers, Goondas, Immoral Traffic Offenders, Slum-Grabbers and Video or Audio Pirates Bill, or the “Goondas Act.” (A goonda is a hired thug.) And it’s the “prevention” part of that title that’s key, because it effectively takes any offenses under the auspices of the state’s Information Technology and Copyright acts under its own umbrella, and aims to stop them before they can actually be committed, according to the Bangalore Mirror:

Until now, people with a history of offences like bootlegging, drug offences and immoral trafficking could be taken into preventive custody. But the government, in its enthusiasm, while adding acid attackers and sexual predators to the law, has also added ‘digital offenders’. While it was thought to be against audio and video pirates, Bangalore Mirror has found it could be directed at all those who frequent [Facebook], Twitter and the online world, posting casual comments and reactions to events unfolding around them. [ … ]

Technically, if you are even planning to forward ‘lascivious’ memes and images to a WhatsApp group or forwarding a song or ‘copyrighted’ PDF book, you can be punished under the Goondas Act.

And once arrested, you can be held from 90 days to a full year before even seeing a judge to make your case. It’s horrifying. One section of the act even prohibits the “publishing of information which is obscene in electronic form,” which includes “any material which is lascivious or appeal to the prurient interest.” Sunil Abraham of the Centre for Internet and Society provides the Mirror with a terrifying and yet totally plausible example of what could happen:

If I publish an image of a naked body as part of a scientific article about the human body, is it obscene or not? It will not be obscene and, if I am arrested under the [original Information Technology] Act, I will be produced before the magistrate within 24 hours and can explain it to him. But now, I will be arrested under the Goonda Act and need not be produced before a magistrate for 90 days. It can be extended to one year. So for one year, I will be in jail even if I have not committed any wrong.

So what for me began as more fuel for the fire against blasphemy laws around the world, the battle against which my employing organization the Center for Inquiry has taken on as one of its core missions, revealed itself to be a situation with a police and surveillance state run utterly amok, persecuting those who might at some point violate some arbitrary and undefinable religious or moral sensibility.