I’ve read a lot of Neal Stephenson, from short books like Snow Crash to the 3,000+ page, eight-book trilogy that is The Baroque Cycle. Stephenson’s Anathem is my pick for the best contemporary sci-fi/futuristic/whatever genre book. Hands down, no contest.
So I hoped that Seveneves would be almost as good. Unfortunately, for me it wasn’t.
With as few “spoilers” as possible, here are the main reasons why I didn’t like Seveneves very much.
First, I’ve become quite tired of Stephenson’s penchant for length. A very, very long story worked pretty well in Cryptonomicon, less well in Reamde, and not very well at all in Seveneves.
More than 650 pages to establish a space colony and raise an orbit. Then we go away for a few millennia and come back to cover a week or two of action in another 400 pages.
I get it that Stephenson is an uber-geek, someone who can’t imagine what too much detail could possibly be, especially on one of his favourite subjects. Here, we learn so much about orbital mechanics and space engineering that we could all get jobs with the Chinese space program.
Enough, already — the first part of the book, all 650 pages of it, details something like five key events, involving characters who, even the literal handful who actually make it to page 650, have only remotely historical influence on the 400 pages of the last section.
Second, so much of the book is spent describing hardware that even 1,000+ pages aren’t enough to get to know more than one character in any depth. It’s frustrating. All of that concentrated devotion on things and processes, and so little concern for the people served by all that technology.
Third, after I devoted so much reading time to Seveneves, it ended with a pronounced “THUD.” The last part of the book shrank so much in scale that I have to believe that I’ve missed some great thematic import here. After so many pages, would it have been so hard to supply a proper ending, one that matches the scope of the novel’s action?
Last, 650 pages on 20th century rocket science, but only a few dozen pages exploring the future society that the first part made possible? The future bits are the good part, but they’re way, way too short.
One of the great strengths of Anathem is that the visionary part is first, with the action novel at the end. By the time that we get to the big reveal and the frantic adventures that follow, we care deeply about the preservation of a culture that we know intimately, having spent hundreds of pages immersed in its many details and nuances.
In Seveneves, the big finish is a little finish, and it involves characters in whom we have generated little, if any, real emotional interest.
It’s frustrating. Parts of Seveneves‘s first act are fast-paced and engaging, and parts of the second act are fresh and thought-provoking.
Too little of both makes me regret having spent so much time reading a book that can’t seem to raise its eyes above the level of the particular page at hand and, in a word, matter.