So, it’s been a month since I finished “The Aeronaut’s Windlass” and started “Seveneves”. It’s taken me that long in part because I’m still insanely busy at the moment, but the most important reason is … “Seveneves” is just a really, really bad book.
I’m going to analyse it in detail — and use some concepts that Shamus “No-Award” Young talked about in his discussions of science fiction — below the fold, but the short summary is that “Seveneves” is a book that doesn’t seem to know what plot it wants to get across and drowns anything of interest in technical details and uninteresting Mary Sue characters.
It’s hard to say what the main plot of “Seveneves” is. Given the title, it seems to me that the main plot is what happens in the last 300 pages, where the last surviving seven women — well, it’s really eight, but one of them can’t be “Eve” — use genetic engineering and their own genomes to produce seven new “races” of humans, that end up populating the world. And, to be fair, this would be an interesting idea. However, the book is 850 pages long, and that only takes up part of the last 300 pages. What the rest of the book focuses on is the break-up of the Moon, the Hard Rain of moon debris that will wipe out anything on the surface of the Earth. Since this takes up most of the book, it’s reasonable to see this as the main plot and the “Seven Eves” as the outcome that Stephenson has chosen to end with. But all of the details of what they were planning to do to preserve humanity do and have to become irrelevant when humanity ends up in that state. So the first half of the book is mostly irrelevant to where we end up, and so we spend a lot of time talking about things that end up being meaningless to where we end up. If Stephenson wanted to focus on humanity dealing with the Moon’s destruction, either the ending ought to have changed or he should have made what happened there more relevant. If his focus was the “Seven Eves”, then he ought to have spent less time on the direct aftermath. As it is, as I said, the end state makes most of the first part of the book irrelevant.
Which wouldn’t be a problem if that first part was actually interesting. But it isn’t. I commented in my first comment on the book that somehow Stephenson managed to make the destruction of the Moon boring. I’ll get into the two big reasons why it fails to be interesting later, but one of the main issues is that Stephenson fails to give us any real emotional attachment to anything in the work. I can’t find the comment right now, but at one point in discussion Mass Effect 3 Shamus Young commented that the writer was hoping that we’d care about and want to “Take Back Earth” because, well, it’s Earth, and we should care about Earth, because that’s where we live. But he pointed out that in a story we need more than that, and the game series had not spent any real time developing Earth. As such, the emotions fell flat, because if it just being Earth isn’t enough to get us involved, the writer didn’t do anything else — except a cheap “Here’s a kid” trick — to make us care. I feel the same way about this novel, as Stephenson spends little time and seems to be unable to develop the emotional connection we’ll need to care about what is going on. We don’t care about the characters, or the setting, or the little disasters, or even the big disasters because all of the elements get introduced, barely mentioned, and then unceremoniously dropped when the time is right.
The examples of this are endless. When they lose much of the stored embryos, we don’t really care about it because 1) it’s a bunch of stored embryos, 2) Stephenson has already lampshaded that they were a pipedream and not going to be useful anyway and 3) the character with a personal connection to them — Doob, who has one that was lost — doesn’t really seem to care about it either. Doob’s death doesn’t grab me because it’s buried in the deaths of almost everyone else and while he was one of the better developed characters, we don’t really know enough about him to care. The deaths of almost all of the rest of the human race is treated like a footnote. So is the “death” of one of the main characters’ fiance (Ivy’s fiance Cal), and of Doob’s family. So are the deaths of Dinah’s two boyfriends. If the characters and the work don’t care, why should we?
But ultimately, the flaws in the work — including the lack of emotional connection — boil down to two main issues:
1) This book strikes me as trying to do “Social Justice” and diversity really, really badly. One of the main reasons that most of the main characters are uninteresting is that they seem to be created as diversity Mary Sues and not as actual characters. Stephenson spends a lot of time building them up on how awesome and intelligent and skilled they are, but all of the superlatives mean that we don’t really find out much about them. And nothing interesting. It also means that the only real and legitimate opposition they can have has to come from his other Mary Sues, and yet somehow they still seem to get along better with each other than they do with others. There are a number of cases where interesting conflicts could arise if Stephenson was willing to admit that the main characters had serious flaws, but he generally seems unwilling to do that. Instead, for example, Ivy gets replaced by Markus only because he has a penis and she doesn’t — yes, Stephenson flat-out says that — despite his noting that there are political reasons to replace her and despite it working better later if she had been having issues with the fact that she started on the ISS and the newcomers maybe feeling that those members formed a clique that wasn’t listening to them.
He carries this on by providing details that hit Social Justice lines but at best add nothing and at worst sabotage his own writing as he mentions them only to contradict them. For example, he brings up the “women get interrupted more because they are women” SJ trope for the President of the United States … before immediately saying that she was really getting interrupted more because the President of the United States was no longer relevant, which is insanely stupid because of all the resources that she would have access to and the power that she’d have until the end, which would be critical in, well, making the rest of the book happen. He comments that Doob’s wife Amelia would be a lot better than him at his actual job of science advocacy because she was better than him at dealing with people, which is irrelevant. Instead of listing the President’s qualification when she was introduced — which is when we would care — he does it later, almost as if he had to make sure he got it in so we knew how awesome she was. He waxes eloquently about another of his Mary Sues — Tekla — being a lesbian and another one of his — Moira — being attracted to her when a) we had no reason to care about that and b) it’s not relevant later. In fact, none of these details matter in the end, and he often ends up immediately dismissing them, making them irrelevant even in the scene he mentions them.
The effect of this is that his main characters can’t ever be seen as flawed and always have to be right, which hurts the drama. They are also caricatures more than actual characters, which means that we don’t feel an emotional connection to them. And he often foists details on us that we see as irrelevant and that even he sees as irrelevant, which bores us.
2) Any possible remaining drama is smothered by Stephenson’s overuse of details. It seems to me that Stephenson is trying to write hard sci-fi here. This puts him on the “details” side of Shamus Young’s “Details vs Drama” divide. But as Shamus points out:
This doesn’t mean that a details-first story can’t have any drama at all, of course. It’s details “first”, not details “only”. After all, without drama, what’s the point? This is supposed to be entertainment.
And I think this quote from Shamus sums up where Stephenson fails:
And sometimes writers get carried away and simply bury the audience in exhausting technical details. Balancing the need for good pacing with the needs for a coherent technical background is immensely difficult …
And is what Stephenson completely failed to do. He focuses so much on the details that all of the drama gets buried, for two reasons. The first is that he stops the action to explain things so often that the tension is leached out of the scene. The second is that he spends so much time talking about the details that he has no time and no room to properly set-up the drama, which then makes all of the drama artificial. Suddenly, there’s a division between the Arkies and the General Population that Julia can exploit. Julia suddenly shows up despite there being no indication that she was even going to try. There is a sudden collision that convinces most of humanity to abandon the ISS on the belief that it’s dead. There’s a sudden meeting with the surviving human colonies on Earth. And so on. It shows up out of nowhere and ends just as quickly, sandwiched around technical details that might be correct — although some of the genetics stuff had me thinking “I … don’t think genetics works that way” — and might be interesting if it wasn’t in a fictional book that I was reading for, well, entertainment.
I think that Stephenson would have been better served for this idea to either go for a non-fiction book like Ben Bova’s “The High Road” or, better yet, a work like Sir John Hackett’s “The Third World War”, which is a pseudo-historical work with, if I recall correctly, personal experiences mixed in. This would have let the reader read this in more of a textbook style, and let the personal experiences sections stand out more. And given their nature, a lack of emotional development would have mattered less; we would have been using them as personal reflections and examples of the history, which would have given them more meaning if the historical/scientific parts were done well. Since Stephenson actually frames this as a pseudo-history, embracing that and using that entire style would have served this work much better than what he did.
Overall summary: Ugh. If you really like the scientific details, they’re in there and you might find them appealing, but as an actual work that isn’t supposed to be a textbook it’s a tremendous failure.
I’ll post my almost 4000 word notes on the series next week. Next up is Anne Leckie’s “Ancillary” triology.
Tags: Hugo Award Assessment