Notes on “Seveneves”

The notes I took while reading “Seveneves”. All below the fold:

First reading: end “Seven Sisters”

– Somehow, Stephenson makes the moon blowing up BORING.

– A while back, I read the book “Free Fall”, set in the universe of the Android board game, which I like. I commented at the time that the book handled exposition oddly, where it seemed to want to explain every little detail of the world, and so what you’d get was essentially a short phrase and then a long exposition of what that meant. So far, this book is far, far worse. I don’t really care about the details of Ivy’s or the robotics woman’s backstory and relationship, or that her father saw it and texted her about it, or about the cutesy abbreviations they use to talk to each other, or where they came from, and I especially don’t care about it WHEN THEY SHOULD BE TALKING ABOUT THE IMPACT OF THE MOON BLOWING UP ON THE ISS! Let these things come out organically! Right now, it’s just so very, very artificial. The TV physicist’s background is handled better … but it has less detail, too, which might explain it.

– When they talked about the moon possibly having a device hidden inside of it by aliens, I was reminded of the Transformers: Beast Wars show where one of the two moons was itself such a device, leading to the big reveal that the planet they had landed on was Earth in the far past. From the phrasing, no such interesting revelation is likely to occur here.

Second reading: about 40 or so pages in

– It’s interesting that, unlike in “The Aeronaut’s Windlass”, I can’t remember where exactly I stopped the next morning. It all blurs together.

– Is this trying to be hard sci-fi? That there are many, many explanations seems to hint at that, but again they are so artificial that they are, in fact, utterly uninteresting.

– Dinah is not in any way an interesting character.

– The conversation with Rhys does not really let us learn anything about him or her, and is just an excuse for the engineering info dump that, as it turns out, was pointless since the decision was made by other people anyway. Sure, at least there’s a reason for the two of them to talk about it, but again the exposition is artificial, not organic. She could have waited, for example, until he wasn’t space sick to start all of those discussions, and then he could have suggested improvements, and so on.

– This seems to be fairly SJ-driven. The two heads of the ISS are women, and the book spends a lot of time building them up, which it doesn’t do for the male science expert. The president of the United States is a woman, and it references the “women get interrupted more because they’re women” idea … only to dismiss it, and put it out as the idea that the president is irrelevant … which is flatly and obviously false and a very, very stupid thing to say. Seriously, given that this is at least near future, why couldn’t the women have just been there and it be seen as unremarkable? We’ve seen that before in so many other works, so why not here? This really strikes me as SJ writing done really, really badly. And I’m less than 50 pages in.

– So far, overriding reaction: can I go back to reading “The Aeronaut’s Windlass”? Hopefully it will improve as it goes along.

– Also seems to hit Shamus Young’s complaint about ME3: the exposition and the like might be interesting if I already cared. But there’s little done to make me care about any of these issues other than that this is Earth and it is facing disaster. But, as he pointed out, that’s not enough. I have to care about the people and the events directly. It seems to be pulling the “It’s Earth, so you’ll care!” line, and somewhat failing at it.

Third reading: up to the end of the Chapter, about 100 pages in

– Stephenson is a master of dragging down potentially interesting and exciting moments with excessive detail. The rescue of the person in the Luk should have been exciting, but instead it was dull because all of that was nothing more than a very minor sideshow to the infodump about the suits, the capsules, the job, the ways to try to save her, and everything like that. Sure, he might be trying to do hard SF … but good hard SF doesn’t let the details get in the way of the narrative and story you’re following.

– The details are done in narrative and rarely in conversation, which makes it worse. At least if it was in conversation, we’d have actual interactions between characters and the flow of the story would be improved. The first conversation between Dinah and Rhys was an example of a way to do it … but the conversation was dull and ultimately meaningless. Still, it’s better than this.

– The relationships are boring. Amelia was clearly introduced to give Doob a love interest, but the relationship is dull, and the whole “You’re going and I’m not” plotline with the embryo would have had more emotional impact if they had been together for longer, even if unmarried. Also, the whole “We slept together four times before having sex” was pointless, made little sense, and was never explained in any way. Dinah and Rhys also make little sense and the best thing to come out of it was the discussion of the difficulties of sex in space.

– This is definitely aiming at diversity, but does it in the worst way possible, as it is both obvious and boring. Mandating one boy and one girl makes sense, and sending more girls makes sense … but he has to justify it on the basis of “research says girls will handle it better” instead of the more reasonable — and already hinted at — reason that the major roadblock in repopulation is the number of girls/women you have. Also comments that some cultures will have problems with sending a boy and a girl, which seems to imply that it’s the “girl” part that’s the problem … except that all cultures do indeed understand reproduction and so will get the reasons for sending an “Adam and Eve” to represent them. Women do almost everything of importance and outnumber men in almost every important role, but that wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the book didn’t make sure it spent the time to talk how totally AWESOME they all are. It delves into how the President got into power — and that she was the youngest President EVER — which might have been interesting if it had been done WHEN SHE WAS INTRODUCED, not as a preamble to the speech and interspersed with yet another shot at perceived sexism in that they talk more about her hair than anything else. The female cosmonaut or whatever that they rescue is listed as an Olympic athlete and her being listed on the top 50 sexiest athletes is mentioned, but it’s low because those sorts of men just won’t appreciate how strong and AWESOME she is. And so on.

– There are a number of little annoyances. First, we don’t need the narrative to explain what Doob meant by “Agency”. We aren’t confused that easily. Second, we don’t need the narrative to remind us that Amelia was a schoolteacher. First, it’s not relevant and second, that was about 50 pages ago. We have better memories than that. Third, he describes the first female scientist in the speech as having the tough job because she has to sell an option that won’t really do anything … as opposed to the last guy who has to explain that they’re going to send some people off but that most are just going to die and won’t be selected. Suuuuuure. Also, he points out that she must have sold it by looking at her determined reaction … except that would be determined by the LISTENERS, who are not referenced. Any of these are enough to make me put down the book in disgust for a while before I can continue reading. I’d probably be more forgiving if the book was better.

Fourth reading: After Probst arrives.

– Probst’s discussion about the politics and scientific issues is the most interesting discussion so far. So of COURSE there’s something hidden that we don’t find out.

– Dinah is too uninteresting a character to carry the explanatory load. Doob would be better, but only because that’s his job. Dinah herself comes across as too much of a know-it-all as she explains things that she might know, but isn’t really an expert herself in. Again, at least that was part of Doob’s character, and doing that would allow for him to be corrected on something, which I don’t recall happening with Dinah.

– The new person who doesn’t know this stuff would work better as the viewpoint character for those explanations, with people explaining these things to her. We would find it easier to relate to someone who is essentially in the same boat as we are, and hopefully she’d be asking the questions we’d want asked, so it would feel less like a lecture from a really smart person and more like us just trying to find out stuff.

– People just showing up at the station and launching their own rockets seems disturbing and something that will lead to more problems.

– On the plus side, I wasn’t constantly griping to myself that I hated this book, so I guess that’s an improvement.

Fifth Reading: Up to page 250:

– Still too long-winded.

– Stephenson BACKTRACKS to events from the beginning that he could have easily mentioned then, and then jumps forward another year, and then explains what was built in that period in a brief manner. That might have been more interesting than what he DID focus on.

– Why is Amanda better at schmoozing than the guy whose job it was? And why was it important to bring that up?

– So, after outlining all of the reasons why Marcus not only was objectively a good choice to replace Ivy but also politically, why did Stephenson say that his main criteria was being a man? Despite the President of the U.S. being a woman? And then he goes on to outline all of the issues that could be held against Ivy, rightly or wrongly, which almost certainly came about because of politics.

– The visit to Bhutan was the most interesting part so far … and he still ruined it by introducing an interesting idea — the link to reincarnation — and then just completely dropping it. Considering the detailed explanations he gives elsewhere, he should have either not brought that up or tried to explain it. Also, this is never repeated.

– Stephenson clearly thinks religious people are idiots, as he has already written that he thinks that they would be so stupid as to want to send two boys to an “Adam and Eve” scenario, and here says that the second in command offended all religions by not creating separate pods for each religion … as if religious multi-purpose rooms never existed and as if the religious would be too stupid to realize that, at least at first, there wouldn’t be room for separate pods. There’d actually be more angry feedback if they were PLANNING on building separate pods, because more populous religions would get their own spaces while less populous ones would have to share. Here, it’s all equal.

Sixth Reading: Up to the former President arriving:

– Oh, God, the President of the United States has showed up. This can only be here to allow for a conflict over authority, which he could have been better with simply the situation with Ivy. Especially since there he could have had Ivy fear Markus was turning it into a police state/dictatorship, while Markus feared that Ivy just wanted the power back. A really good writer could have even made both of those actually reasonable. Here, at this point JBF is being treated like a completely unscrupulous and shady person, and the two main characters definitely think of her as such, so that won’t work. I hope he’s not going to have her corrupt Markus so that our two main viewpoint characters save the day.

– Tekla and her position is interesting. The lesbian relationship forming with Moira is not. We don’t care about the characters yet, so why would we care who they’ve banged or how long it’s been since they’ve banged? I don’t even care about that with Dinah and he’s tried to make who she’s banging character/plot points.

– The political stuff is finally getting a little interesting, but it’s given very little focus … which might be why it’s still interesting. It’s not good that the first real interest happens at 350 pages, when a lot of books are almost if not finished.

– Stephenson moves away from a promising sequence to instead focus on Ivy and her fiance/ex-fiance, which isn’t interesting enough to care about, and talks a bit about the nuking which, so far, hasn’t produced any real plot points or any actual discussion (although that might be coming). He also interrupts Markus’ speech with the conversation with Dinah’s family, which is both less interesting and not something we care about.

Seventh Reading: After Julia starts scheming.

– Finally, at about half-way through, things are starting to get interesting. First, because we’re getting into dramatic situations with real conflict, and second because I’ve started to zone out in the long technical discussions. He still puts too much detail into the technical and not enough into the drama and characters, though.

– Why do Dinah and Markus have sex in Probst’s rocket … and why does Stephenson insist on TELLING US that they had sex?

– Julia telling her story would have been interesting to establish her character, even if it wasn’t true. Would she blatantly admit to breaking the rules and leaving her family to die? Or would she claim to be tricked by Starling? However, it’s all dismissed as meaningless … which it probably is to Stephenson, which explains the problems with this book.

– When Julia starts scheming, it would have worked a lot better if that was Ivy, feeling for people pushed into the GP and thinking that Markus was putting more emphasis on personal loyalty than competence. Admittedly, though, Stephenson has not really established that the GP is looked down on enough to really make this work, but it coming from Ivy would have made it sound more credible and thus established that. Right now, her contact looks like the pre-arranged agent that Markus mused about, which combined with her makes it all so very shady.

– So, it’s already established that there could be a case where not all of the crew dies on Ymir. I predict that Markus will die and Dinah will live. This will leave a power vacuum that Ivy and Julia will try to fill, and fight against each other over. Extra evidence for this is that Ivy already dislikes Julia and embarrassed her when she came aboard. Thus, we’ll have his two Mary Sues fighting it out. We’ll see if this is what happens (at this point, I have not read ahead or read any reviews, and so really don’t know).

Eighth Reading: After Markus dies

– So Markus dies and Julia and Ivy are in a power struggle. No one could have POSSIBLY predicted that plot twist.

– I only read about 50 or so pages a session. This moved and developed WAY too quickly.

– Stephenson lampshades that Julia’s story wasn’t interesting to anyone but her … and then in this section has Luisa comment that the details of that story suggest that Julia has some sort of PTSD and so isn’t just a power-hungry bitch. Given that, we really should have been told those “boring” details. I suspect, however, that the PTSD part won’t be important to the plot at all, so it won’t really matter.

– While the Mars option might have been mentioned before, it got buried in the details. Given that, it seems to come out of nowhere.

– It would have been better for Stephenson to sacrifice some of the details and not do the time skip, and instead develop the rift between the Arkies and the GP (who, it seems, are the ones in the higher position) over that time. Since Markus came later and Ivy was definitely old-time Izzy crew, this could have developed over time and been the reason that Ivy was replaced, with Markus using his neutrality and his personal charisma to calm things down. Then, he would have gone on the Ymir mission not as a spur of the moment thing, but only reluctantly, with the fear that if he left the divisions would have started up again. Then Julia could have been exploiting that already clearly established animosity, causing an issue, leaving us to hope that when Markus returned he could clear it up again. And then his death would shock the reader and the station and leave us wondering if there was any hope at all. But that would have meant that Markus would have had a useful attribute other than his penis, which Stephenson takes great pains to establish is his most useful quality, both in getting the leadership role and in keeping Dinah occupied so that she doesn’t intimidate everyone else with her sexual appetites. I wish I was kidding.

– For them to foil Tekla only by listening in and have that lampshaded strongly does not make them seem like competent threats. But it preserves the Mary Sueness of Tekla; she only loses because of things she can’t control. And her desire to kill Julia does not make her Wolverine.

– Sure, it’s incompetently written, but the power-struggle part is still the most interesting part of the book so far.

Ninth Reading: Up to Cleft

– And, of course, Dinah is the only one that survives the Ymir mission.

– And, of course, J.B.F. survives the Swarm.

– And, of course, the Swarm fails disastrously, reverting to cannibalism.

– And, of course, the only person who could take down J.B.F. is another Mary Sue female leader.

– This seems like artificial drama to me, especially considering how quickly it went (including a three year time jump). All it accomplished was wiping out most of the surviving human population. Even the Mars mission was mostly forgotten in the shuffle. It all moved WAY too quickly for something that was not properly set up in the first place. There was lots of other drama to do, and even a potentially interesting drama in pulling off the Big Ride … and it gets shunted aside for this garbage.

– The rock that happened to hit JUST as J.B.F. was hatching her plan — and which was likely responsible for most of the Arks deciding to join her in her move — was just too convenient. We can accept convenient events happening if they interestingly advance the plot. This didn’t.

– I think it’s in the previous section, but a very good example of the artificial drama is the interaction between Camilla and J.B.F. Camilla only gets introduced when J.B.F. arrives, and while there’s a hint that there may be something deeper between them the main cast plays it off as them just getting on really well. Then, Camilla falls out of the picture for a while, and only shows up as J.B.F.’s helper. Then the split happens, and Camilla stays behind, and cries about how she loved J.B.F. but can’t tolerate the sort of person she has now revealed herself to be (although the actions HERE aren’t that noteworthy, especially when compared to nuking the island). We’re supposed to think this matters, but since Stephenson didn’t properly build up the backgrounds of either character it’s all irrelevant and meaningless and artificial. Oh my God, this person that we’ve spent maybe a page on in the last 200 or so thinks J.B.F. is a bad, bad person! The horror! He needed to spend more time building the foundations of the drama, but that would have taken away from the interminable descriptions of all the little details of the entire scientific mission. Yes, you can do that in hard sci-fi, but you still have to do it WELL.

Tenth Reading: Up to the start of Part 3 and the 5000 year time jump

– Of course all of his Mary Sue female characters live, including Aida the only one who could take Julia down.

– The conversation was boring. And if they had to have it, they really needed to settle it with a real resolution.

– Dinah’s solution — threatening to blow them all up — was stupid, could have backfired badly, and actually proved Camilla’s point.

– That being said, Aida’s point about having seven separate races and the potential for history to judge hers harsher than the others was interesting. I’m looking forward to the time jump to see what happens and if Stephenson can actually deliver on the potential. But I doubt he will.

– This is the pay off for killing off almost everyone else. It doesn’t seem to be worth it.

Eleventh Reading: Up to Kath finding the safe house or meeting place or whatever it is.

– And he smothered the drama and interest with details AGAIN! Sure, we want to know a lot of what’s happening and what happened but, come on, did we really need to have all the details of how the SUIT gets put on? Really?

– I don’t buy that the divisions would still be as sharp. They weren’t separated physically, and at least the Four would have no real issues having sex with each other (for Aida and Julia’s group there might be distrust of them carried forward from the relations of the Eves to keep them somewhat separate, but I don’t see that happening with the four). And other than actual racist beliefs — the idea that their own kind were superior — there is no reason to prefer the physical traits of their own rather than the others. So is Stephenson implying that the social structure was racist to start with? Or did he just not actually consider this?

Twelveth Reading: To end.

– Kath Two talks as if racism has been eliminated … when throughout the entire new society there is a lot of racial prejudice and distrust, including on her part. Was he trying to show that they are deluded on that scale, or did it just slide past him?

– Stephenson spent 500+ pages on the Hard Rain part, and thus less than half the book on the last part. But the last part was actually interesting science fiction. At any rate, what was he trying to examine or present? The impact of the moon blowing up and how the humans survived it? Then killing off almost all of the ones in space wasn’t the best way to do that. Was it, as the title suggests, to explore the “Seven Eves” and the impact that could have? Then he shouldn’t have spent less than half the book on that.

– At the end, he has some good scenes — between Ty and the military guy — explaining things organically, with conversations about things people wouldn’t know. Too bad most of the rest of the book didn’t do that … and he still hides inside Kathree’s and Ty’s heads too much.

– The end resolves the stories around Dinah’s father and Cal’s submarine … but since there’s so little room for that, it all seems rushed. Which is common for all of his drama, which is why it gets smothered by his details.

– Overall, a very bad book that I am unlikely to ever read again.

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