Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves quite literally begins with a bang, as the moon is blown up by an unidentified “agent” and splits into seven pieces dubbed the Seven Sisters. This moon sorority is also nicknamed for its constituent parts—Peach Pit, Scoop, Acorn, Mr. Spinny, Big Boy, Kidney Bean, Potatohead—and continuously monitored by a population lulled into thinking that life will continue unchanged despite the celestial disruption. When media-friendly scientist Doc Dubois realizes that there are indeed consequences of a shattered moon, ones that will not only decimate the entire population in an ominous “Hard Rain” but will also make it uninhabitable for the next few millennia, the world and its governments spring into action to ensure survival of the species.
As I tumbled headlong into this weighty novel, the question on my mind was where a hypothetical me would fit into this scenario. How would I live the last years of my life if I knew that, along with the rest of the population, I would die in a painfully finite amount of time? (Earth’s inhabitants have about two years before the Hard Rain comes.) What would be worth preserving and presenting to future generations? What kind of rules and regulations would govern a society cut off from its only natural and sustainable habitat?
These are some of the questions that Stephenson seeks to answer in this sprawling and almost alarmingly detailed meditation on mankind’s successful survival as a space colony. The cool, muted tones of the novel’s main characters mimic the necessity of the individual taking a backseat to the collective. Their subdued reactions belie concern and anguish for the family members whom they will never see again; they stuff down their emotions and spend most of their energy working out any loopholes that could threaten an already precarious survival in outer space.
Stephenson divides the novel into three sections, each of which concerns itself with a different epoch between the time of extinction and Earth’s repopulation innumerable years into the future. In Part I humans scramble to modify existing space systems and programs to support life in a space ark. Part II unfolds after all the people on earth have perished and the survivors living in the ark have renounced their allegiance to their former countries, united under the government of the space ark. There are, of course, still the inevitable political skirmishes as the spacefarers attempt to form a concerted brain trust against hostile elements that threaten their fragile existence. Part III reintroduces the surviving descendants of the space faction back to life on Earth many, many years hence.
The devil is in the details, and while I often felt overwhelmed by the specificity and minute brush with which Stephenson paints the parameters and limitations of the world being built, Seveneves also left me with a sense of the strength required to make critical adjustments for survival. I marveled at the beauty and clarity of the many layers of science and foundation that actually supported the story and its characters. If strategies are ever needed for a future disaster scenario of the missing moon variety, Stephenson should definitely be on the committee to spitball ideas for salvation, complete with a seat on the ark.