Seveneves: tedious physics and appalling genetics


I’ve been reading Neil Stephenson’s novel from a couple of years ago, Seveneves, and I have to say…it’s terrible. There will also be spoilers below. Maybe you should just not read anything about it.

The premise of the story is that there is a cataclysmic disaster: a mini-black hole passes through the solar system like a bullet, which would normally be harmless — the solar system is mostly empty space — except that in this case it passes through our moon, breaking it up into fragments. This is not harmless to us. The cloud of fragments gradually expands as moon rocks bounce off of each other, eventually leading to a phenomenon dubbed the White Sky as so many meteors constantly bombard the earth that they basically ignite the atmosphere, followed by the Hard Rain as we get smacked hard by a constant deluge of space rocks. The end result will be the complete sterilization of the planet, boiling seas and poisoned atmosphere, and it will happen in two years. It’s an end-of-the-world story, one where everyone knows it is coming and knows fairly precisely when they’ll be flame-broiled and smashed.

This is not a story Stephenson can tell. I don’t think anyone can say what would happen to humanity in such a situation, except that I suspect we would not end gracefully. So Stephenson wisely cuts away from the earthly armageddon and writes almost entirely about events in space, where a few desperate people scrabble to survive, and where more people are launched as people on Earth try to find hope in producing a few survivors while facing inevitable personal doom. The story is mostly about the efforts of the orbiting space colony to survive.

The story is set in the near future. What’s in space is the international space station, with perhaps a score of people living there. The chief advance from present day is that they’re exploring the idea of asteroid mining, having coupled the station to a captured massive iron rock, which they’re tinkering with dismantling using small autonomous robots. The number of inhabitants is going to blossom to maybe a few thousand in the two years left to humanity, and they’re mostly going to be housed in glorified tin cans housing a handful of people each, linked into a kind of orbiting swarm surrounding the station.

Spoiler: it doesn’t matter. Pretty much everyone is going to die. Almost all 7 billion people on Earth are going to get roasted, and the space colonists are going to fairly rapidly die off by stupidity, petty squabbles, radiation poisoning, starvation, cannibalism, and civil war. The meaning of the title of the book is clear: everyone is going to die, except eight women, the seven Eves (why seven, not eight? Because one is menopausal, so she doesn’t count. That’s one hint of a bad science catastrophe to come later in the book.)

In lesser hands, you might think this would be a phenomenal premise for a Grand Guignol in Space: death, torture, horror, chaos! You underestimate Neil Stephenson, though. He writes about none of that. Humanity is something that gets in the way of his primary obsessions.

This is a book about orbital mechanics. Also robots. And the physics of whips.

It will have an audience. If you’re really into those subjects — and I don’t blame you, they are fascinating — you’ll have a grand time with the first two thirds of this book. If you’re concerned about the characters or the plot, you’re going to be disappointed. Seriously, you might be worried about how these people are going to survive, but you’ll have to be contented with long discussions of the problem of changing the altitude of an orbit, or the capabilities of ganged-together chains of autonomous machines, or how to sculpt a flange in the nozzle of a rocket. Have fun with that!

Again, as I mentioned, it all seems rather pointless because almost everyone dies. The culmination of the bulk of the book is to get these seven (8) sole survivors nestled into a deep canyon in a fragment of the core of the moon, where they’re safe from radiation and bombardment, and where they can get around to the business of rebuilding the human race.

This is where the real horror story begins, because Stephenson does a fast wipe, announces that it is now 5000 years in the future, and the story completely changes. Now it’s about bad biology, really bad biology, so bad that suddenly I found myself wondering whether the physics of the first two thirds of the book was also this unreliable. Suddenly we’re in a new era where the Earth is surrounded by a ring of thriving space habitats populated by a billion people, the planet itself has been restored by dropping comets on it to restore the oceans and seeding it with life forms to regenerate the atmosphere, and trees and grass are growing and the space colonists are taking their first steps towards recolonizing Earth.

How?

Magic genetics, that’s how.

There’s a short explanation, much shorter than, for instance, the explanation for how whip robots can get a crew to transit from one habitat to another, or the machinery that allows people to get from a whirling artificial G wheel to the static hub. You see, one of the survivors is a geneticist, so she’s going to artificially propagate more people from this root stock. They aren’t 8 survivors, they are 7 functioning uteruses, you see, so she’s going to make clones with modifications (to maintain heterozygosity, for instance, and using the stored information in the databanks she’ll eventually get around to reconstructing a Y chromosome to produce males). It’s more than a little glib, but it also gets weird. Racially weird.

Somehow, genetics is going to be used to propagate these 7 personalities — these women are going to found 7 races with distinct properties that are reflections of the individuals that founded them. It’s total nonsense. Even with the kind of near-future technology he has set up, it’s not going to be doable, because it contradicts what we know about biology. That’s no problem for Stephenson, though, because he doesn’t understand biology.

Here’s an excerpt from his explanation of magic genetics. He confuses junk DNA with regulatory DNA, and has somehow muddled epigenetics (which is all-powerful in this story) with genomics in bewildering ways.

Like most children of her era, she’d been taught to believe that the genome — the sequence of base pairs expressed in the chromosomes in every nucleus of the body — said everything there was to say about the genetic destiny of an organism. A small minority of those DNA sequences had clearly defined functions. The remainder seemed to do nothing, and so were dismissed as “junk DNA”. But that picture had changed during the first part of the twenty-first century, as more sophisticated analyses had revealed that much of that so-called junk actually performed important roles in the function of cells by regulating the expression of genes. Even simple organisms, it turned out possessed many genes that were suppressed, or silenced altogether, by such mechanisms. The central promise of genomics — that by knowing an organisms genome, scientists could know the organism — had fallen far short as it had become obvious that the phenotype (the actual creature that met the biologist’s eye, with all of its observable traits and behaviors) was a function not only of its genotype (its DNA sequences) but also of countless nanodecisions made from moment to moment within the organism’s cells by the regulatory mechanisms that determined which genes to express and which to silence. Those regulatory mechanisms were of several types, and many were unfathomably complex.

Part of this is correct: you cannot know everything about an organism by knowing its DNA sequence. But he’s also fallen victim to a common inability to imagine that not everything in the genome is functional, and that somehow epigenetics turns vast deserts of non-functional DNA into a recipe for new attributes.

Making it all worse: the geneticist tinkers with her progenies’ code to give them the special power of being able to carry out “epigenetic shifts”, in which stress can trigger major reorganizations of gene expression.

At this point, the physics textbook Stephenson has written abruptly collapses into a story of seven racial archetypes exploring the newly habitable Earth and discovering that some humans had survived by building colonies deep in mines, and another batch had survived in a nuclear submarine. The miners were ordinary root-stock humans like us, but somehow the submariners had evolved into blubber-coated torpedo-shaped swimmers with retractable genitals. Somehow. I’m not clear on how living inside a submarine would select for that constellation of traits, though, since they surely had not been swimming on a planet with an unbreathable atmosphere, which had been the case until just a few centuries before this discovery.

And then it ends.

My impression, reinforced by the afterword, is that Stephenson had been talking to a heck of a lot of engineers and had some cool ideas about space colonies. He’d also been talking to a small number of ignoramuses in Silicon Valley with utterly bizarre ideas about genetics and races. He then decided to write a grand novel with nothing more than that as a skeleton, clothing it with bullshit, and not bothering with novelistic conventionalities like story-telling and character development.

It’s an experiment that does not work at all.

Comments

  1. iiandyiiii says

    I liked the novel a lot, though I’ll certainly agree that the life sciences (in my more limited understanding) were a mess. My understanding of the deep-sea survivors is that the submariners linked up with others who had already started undersea domed habitats, and along with genetic engineers of their own, made another “race” to survive in the deep sea.

    But reading further interviews with Stephenson provided the reasoning, I think, for the weird genetics — he wanted a Star Trek-like fictional universe with different “races” that competed with each other but were nonetheless human-ish (like Klingons, Vulcans, Romulans, etc.), with a reasonable scientific explanation, and this was the best way he could come up with to get there.

    The science was crappy, obviously, but perhaps it’s a bit more plausible than Star Trek’s attempts at an explanation. Being a sci-fi writer myself, perhaps I’m a bit more sympathetic to Stephenson’s goal, and appreciative of the huge task it is to create such a universe, even when aspects of the science don’t work. In any case, I enjoyed the novel a lot.

  2. davidnangle says

    Great. Literally started this last night, and got two pages in. I liked the first sentence.

    I could still read it, but I’m too under-educated to read something like this and fill my head with bad science. Bad science with a sugar-coating of good science is a dangerous pill for me.

  3. says

    So when’s the movie coming out? This really sounds like something that would have a movie. Because that’s what gets turned into movies.

  4. fentex says

    I couldn’t finish it – read the description of the impeding disaster and… just… tapered… off… as… no… story… appeared.
    I skipped to the end and found nothing that seemed worth he slog to get there.

    And that after reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora – a depressing book about how interstellar colonisation is doomed.

    Geez, what happened to problem solving SF? Or interesting stuff like John Varley’s colonisation of the solar system?

  5. latsot says

    I liked the orbital mechanics. More novels should be mostly about orbital mechanics. But the story did seem like more of an author’s reaction to a publisher’s deadline than an actual story. I listened to the audiobook version. I think I fell asleep for a short time exactly at the transition to thousands of years in the future. “What the actual fuck?”, I thought, when I woke up and went back a couple of chapters to make sense of it all. No sense was forthcoming.

    Come for the orbital mechanics. Don’t stay for the story.

  6. says

    The first sentence is a pretty good hook. He must have spent a lot of time on it!

    The rest, not so good with moments of “oh cool” and desperately in need of help from a good editor.

    I really hated the way that one of the most important parts of the story gets blown past without any discussion. Not that I expected a great explanation for what happened, but I sort of expected the characters would be curious as hell.

  7. blf says

    So when’s the movie coming out?

    Vague plans for movie were announced about a year ago (June-2016), albeit with close-to-no actual information, even less of which is reliable. The eejit-brained breathlessly-written “entertainment news” sites I briefly checked were burbling the usual inanities, sounds great, so cool, et al.

  8. says

    Read the acknowledgments at the end. The book started by him thinking about the problem of debris in orbit. His editors put up with him for 7 years as he tried to turn it into a story. So no, he wasn’t exactly struggling against deadlines.

    He should have stuck with the space debris saga.

  9. says

    Tyson can’t sue. That one character was plainly modeled after him, but he’s the hero! Even more, he’s the Moses figure.

  10. iknklast says

    My impression, reinforced by the afterword, is that Stephenson had been talking to a heck of a lot of engineers

    This is one of the things that I find in dealing with a lot of writers. A non-fiction writer I know is writing a book about the moon, and colonizing it, and I asked him if he planned to talk to any scientists. Oh, yes, of course, he said. A year later, he had talked to…a NASA psychologist to the astronauts and a boatload of engineers. He was describing a world we built that was rich in plants and oxygen and other things, without bothering to talk to any people who know about the moon or any biologists who might explain what would be required to build an ecosystem on the moon.

    Engineers told him ooooh, yes, we could build cool things on the moon. So that was all he needed. Engineers. No astrophysicists, no astronomers, no biologists.

  11. says

    I didn’t realize that the whole thing started courtesy of a miniature black hole (I assumed it was that, because the other possible culprit would have made a big flash) but it doesn’t seem like humanity would not be spending a great deal of time and energy finger-pointing and discussing it. I read it when it first came out; has he done another edition with patches, maybe?

    Tyson can’t sue because the book makes him look good. If it made him look bad, and he sued, the argument would be “… well then clearly it’s not you because you’re awesome!”

  12. says

    “the special power of being able to carry out “epigenetic shifts”, in which stress can trigger major reorganizations of gene expression”

    AHA!!! Haggunenons

  13. says

    Nobody discusses the assumed black hole — it’s just named the “Agent”, and apparently all curiosity is satisfied. Everyone has a remarkable lack of curiosity about much of anything, except maybe delta-V & propellant sources.

  14. says

    Hey, this was also a problem with “The Martian”, which everyone loved but I detested. It was written exclusively for engineers, with no awareness of the actual problems.

  15. cartomancer says

    I think I shall give this one a miss. “Hard” sci-fi that reads like a Physics book has always bored me to tears. It also seems rather fatuous to write a book about the end or survival of humanity and leave out anything human – like characters or drama or plot.

  16. stevewatson says

    Eh, I’m writing off Stephenson after REAMDE. Even Cryptonomicon, as entertaining as it was, didn’t in the end really make sense.

  17. Matt says

    It was written exclusively for engineers, with no awareness of the actual problems.

    Guilty as charged. I’m an engineer and loved the novel (though I could have happily torn out the last 1/3 and not missed it at all.) I would counter that these novels are aware of the engineering problems, just not the biological ones. I mean I ate up the discussions about whip physics and orbital mechanics. Seveneves was like candy to me. Stephen Baxter wrote a similar space disaster novel called Moonseed, stuck with the physics and engineering, and perhaps wrote a more consistent story because of it. Is there a good recent space biology novel? KSR’s Aurora? Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time?

  18. latsot says

    The Martian was written for wannabe engineers. We actual engineers loved the story but only because we wrote nineteen complaining blog posts per page.

    Maybe it was written for actual engineers after all.

  19. John Harshman says

    Worse than the bad genetics were the politics and human motivations around the genetics. What sort of megalomaniac wants to build a whole society around seven individuals, and how could that bizarre racial separation survive for thousands of years? There are, after all, “hybrids” mentioned, but they are not for some reason a significant fraction of the population. I hate it when an author forces a scenario so obviously.

  20. joel says

    “It was written exclusively for engineers”

    That’s me, and perhaps explains why I liked it. The only flaw I noticed (being rather ignorant of the genetic details) is the same flaw in all of Stephenson’s books: it’s too long. He needs a more aggressive editor.

  21. wcorvi says

    It is unbelievably unlikely a black hole would actually hit the moon, and I doubt very much it would break the moon into debris.

    But if it did, the debris would coalesce back into one body. That’s how the moon formed in the first place. (Though likely from debris blasted out of earth by a collision, not with a black hole).

  22. wcaryk says

    Well, at least it made me go learn about Hohmann Transfer orbits.

    But tedious? Yep. Almost 900 pages of tede.

  23. says

    wcorvi@#23:
    It is unbelievably unlikely a black hole would actually hit the moon, and I doubt very much it would break the moon into debris.

    That was what I thought, too. Which is why I was expecting a bunch of “what was that!?” discussion – maybe it was a warning shot from another civilization that didn’t want humanity taking “Friends” into the galaxy. Besides, doesn’t matter falling into a black hole release electromagnetic radiation? Would that have collapsed power grids and baked people’s brains or something story-worthy like that?

  24. says

    The description is how I feel about all of his novels. Starts out with an interesting idea, but typically about halfway through there’s so much idiocy going on that I can’t stand to finish it. I’m pretty sure that the black hole thing would bug me more than anything (I mean, how could it close enough to disrupt the moon so badly, but not eject it or gobble it up… but not do incredible damage to the Earth in return), so I doubt I’d get far enough into the biology to notice.

  25. twosevenoneeight says

    I am also in the camp of people who enjoyed the engineering porn of the first part. I liked the second part for what it was, a space opera, but not for the science. However, what I think hardly ever is mentioned about the first part (because maybe not Stephenson himself noticed it) is that the power structure of the ISS and the arklets is a very vivid metaphor for the power structure in western democracies, where hyper qualified experts try to steer the system in a “good” direction while the larger mass of the less knowing populace gets to participate at a very reduced level (short internships on the ISS). The reader is intimated with the reasons for the decisions made on the ISS, while the arklet passengers see part of them as PR video casts and are shuffled around by a system (perambulator) outside their control. Of course, all of this is “for the best”, but the arklet passenger have neither the knowledge nor the expertise to judge that.

  26. emergence says

    Reading stuff like this makes me feel self-conscious about my own ideas for SF. I’m always worried that my ideas for the technological side of the story are going to have mistakes or oversights, and I’m going to get shredded for it, even if the plot and characters are alright. It probably helps that I’m a biology student, but I’m not that far along yet and there’s still a lot I don’t know.

    One idea I have would be human biological alteration via symbiosis. Instead of humans being genetically modified directly, they colonize their bodies with genetically modified symbiotic organisms. I like the idea, but I’m not entirely certain of how plausible it is or what sort of problems there might be.

  27. iiandyiiii says

    To #28: Just accept that anything you write, if it gets attention, will be criticized. Try to write the best story you can. If you want to make it as scientifically accurate as possible, then do the homework, but sci-fi (or the various sub-genres like space opera) doesn’t have to be 100% plausible and accurate to work as a good story, IMO.

  28. twosevenoneeight says

    @28: I also think, that it really depends on what your perceived claim is. Star Trek gets pretty much every bit of science wrong that it can, but people still watch it, because it is more about flying space nerds and everbody’s dad, Jean Luc, saving the day than about hard science. On the other hand, Stephenson will talk at length about science in his book. We don’t really care that George Lukas thinks that a Parsec is a unit of time, but the Martian rightfully shit on for pretending to be all science and than forgetting important details.

  29. multitool says

    If the goal was just to create new human races, this was ridiculously over complicated.
    .
    1) Humanity colonizes solar system, loses space flight. Wait for genetic drift. The End.
    .
    2) Global warming goes runaway beyond all predictions, leaving most of Earth uninhabitable. Humans are isolated in Antarctica and on mountain tops. Wait for genetic drift.
    The End.

  30. devnll says

    Just read this recently myself, and felt much the same way. The genetics _felt_ wrong, though I’m no biologist so I wasn’t 100% sure. Much of the space engineering feels equally ridiculously unlikely (though I am also no rocket scientist.) But the worst of it was the _people_ felt wrong. Nowhere in the entire book was a character that felt like a real human being reacting to the situation described. I mean, the whole planet is doomed to be destroyed in no less than 2 years… and everyone who is doomed to die with it just keeps doing their jobs? The Tyson character goes somewhere at like T-minus 6 months and rents a car. From whom? Who, knowing for a fact that they’re going to be dead in 6 months, is still turning up to work at the rental car agency? And then the wrap-up at then end, 5000 years in the future, is just one long pointless description of someone going from earth to orbit and back, and then some hand-waving and no resolution whatsoever.

    I’m a big fan of Stevenson’s, and I like some of the ones that didn’t do so well as his famous ones, but this one was really just bad. Bad story, bad characters, bad science.

  31. consciousness razor says

    Besides, doesn’t matter falling into a black hole release electromagnetic radiation? Would that have collapsed power grids and baked people’s brains or something story-worthy like that?

    If you’re talking about Hawking radiation, then that probably wouldn’t be enough to melt an ice cube, if it’s big enough to do the kind of damage the story apparently requires (haven’t read the book). But somebody doing an actual calculation would be very helpful here.

    Matter can certainly collide with other matter while all of it is orbiting a black hole, and that is definitely not something anybody wants in their backyard. However, based on the descriptions here, it sounds like it just ripped a big chunk out of the Moon and kept flying on its merry way, never to be seen again. (Right? It certainly wouldn’t just stop there, once it arrived at the Moon.*) In that case, we’re not talking about the Earth being near a large/long-term accretion disk, so that’s not really the worry. But when the collision happened, there could be a big burst (possibly much worse than all of the debris put together), followed by a whole lot of nothing once the black hole was finished with its meal and had cleaned its plate.

    *But the Earth and Moon also shouldn’t maintain their previous orbits. So where did the black hole drag them?

  32. Pierce R. Butler says

    John Harshman @ # 20: What sort of megalomaniac wants to build a whole society around seven individuals…

    The idea can be used as a lens for re-visioning what we mean by “individuality”.

    Consider Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”‘s a-few-centuries-on future, in which civilization consists of the clones of a dozen or so women, each having both the appearance and the personality of their original.

    Or a minor incident in David Brin’s Glory Season, in which a “hybrid” (2-parent) orphan on a world of mostly-female mostly-clones feels satisfaction at finally having met her father after encountering a clone from his line.

  33. stevewatson says

    I don’t know enough to work out the details and see if this is plausible, but: matter falling into a black hole gets hot and releases a hell of a lot of radiation as it passes the event horizon. Not annihilation-level energy, but a lot. So I guess you could construct a scenario where a small black hole passes through the moon fast enough to not absorb the whole moon, but still cause enough of an energy release to blow the rest of the moon apart (i.e. accelerate most of it to beyond lunar escape velocity, but not earth escape velocity. No, I haven’t looked up those numbers and I’ve got more urgent things to do today than work them out from first principles). Since most of this is happening inside the moon, we’re shielded from the radiation blast. The bits of the moon wind up in a chaotic tangle of orbits around the earth, and a lot of it lands on our heads.

    How big does the black hole have to be? Minimum mass to form one by stellar collapse is about two suns’ worth, but one that big should obviously disrupt local orbital mechanics. Can a smaller black hole, if you can make it in the first place, be stable? Dunno, though they’re a staple of SF stories.

  34. ledasmom says

    The submariners’ genitals were hidden, but the women still had prominent breasts. That is not how streamlining works.
    I remember having other complaints. Not worth rereading the book to resurrect them.

  35. John Harshman says

    #34 Pierce R. Butler

    Clones would be another situation entirely. It would certainly eliminate the hybridization problem. Whether personality is so simply inherited, even in clones, is another question, and Stevenson’s non-clonal society makes that an even more dubious assumption. But Glory Season was certainly a much better book than Seveneves. In a lot of ways.

  36. says

    @35 Theoretically, yes… the only thing you need to make a black hole is to take matter and compress it down until becomes dense enough where it has more pull than anything can escape from. A black hole is a point (the term singularity is basically a dimensionless description of matter smacked together)… the black part is the event horizon that represents the limit from where things cannot escape. There are some other weird physics limits that put a lower-end to the mass that could form and be stable (according to an article in a recent issue of Asteonomy, roughly mountain size).

    Practically, there aren’t any mechanisms known to do that. Theoretically, something like the LHC could create tiny singularities in high energy impacts, but they are amazingly short lived and unstable.

    The more practical problem is that when it comes to orbital dynamics and ripping apart a world, there are some established things for how it can be done. There’s a point called a Roche Limit, where a smaller body would get pulled apart by a larger. It’s generally believed how all of the gas giants in our solar system developed rings, and eventually, how Mars will get them as it’s little moons get close. The impact of something coming in and striking would be fairly rare, and much harder for it to destroy a planet or moon like that (it takes a lot of energy to blow up something or even a fairly small mass).

    On the black hole front, though, there are some other weird problems. One is that low mass black holes are fairly tiny. One the mass of Earth would have an event horizon of only about 1cm. It would have some crazy interactions, to be sure, but not a ravenous monster that sucks everything around. Even one the size of the sun would be a few km wife.

    More that that, the idea that a mass becoming a black hole suddenly makes it a vucuum doesn’t really exist. It’s still just the mass of the black hole interacting with stuff around it. I.e., if we replaced our sun with a comparable mass black hole, it’d get cold and dark, but the solar system would go on orbiting normally. The problem for something coming with sufficient mass to disrupt our moon would also disrupt absolutely everything else in the solar system. Probably why it seems like he just hand waves it away and goes to bad biology.

  37. says

    ConsciousnessRazor@#33:
    I think the idea was that the black hole was smallish (exactly the right size, IOW) and moving very fast – so it zipped through the moon and exploded it.

    I don’t know the physics anywhere near well enough, but I’m thinking there’s a problem that a fast-moving black hole might not impart much energy to the moon at all. Would you wind up with a sunday-morning cartoon sort of cutout hole right through it? I imagine a fast-moving black hole would consume what was in front of it pretty quickly and there’d be damage from the tidal forces as it went past – maybe that’d be enough to make the moon “explode” with just the right amount of violence that it sort of came apart slowly, as it does in the story. In the story, we never deal with the consequences of a black hole in the neighborhood (I don’t recall it even being discussed as such; it’s just “the moon explodes” and the story starts)

    I thought that there were sometimes plasma jets caused by interactions of infalling matter approaching black holes. It was either gravity effects or magnetic field effects – I don’t understand it. I thought that being around a black hole was a lot more dangerous than just getting sucked into it – there’s all kinds of stuff heating up as it falls in. Or maybe that was a neutron star. Oops.

    I’ll see myself out.

  38. says

    PS – I am not trying to make sense of the story. “It’s not my problem” it’s Stephenson’s.

    But maybe that’s why he has the moon blow apart and everyone goes, “oh, look!” and nobody’s clutching their temples (not even the Neil DeGrasse Tyson character) going “I wonder why that happened?” and nobody’s going “Hey that loud ‘POP’ we heard on our radios, maybe that was a black hole zipping through the moon, y’all?” Because I’d just go “wow what a cool sunset we have now!” and not think about it until someone smart realized that all that stuff was going to wind up in the atmosphere and now it’s time to die.

  39. unclefrogy says

    so let me get this straight, a small black hole comes through the solar system and blasts the Moon in half and all the debris crashes into the earth and kills almost everything including boiling the oceans but nothing hits the space stations orbiting the earth.
    OK I can pretend that by some “deus ex machina” no objects the size of gravel traveling at speed hit the ISS. How are these survivors in all these different places going to eat for all that time with out catering bringing in supplies?
    a movie maybe but I think I will give it a pass
    uncle frogy

  40. Rob Grigjanis says

    cr @33: Hawking said a surviving primordial black hole must be at least 10^12 kg (and about the size of a proton). It would radiate about 10^8 W at a temperature of about 10^11 K, so you wouldn’t want to be real close, but it wouldn’t do any structural damage to something the size of the Moon. On the other hand, if it were about the mass of the Earth (so about an inch across), its Hawking radiation output would be negligible, but it would fuck things up structurally, as badly as a planet-planet collision. So I think it could leave chunks of the Moon strewn around. And it would also wreak havoc on Earth’s orbit. Does anyone know if that’s mentioned in the novel?

  41. twosevenoneeight says

    @Rob: As far as I remember whatever collides with the moon is just called the actor, humanity has no time to figure out what it is. Only at the very end, a secret society striving to understand things is introduced.

  42. Rob Grigjanis says

    “as badly as a planet-planet collision”

    On further thought, maybe not. Too complicated for me!

  43. futurechemist says

    I’m willing to put up with inaccurate science in the interest of a fun story, and I overall enjoyed it.

    What blew up the moon? It didn’t matter. What mattered was how we reacted to it. If we find out there’s an asteroid that will hit Earth in 4 months, does it matter if and how that asteroid fell out of the asteroid belt? Not really, the immediate goal is for us to not die by using the technology we have now.

    I also thought the gist wasn’t that the entire moon fell to Earth. Most of the moon stayed in orbit, but if even only 1% of the moon fragments fell to Earth while the rest coalesced into a new moon, it would still be catastrophic to Earth.

    If I had a biological objection, it was the initial lack of Y chromosomes. Yes, the survivors were all women. But they had some men who had only recently died. Why couldn’t they just pluck some hairs and get their DNA from the follicles, complete with Y chromosomes?

    But overall, I liked the discussion of how human society would react to knowing the end was coming. And how a future society would behave when their “religion” was objectively true. In that there were 7 actual Eves, there was written and video evidence of who the Eves were and what they believed in, and these Eves had engineered each race of future humans. It’s like asking how 2017 would be different if there had been documentary crews around during Bible times to interview Moses and Solomon and Jesus.

  44. wzrd1 says

    I’m still trying to wrap my head around the premise that the moon gets broken up, reinvents physics and the debris falls to earth and magic occurs.
    Magic, as in, the atmosphere goes away and the oceans go away (or largely do), so the moon is made out of antimatter or something?
    Then, 7 women somehow create a gene pool without severe founder effects, because some geneticist waves a magic beaker on a stirrer wand. All, because genetics do what genetics don’t do.

    Sounds less like a book than something more like really expensive toilet paper.

  45. twosevenoneeight says

    Wzrd1:

    I am not sure I follow all of your criticism. The book actually goes into detail, why the moon parts fall towards earth and that part actually makes sense. The atmosphere does not go away but the surface temperature rises to high to make human life on the surface possible. The genetics part is certainly off, as PZ said. But the space part is not infeasible as such, as far as I know, but it would need a lot of luck to not end in a total disaster.

  46. wzrd1 says

    Twosevenoneight, I fail to see how one could contrive to have the moon largely obliterated and deorbit, while leaving a somewhat intact core still in orbit and the bulk of the mass of the moon fall to earth.
    I could see a singularity approaching within the moon’s Roche limit and being torn completely apart, but that’d not leave an intact core or deorbit the bulk of the moon. It’d also cause significant damage to the earth itself.

    Add onto that, roasting a planet wouldn’t create a need to replace atmosphere or oceans, the law of mass energy conservation prohibits that.

    As I said, the premise sounds like toilet paper science.

  47. twosevenoneeight says

    Leaving aside the question about what exactly exploded the moon – as it is written, it is treated pretty much as a device to get the plot rolling and nothing more – the fact that the heaviest and most stable part of the moon stay in the original orbit makes sense to me. If it were to speed up it would experience more collisions with slightly faster debris, slowing it down, vice versa if it were moving slower than the average piece of debris.

    I did indeed forget the fact that they felt the need to add water to the planet, that does not seem to make sense, in retrospect.

  48. says

    Are there smaller black holes than, say, 2 stellar masses? I know there are theoretical ones, like the LHC creates, but for a black hole to not evaporate and be zipping around out in space smashing into things, it’d have to be pretty massive (if not big) – so if a black hole hit the moon, even moving very fast, I would think everyone on Earth would “notice” (and by “notice” I mean be fucked up in various ways)

  49. twosevenoneeight says

    Wouldn’t a collision with a relatively small mass travelling at close to c have devastating effects, even if it is not a black hole? Of course that doesn’t really fit the description in the book – if I remember correctly – where the thing just keeps on going straight through the moon.

  50. says

    The moon does not “deorbit”. It fragments, producing a growing cloud of debris, some small fraction of which heats up the earth’s atmosphere.

    The black hole thing really is a deus ex machina. It isn’t explained, no one dwells on it, and at the end there are hints that people are thinking there might be more to the story.

  51. screechymonkey says

    It’s funny — I’m just finishing the book, and was wondering the other day whether PZ had read it and would comment on the biology. I know that the use of epigentics to trigger something that sounds a hell of a lot like Time Lord regeneration raised my non-expert eyebrows.

    Overall, I liked the book, though it helps that I can tolerate a lot of dodgy science in my science fiction (hence the above Doctor Who reference). It may also have helped that I actually misread the title as “Seveneyes,” figuring that it was some reference to seven fragments of the Moon, so I didn’t see the later plot developments that are kind of telegraphed by the actual title. Mainly I think I just appreciated the fact that, for all of the gee-whiz engineering and orbital mechanics geekery, it actually paid some attention to the social and psychological considerations — in fact, that’s mostly where everything goes to hell.

  52. consciousness razor says

    Rob Grigjanis, #42:

    That’s roughly what I was thinking, based on what I’ve heard elsewhere. You know … when “roughly” means 1000 is equal to 1 and equal to 1/1000. That makes the math nice and easy.

    Marcus Ranum, #50:

    Are there smaller black holes than, say, 2 stellar masses?

    Probably. Maybe not. Okay, how about this: “Probably….???”

    I know there are theoretical ones, like the LHC creates, but for a black hole to not evaporate and be zipping around out in space smashing into things, it’d have to be pretty massive (if not big) – so if a black hole hit the moon, even moving very fast, I would think everyone on Earth would “notice” (and by “notice” I mean be fucked up in various ways)

    Well, if you start out with a primordial one which is just the “right” size, it can be pretty much any size you want now, or at any time for the next 10^100 years or so. I don’t think there are too many strict limits on their sizes, given the theory and observational evidence, not at the range of scales we’re considering. The super-tiny ones would already be gone (or they never formed in the first place), but beyond that pretty much everything else is fair game.

  53. wzrd1 says

    The problem with deus ex machina is when it’s as implausible as the biology is.
    Even a single stellar mass black hole striking the moon would have the earth well within its Roche limit, shredding the planet.
    I don’t call that science fiction, it’s science friction.

  54. consciousness razor says

    By the way, Rob Grigjanis, #42:

    Hawking said a surviving primordial black hole must be at least 10^12 kg (and about the size of a proton). It would radiate about 10^8 W at a temperature of about 10^11 K, so you wouldn’t want to be real close, but it wouldn’t do any structural damage to something the size of the Moon.

    To get a better sense of scale, I asked google about the Chicxulub Impactor (the asteroid that supposedly killed the dinosaurs). From a paper in 2014:

    We found that the kinetic energy of the impactor is in the range from 1.3e24 J to 5.8e25 J. The mass is in the range of 1.0e15 kg to 4.6e17 kg.

    So, 10^12 kg doesn’t sound too bad. (The radiation’s another story.) The Moon would take a real beating, but I guess it would be fine. But of course, that’s the minimum mass for these things…. Also, there’s no telling what its relative velocity may be.

  55. consciousness razor says

    Sorry, out of habit I said “asteroid,” but this is continuing from the same abstract:

    Finally, the diameter of the object is in the range of 10.6 km to 80.9 km. Based on the mass of the impactor and iridium abundance in different types of meteorites, we calculate the concentration of iridium, which should be observed in the K/Pg layer. When compared with the measurements, we concluded that the best estimation is that the impactor was a comet.

  56. says

    I had liked some of his previous works, Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle, and Anathem, but between REAMDE and this? It was tripe. The motivation for everyone in the second “part” of the novel was terrible, the expies of Hillary Clinton and Neil deGrasse Tyson were tedious, and the end state of an “east versus west but in spaaaaace” was so awful. And the epigenetics seemed like magic, which well, this confirmed my suspicions.

  57. twosevenoneeight says

    I was fairly certain that Madame President was supposed to be a Sarah Palin expy.

  58. evodevo says

    @ PZ #15 – Ha… yeah … my husband refuses to watch his beloved SciFi with me anymore, because I’m always interjecting “Wha??” and saying why this or that would NEVER work, or “they’d all be dead if they did such and such” … lol

  59. DanDare says

    So a thinly disguised biblical account. The flood. The re population into seven races by single parents.

    Reminds me of that horrible move Knowing where the atheist is converted when he realises his kid and one other have been selected by angels to be the new Adam and Eve.

  60. screechymonkey says

    twosevenoneeight@61,

    I was fairly certain that Madame President was supposed to be a Sarah Palin expy

    I didn’t get that at all. Julia, for all her flaws (and there are many), is pretty damn smart. She pretty much outwits the space station leadership team by thinking one step or one level ahead of them. It leads to terrible results, but I think that has more to do with her letting her paranoia and pathological need to dominate override her intelligence, rather than a lack of intelligence.

    Harrison Gross’s comparison @60 to Hillary Clinton may be closer — Julia does somewhat resemble some people’s version of Hillary.

    I’m not sure how much Stephenson was really intending to copy real-life people. Everyone here seems to assume that what’s-his-name is Tyson with the serial numbers filed off; I recognized some similiarities but just figured he was intended to be a NdGT/Bill Nye “type” or mashup rather than a one-to-one copy/tribute/homage/whatever, so presumably I missed some details.

  61. twosevenoneeight says

    Screechymonkey@64: it seems we are both right. Julia combines traits of Palin and Clinton. Citing from tvtropes (warning: do not go to tvtropes if you still intend to get anything done today):

    Ex-presisent of the USA Julia Bliss Flaherty has striking similarities with Hillary Clinton (wife of an ex-President that, in that world at least, herself became president) and Sarah Palin (child with Down Syndrome, young Vice President to older Candidate).

  62. John Harshman says

    PZ, if you had only announced you were going to read it, I could have warned you.

  63. microraptor says

    Hmm, the moon goes boom and renders the surface of the Earth uninhabitable?

    Yeah, Cowboy Bebop did that 20 years ago with a better soundtrack.

  64. jrkrideau says

    Let me see if I have understood this:
    I’ve been reading Neil Stephenson’s novel from a couple of years ago, Seveneves, and I have to say…it’s terrible.
    And you expected something else?
    Pity.

  65. chrisdevries says

    Sounds pretty bad. I have to say that Neal Stephenson is a VERY hit-and-miss author. Books like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age are legendary, truly works of a singular mind that only a few dozen (if that) modern authors have surpassed. Areas which have been highlighted as weak in Seveneves (character development, a good story) were exceptionally strong in those books, plus the science was mostly plausible. And he never tried to go out of his depth to give a scientific explanation that was not necessary to the story (e.g. he never actually explains the detailed workings of matter compilers, or “The Feed” in The Diamond Age, nor does the absence of such a feature hurt the story). But I found Zodiac profoundly ordinary (though I appreciated the protagonist’s love of speed metal), and Anathem was unreadable (actually unlistenable; I tried it as an audiobook and gave up after a couple hours).

    I think the problem is that he is trying to force it, rather than accept that good ideas are rare and visionary ideas might come to a REALLY lucky person two or three times in their life. Writing a good book is hard; there are so many novels published by established authors with the confidence of a big publishing house behind them that should never have seen the light of day (nor would they have, had a nobody penned them). A few authors consistently churn out decent books every 1-3 years (without any duds), but there are only a very select few who have consistently churned out ONLY exceptional, must-read books. And they usually have a much slower writing cycle than merely good authors.

    Stephenson should take a page from Harper Lee, who I guess only had one great idea and wrote one great book. Even she broke down at the end and wrote a second, but by all accounts it failed to live up to the hype that came to the author of the groundbreaking To Kill a Mockingbird.

  66. yaque says

    A couple of years ago I posted some questions at a literary site, hoping for some feedback. nope :( Maybe you good people could shoot my thoughts down:

    I had a number of problems with the book when I read it.
    Don’t get me wrong, I loved the book, even the last third,
    which I think was set up nicely by the first two thirds.
    I have no problem with the psychological differentiation of the races.
    They had a thousand years of messing with their own genomes during the age of isolation.
    (As per textev) And at least half of it would be cultural anyway.

    1. The biggest problem I think was that Izzy wold be just as fried by the white sky as the Earth’s surface.
    The sky takes up a fraction more than 180 degrees from the point of view of someone on the surface.
    From the point of view of Izzy at 400 km altitude, the atmosphere takes up a fraction less than 180 degree.
    Not much difference. They’d be fried just as crisply.
    The radiant energy of the white sky goes in all directions.

    2. The first thing I thought of when the moon broke up was that you now have
    a chaotic multi-body gravitational problem. These things are not predictable even theoretically.
    You could have a chunk slingshotted off in some random direction by the orbital interactions of the seven, then dozens of pieces of the moon.
    Even a 50th chunk of moon slamming into the earth would leave nothing left but a very short book.

    3. And what about an Orion? It would have been ideal for the situation.
    I was looking forward to lifting a few million tons into orbit
    by blasting a-bombs underneath thick concrete, steel and lead plates.
    See Footfall by Niven and Pournelle.
    It would explain nicely why the powers that be didn’t seem too concerned
    by the logistics of long-term survival in orbit.
    A half million tons of ice would go a long way.
    And they would leave Orion till the last minute to avoid freaking everybody out.
    (and it would kill a lot of people) Oh, well.

    4. Why would there only be one underground safe haven built?
    That survived anyway.
    Another reason that governments would see Izzy and the arklets as
    a distraction for the populace would be that they were pouring most of
    their efforts into habitats in deep existing mines and the like.
    Much easier to move millions of tons of needed stuff and thousands
    of people underground than into orbit.
    Seems obvious.

    5. The underground shelter in the book gets their power from geothermal.
    You can only generate power from temperature differentials.
    You need someplace hot and someplace cold, relatively anyway.
    The surface would be roasting and after a while the heat would penetrate some way down.
    I don’t know how much. Any shelter would be between a rock and a hard place.
    You have heat coming up from below, deep mines always get hot the deeper you get.
    So you would have to find some kind of temperature differential to run your generators
    and then run a massive refrigeration plant off of that, and find some place to dump the heat.
    Maybe that’s why the governments preferred to invest in shelters at the bottom of ocean trenches.
    That might work better.

    6. Boiling the oceans.
    Where did the water go? It boiled off into the atmosphere,
    but when the surface cooled down, it would rain out back and refill the oceans.
    Unless some of the H2O was fractured in the high atmosphere
    (by ultraviolet?) and the hydrogen lost. This is IIRC how Mars lost it’s water.
    But then what happened to the excess oxygen? If it was only a little (gigatons)
    then the comets were only to top off the oceans.
    dunno.

  67. yaque says

    And yes, a lot of it was tedious, not his best, and felt incomplete at the end.
    The “genetics” was mostly handwaving.
    But, all in all, still fun.

  68. Alt-X says

    I downloaded the Audiobook. After three hours of him talking about everything BUT the plot, I gave up and bought Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi. So much better.

  69. jrkrideau says

    # 26 emergence

    Just don’t bugger up the basics and accept that the reader will, willingly, accept the rest.

    No idea about the biology issues but when I read historical fiction, don’t tell me a Roman legion marched 150km in a day and I’ll accept the impossible political situation.

    Or don’t situate the WWII “escape” movie from a “German Castle” at le Château de Chenonceau, one of the most famous chateaux in France.

    I am perfectly willing to enjoy a novel where the hero gets a CATSCAN, just don’t mess up the CAT machine unless you explain it. And so on.

  70. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    Stephenson should take a page from Harper Lee, who I guess only had one great idea and wrote one great book. Even she broke down at the end and wrote a second, but by all accounts it failed to live up to the hype that came to the author of the groundbreaking To Kill a Mockingbird.

    If you’re referring to Go Set a Watchman, that was actually a first draft of Mockingbird that was rediscovered and then published in 2015. As I recall, there was some controversy at the time about whether Lee actually approved its publishing.

  71. stevewatson says

    @70: I enjoyed reading Anathem, but it’s one those books that definitely would *not* work on audio. Audiobooks really only work if there’s a plot that keeps moving along; long expository passages tend to drag (for me, anyways). That was one of the problems with REAMDE (on audio), when the plot wasn’t happening — every time he introduces a new character, there’s like a 15-minute biography of them.

  72. bobmunck says

    You would all be a lot less critical of Stephenson’s Seveneves if you had read his first novel, The Big U. After all, they give out trophies for The Most Improved [whatever].

    Also, no one is giving him credit for the horrible distortions of the “plot” he had to use to be able to make the title a palindrome.

  73. Matt says

    So I’ll go on record as really liking nearly everything Stephenson has written since Snow Crash. Anathem was brilliant. Reamde was fun. Cryptonomicon is one of the best adventure/treasure hunt stories ever. Seveneves is one of the best hard sci-fi disaster novels. His books have never ever been about character development, and he is absolutely terrible at writing endings. But writing a compelling story around a big idea? There’s almost no one better. It’s fine if you bounce off him, but I take wonder where I can get it and really like the nitty-gritty. If that makes me a typical engineer, then so be it, but maybe it’s worth considering that insatiable curiosity, a concern for feasibility and practicality, an enthusiasm for technological marvel, and an eye for detail aren’t the worst traits in a person.

  74. rorschach says

    Literally, I bought that book yesterday. I’ve read the first 50 pages, so f off while I read the whole thing. I’ll get back to you. Mildly entertaining so far.

  75. David Weingart says

    There were really two different books involved here, and while I enjoyed them, I thought they were silly in terms of characterization. Humans are terribly tribal and wouldn’t all come together like that. There’s be a huge amount of fighting.

    The second part didn’t make much sense to me at all.

    (I assumed that the Pingers were genetically modified the same way the humans in space were. It wasn’t natural, it was something that they did to themselves in order to survive.)

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