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.
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.