The Creative Chrysalis: On Neal Stephenson’s ‘Seveneves’

May 22, 2015 | 14 books mentioned 10 6 min read

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The single best joke in Woody Allen’s canon can be found in 1980’s Stardust Memories, in which the fans coming up to his director character to say how much liked his “early, funny” movies. The joke was Allen’s way of not just jabbing at his own pretensions, but also to signal his frustration with the limitations of the creative box he had put himself into and that his appreciators seemed intent to sit heavily on the lid of. The joke was ultimately on those imagined fans because even though it was no fun to sit through Allen’s earlier Ingmar Bergman/Federico Fellini-aping work, eventually he broke out into a richer idiom that allowed him to toggle between satire, drama, and gags. There’s no Crimes and Misdemeanors without Allen getting through Interiors first.

If the end result was a similar creative chrysalis, it would be easier to take Neal Stephenson’s stiff-necked pre- and post-apocalyptic imaginarium of a novel Seveneves. It’s not that this novel doesn’t have scope or ambition. That wouldn’t be a fair assessment of a nearly 900-page work that starts with the line “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason” and ends several millennia later when the human race has been reconstituted along seven distinctly unique genetic strains battling amongst themselves while figuring out how to recolonize Earth. But what it doesn’t have is humor. This is especially disappointing when talking about a novelist like Stephenson, who unlike Allen (whose works tend to come out stamped “serious” or “funny” with no in-between) could always use comedy of a particularly deadpan vibe to grease the wheels of his data-heavy plots.

coverWe are now over 30 years away from Stephenson’s first stab at alternate world-building, The Big U. But it seems even further. That messy splat of a sophomoric freshman novel hurled terrorist splinter cells and nuclear waste into a madcap satire on university life that included ruminations on Julian Jaynes and pitch-perfect renderings of the role-gamer mentality. Rough-hewn and self-impressed, it isn’t a book that aged well. One can see why the author was okay with it being out of print for awhile, particularly after he published novels that still showboated but were more confident about it.

covercovercoverIn the 1990s, Stephenson looked like the best thing to happen to science fiction since William Gibson blew things open with Neuromancer the previous decade. Snow Crash (1992) and The Diamond Age (1995) tangled with big ideas like the onset of the Web and nanotechnology years before they entered the popular nomenclature and knocked them into dramatic shape with humor and pop-culture savvy. Here’s the famous opening of Snow Crash, establishing the character of one Hiro Protagonist, a master of samurai sword usage, hacking, and near-future high-speed pizza delivery:

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He’s got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.

It’s all there, particularly Stephenson’s sinuous interweaving of technospeak (gleaned, unlike so many current-era genre writers, from actual technical know-how) into his slashing slacker-era snark patter. Sure, the book gets high on its own supply of over-oxygenated wordplay well before the conclusion.

The Diamond Age, albeit a more mature book that decanted a similarly smart-ass vintage into finer china, is much the same. Take this passages that describes what happens after the establishment of Feed, a worldwide nanotech system that can create just about anything anybody wants, anytime:

The company was thinking hard about things Chinese, trying to one-up the Nipponese, who had already figured out a way to generate passable rice (five different varieties, yet!) direct from Feed, bypassing the whole paddy/coolie rat race, enabling two billion peasants to hang up their conical hats and get into some serious leisure time — and don’t think for one moment that the Nipponese didn’t already have some suggestions for what they might do with it.

Too self-aware by half, perhaps. But damn if you don’t go back to those books again and again, paging through those high-wire riffs, laughing and awestruck by not just the humor, but Stephenson’s ability to channel the gestalt of a time and place that hasn’t even occurred yet.

coverThat gonzo energy courses through even his lesser earlier works, like Zodiac, a goofy eco-warrior suspense novel, and the technothrillers he published under his Stephen Bury pen name. As for the Baroque Cycle — that elephantine historical trilogy set in late-17th- and early-18th-century Europe — it was punishingly dense stuff that pulled back on literary pyrotechnics and doesn’t lend itself as much to re-readings. But still, threaded as it was with fascinating sidebars on an fraught collisions of religion, politics, and science, and haunted with conspiratorial darkness, it reads almost like a less-gossipy precursor to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books.

covercoverAll of this roundabout summing-up is a means of avoiding the stubborn truth about Seveneves. After a welcome semi-return to form with Stephenson’s overlong but still larkish thriller Reamde in 2011, Stephenson’s first big science fiction effort since 2008’s Anathem is a joyless heap of jargon. Its astounding leaps of imagination and eagerness to ignore most of the narrative conventions of the genres it’s toying with ultimately come to naught. There are few if any laughs, less than zero memorable characters, and not much high-altitude wordplay.

What the book has in spades is great big slabs of idea-mongering and world-building of the sort that Stephenson normally leavens with sprightly characters and wiseacre dialogue. At first, it’s actually not much of a problem. Stephenson begins things in classic time-zone-jumping disaster-novel mode. After the moon is smashed into a cloud of fragments by an unknown entity, the scientific community comes together in record time to inform its leaders that very shortly that debris will descend on the Earth in a fiery cloud. They call it “the Hard Rain” and say that it will destroy everything. So in the manner of classic, can-do hard sci-fi, everyone gets busy figuring out how to get as many humans up into a semi-sustainable orbit before the surface is turned into a Hieronymus Bosch-ian hell.

coverIt’s a good start, somewhere between the hard sci-fi typified by Greg Bear and the grittier disaster sci-fi of Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven’s Lucifer’s Hammer (without the quasi-white supremacism), tinged with the occasional hint of killer-comet narratives like Deep Impact; only there’s no Téa Leoni tearfully awaiting death by tsunami. The scientists race to figure out how to build out the already-manned space station into a kind of Earth 2 and to surround it with as many jury-rigged “arklet” capsules for fleeing humans, while the politicians try to break the bad news to the people of the Earth. The closest thing to a hero in the book is Stephenson’s Neil deGrasse Tyson stand-in, charming, popular TV scientist Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris (aka “Doob”), who muses how he would break the news:

Look, everybody dies. Of the seven billion people now living on Earth, basically all will be dead a hundred years from now — most a lot sooner. No one wants to die, but most calmly accept that it’s going to happen.

That strain of no-chaser non-emotionalism runs throughout the book, particularly once the story gets narrowed down to the astronauts and selected non-astronaut smart people busy putting together their post-Hard Rain plan in orbit. At that point, the Earth-bound action recedes quickly (as it will when seen from space) and we’re left with white-boarding and bickering amongst a bunch of engineers.

There isn’t anything wrong with all this, of course. Certain corners of sci-fi have long been reserved for those comfortable (as they must be to read Seveneves) wading through pages and pages of flat dialogue about controlled burns, orbital arcs, “bolides,” ham radio frequencies, Lagrange points, and the finer points of genetic engineering. It can feel at times like the sort of thing engineers might like to read when sitting in the break room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in between grouching about how the goobers at NASA always miscalculate their parabolas.

The sad thing here is that once Stephenson’s idea factory truly takes off in the last quarter or so of the novel, most readers will have given up. The characters, bland when not just plain unpleasant, will have long since blurred together. Even then, after Seveneves takes its bold leap millennia into the future when humanity has reformed itself along more quasi-scientific and Isaac Asimovian lines, Stephenson can’t ever kick his narrative into high gear. More critically, he never engages with the deeper philosophical entanglements of the fascinating scenarios he keeps uncorking: ringworlds, designer races, the impossibility of humanity ever leaving the near-orbit of Earth no matter how advanced our technology. Too much sci-fi has been ground down into series work these days. We need big thinkers, bold ideas, brave writers. This should have been it. A heavier editorial hand might have done the trick.

But, per Allen, maybe this is a necessary step in Stephenson’s writerly arc. Seveneves might be what had to be written before he could embark on another kind of writing. Maybe his Match Point is still to come.

is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His writing has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Publishers Weekly, Little White Lies, and the Barnes & Noble Review. His books include Filmology and the upcoming Handy New York City Answer Book. He internets on occasion at Eyes Wide Open and chrisbarsanti.net.

10 comments:

  1. “Too much sci-fi has been ground down into series work these days.” THANK YOU! Yes, precisely. I don’t understand why so many great stories are stretched out to the point of dullness. I think writers are too enamored with their words, but I place most of the blame on terrible editors. Use those red pens!

  2. Sounds promising – I just started to read this and it seems like a good escape from over-emotional and ambiguous sci-fi. Considering that I really enjoyed Anathem, I am glad I bought it.

  3. “There’s no Crimes and Misdemeanors without Allen getting through Interiors first.”

    This review more than earned its keep with the excellent insight of that sentence alone.

  4. I strongly agree with you, Scully! I always thought “Salem’s Lot” was the better for its tightness. Assume at this early point, Stephen King was more amenable to some substantial editing. Later King, to my taste, just Goes On Too Long!

  5. Way to go, Moe! Probably at that early stage King was happy to get edited at all! Once he became “Stephen King” he became far too enamored of his own voice and too powerful for any editor to pull the plug. When one tried for The Stand, he just had it republished years later without the edits. Of course, the only one who stands to lose, is his readers, I suppose.

  6. Stephenson has kind of disowned “The Big U”. The story goes that he only let it come back into print when he saw it selling on ebay at inflated prices. His comment was that “the only thing worse than people paying money for it is people paying lots of money for it”.

  7. I don’t read Stephenson looking for humor. My reason for reading any SF author is to see how they have designed our future and would I be able to survive there. Mainly why I prefer post apocalyptic novels.

  8. @Moe Murph — I have this issue with a lot of “great writers” — DFW, for instance. You just wonder where the editor went. More isn’t always better. but Moe is always better — good to hear from you!

    Only read Cryptonomicon (spelling?) and was simultaneously fascinated and antsy during long, technical explanations of stuff. My puny non-Caltech brain shuddered and bucked. Not sure I could take another . . .

    @Howard White — true, The Road would not have benefitted from humor. Still, I find myself longing for a flash of human whimsy, even in the grim future to come. Am starting California and hope to find apocalypse-with -a- kinder- face.

    Enjoyed this piece!

  9. I saw Stephenson give a talk at Columbia several years ago (I think Anathem had just come out). Having only read his Snow Crash and Diamond Age I expected the talk (topic was something like “Intersection of Religion, Culture and Technology”) to be full of that esoteric nerdy humor that i’d come to expect from him. Much to my chagrin, he was incredibly dry and solemn. It was not that he necessarily seemed unhappy to be there but I don’t think the man smiled or laughed once. At the time I thought that I might’ve caught him on an off night but in the context of his later work it seems almost like he matured away from that humor.

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