Sticking the landing

Martin McClellan

June 28, 2015

It is taken as accepted knowledge that Neal Stephenson writes dissatisfying endings to his books. I mentioned to an internet chat room I was reading Seveneves, and this was brought up four times by four separate people. For an insult, it lays bare a tremendous compliment: only a widely read author could inspire such a trope or cliche. It’s a signifier of prestige, in its own way.

It also shows what type of people are reading you. The nerds (or geeks — their factions argue over self-labelling as much as their favorite writer’s peccadillos) who are enthralled by his setups and science are the types of people who — like him, I would hazard to guess — love picking at nits. It is not enough to just let something be liked or not liked. You must like it with enumerated caveats. Those caveats must lead conversations about the author.

For in this crowd, arguing a point well is a matter of pride. They are not unlike Stephenson’s characters, presenting facts to each other through a kind of verbal scientific process. This is how minds are won. This is how we know the world, through mapping its ups and downs. In an interview at Google after Anathem was released, Stephenson himself addressed it:

…my experience is that once you write a book or two with controversial endings and that meme gets going of “Stephenson can’t write endings” that that gets slapped onto everything you do, no matter how elaborate the ending is.

Seveneves has an elaborate ending. It starts on page 568 with the words “Five Thousand Years Later”, and lasts some 300 pages. For once I can say I didn’t like the ending in one of his books, but only because it had a glancing resemblance to the first 567 page book I absolutely adored.

Seveneves has an elaborate beginning: the moon has broken up into many pieces, and we soon learn how that majestic sight could turn out to be really, really bad for anybody who likes living on the surface of the Earth.

This is a romantic book, if you’re the sort that swoons at YouTube videos of astronauts giving first-person tours of the ISS. It’s romantic in that you get to imagine that space station in the future, with a rotating torus on one end, and a massive asteroid bolted onto the other. You get to imagine what could happen if humans were forced to improvise a future in space given the limited technology of a near-tomorrow.

And boy will you learn a lot about orbital dynamics. You will learn about swarming robots, and to fear random bolide strikes. You will experience the factions of humanity coming apart by political maneuvering, and coming together again through heroic sacrifices.

This book is propulsive and gripping, the very destiny of humanity hanging in the balance, with martyrs and narcissists, and people dedicated to solving each seemingly impossible problem just in time to be faced with the next. It’s powerful because it feels authentic. It feels authentic partly because it’s grounded in real science. Stephenson, who founded a project based on optimism in science fiction, stays on theme here.

But then we skip 5,000 years ahead, and suddenly instead of the immediate problem of survival, we’re lost in future-tech porn. The characters play as placeholders to be swept along in white-paper explanations of grand structures in space, and how we might travel to and from them. Taken by itself, it’s a certain kind of space-nerd wonderful. Placed after the book that came before, it suffers in that the central drama is not compelling when compared to total annihilation.

I can see why Stephenson wrote it — the first part of the book asks so many questions that he couldn’t resist answering them —ironically, the hallmark of someone good at endings. But those answers, however well-thought-out and well-presented (they are, and they are), are like the third dessert at a twelve course meal. They are too rich, and I am too full by the time they’re lowered to the table.

In the real world I’m writing this minutes after watching the live-streamed breakup of the SpaceX CRS-7 launch, losing a Dragon capsule and a Falcon 9 rocket in the upper atmosphere. No loss of human life, but loss of human time and expense in great measure. When faced with heartbreaking setbacks, it’s important to look to a potentially greater future. Maybe it’s funny to say that humanity nearly being destroyed is inspiration, but for those who want to build the future, Stephenson offers some compelling glimpses as to how we could get there.

Books in this review:
  • Seveneves
    by Neal Stephenson
    William Morrow
    May 18, 2015
    880 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Martin is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He's a novelist (his first, California Four O'Clock, was published in 2015 by a successful Kickstarter campaign). He designs websites, apps, and other things for a living.

Follow Martin McClellan on Twitter: @hellbox

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