Posts Tagged ‘Neal Stephenson’

Neal Stephenson: Seveneves

July 23, 2016

51J6jDML6PL._AC_US160_It’s a strange novel in some ways: for starters, the two main sections are separated by a period of five thousand years. Shakespeare takes us past sixteen years with a little awkwardness in The Winter’s Tale, but five millennia? And, whilst the first part is a ripping yarn that carries you along, the second feels limp, self-indulgent.

For some reason, never explained, in the near future the moon explodes, and the further process of its disintegration into rocks and meteorites which bombard the earth, brings about the end of the humanity, but not before everyone’s efforts have been focused on trying to create a future for the human race in space, with a colony of about 1200 people centred on the International Space Station. There’s a little mild exploration of how the species might react faced with the prospect of annihilation, but we are mainly focused on politicking, which demonstrates the absurdity of our species, and hard science: there’s a great deal – far too much, to be honest – scientific explanation of how all the different machinery and robotics and spacecraft work in the two years between the calamity and the end of humanity. What this means is that a lot of the time I was skim-reading: not that I didn’t want to know about how everything worked, but I didn’t want so much information…I wanted to get on with the plot.

Human stupidity leads to further problems inside the space station and to factions and breakaway groups, fighting and cannibalism, meaning that in the end humanity is reduced to eight females, seven of whom are able to reproduce… and we also get the impression that if everything were left to the sensible scientists, things would have gone a great deal better (!)

So, there was a plot, some excitement and some tension in that part… then we arrive in the future, with humanity having re-established itself, but in seven slightly different races and colonised the ex-moon’s orbit space, and engaged in re-engineering the old earth for habitation. And here, things do seem to flag, initially. Eventually, we become aware that there were some survivors of the cataclysm on the surface: a sea-based race descended from people on a nuclear submarine that sheltered in the deepest oceans, and a land-based one that had secured itself in very deep mine-workings; the encounters between all the different groups and the potential for future problems are quite interesting. However, I feel Stephenson spoils his plot by replicating a Cold War Red/Blue split and stand-off between the space survivors – of all the hackneyed tropes to come up with!

Stephenson creates a future world, with some utopian elements, but it’s ultimately fantastical in the sense that he doesn’t have to/ choose to tell us how we get there: the five thousand year time-leap becomes a cop-out, and in some ways we are in the vague and mentally exhausting ages of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, where he takes us forward several billion years in a series of leaps, but fails to engage us emotionally in the future of the human race. And there is just too much scientific description of invented elements of future technology…..

I have enjoyed much of Stephenson’s earlier work: Cryptonomicon was gripping and credible, and the Baroque Cycle trilogy was a masterpiece. But here the ideas and the delivery feel rather laboured, and I felt up against science fiction’s oldest problem: can you create interesting and believable characters that really engage your reader (no) along with speculative ideas (yes) explained without too much technical detail (no). So, space opera then.


The Comfort Zone

November 2, 2014

I’ve been poorly and therefore resting over the last few days, and resting means reading. When I’m ill, I usually go back to old favourites, which means SF, detective fiction and the like. And that got me thinking: I’m not that adventurous in what I choose to read. I don’t stray beyond the genres I’m familiar with, and comfortable with. When I go to a bookshop, I head for the same sections. The newest thing I took on board was probably travel writing, about a decade ago.

So what? I could argue, I know what I like and I stick to it. But I’m not satisfied with that as a response especially when, in a house surrounded by thousands of books, I sometimes find myself feeling bored and unable to choose what to read next. And it’s not because I’ve read them all: there are sizeable piles of waiting-to-be-reads sitting about the place.

When I’ve tried being adventurous, I’ve sometimes been disappointed. Don DeLillo bored me. Saul Bellow was OK but I can do without him. When I was a teacher, sometimes students would introduce me to something new: I was persuaded to buy and read ee cummings’ poems, and was very grateful for the arm-twist. Apart from that, scanning my reading log tells me I’ve discovered and enjoyed Neal Stephenson (but he is SF-ish anyway) and Miklos Banffy (but he’s an Eastern European writer anyway).

I’m conscious, as I get older, that time is limited. Not that I’m about to fall off my perch imminently (at least I hope not) but I have moved on from thinking ‘yes, it would be nice to re-read that one day’ to ‘I’m probably not going to have the time or inclination to revisit that one, so out it goes’. So, do I have a jaded palate? Is this inevitable at my stage in life? Is there anything left for me to try, or to discover? Or do I just need to get out more?

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