Posts Tagged ‘Seveneves’

Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon

May 9, 2020

51XM13WNJGL._AC_UY218_     I’ve been meaning to come back to this for a while, because I remember really enjoying it first time around, but also to see if Neal Stephenson stands up to a second reading, which I had my doubts about: Seveneves was a good yarn but I can’t see I’ll ever want to read it again, and I think I feel the same about Anathem. But, I really enjoyed his Baroque cycle and hope I will enjoy getting back to that eventually…

This one’s about code-breaking and the science of cryptography in general, with strands woven around the real-life Alan Turing and Bletchley Park, and the code-breaking efforts in the Second World War and a plot that involves finding an enormous gold cache supposedly hidden by the Nazis and the Japanese somewhere in the Philippines as they were losing the war. That strand takes place in the 1990s and involves the descendants of the participants in the wartime strand of the story; it’s also the plot-line which has dated rather, given the enormous progresses in computing and related technology since then.

The disquisitions on computing and cryptography are interesting and well-written, as those aspects of a Stephenson novel invariably are: he’s not afraid to attempt to educate his readers in passing, and those not in want of such education can skim-read for a few pages. He becomes even more interesting when he explores the notion that if you have broken an enemy’s codes and can therefore take evasive actions, that enemy will eventually be able to deduce that you have broken his codes and so do something about that… unless you can lay false trails so that he cannot be sure. Then it all gets a great deal more complicated.

It’s a pretty gripping yarn, and the key characters are very well created, fleshed out and developed; we grow to like them and become attached to them in a way that doesn’t always happen in this kind of (almost) science-fiction. There’s also a really good sense of place developed, particularly in the sections set during the war. And yet, in the end, I couldn’t get away from a feeling that it was just a little bit too wordy and long-winded this time around: a good story and entertaining characters, but that was it… a bit self-indulgent at times. I’m being churlish, I know: there’s nothing wrong with a novel being a good one-time read. That’s what it was first time around, and perhaps I should have left it at that.

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.

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