Seveneves: Review

wakarimasen

Journeyed there and back again
#1
Seveneves is Neal Stephenson's latest epic tome. This is a book that detractors of Neal's style are going to find easy to dislike. It has been levelled at him that he can be too wordy and in this effort I might agree with them. Some authors reach a certain critical mass where their editors have less and less sway over then. It feels a bit like that might be the case here.

The book has numerous side tracks into scientific points and explanations of various mechanisms. It's possible it could have done without a lot of these, but I'd imagine arguing that point with Neal wouldn't have gone well. That's because he would organise his argument solidly, providing citable reasons and logic as for their inclusion. That's because Neal is a scientist. From a family of scientists. Boy does it show.
At times Seveneves feels like he's just taking you by the hand and showing you around his own personal thought experiment, demanding that you suspend disbelief due to the sheer intricacy and detail he has imbued it with. In defence of this, pretty much every sidetrack so explained does normally have a narrative role to play. If it wasn't understood then its counterpart event would be confusing. In that sense he provides the meat hard sci-fi fans want on the bones of whimsy.

Seveneves also contains the sort of fantastic "throw away" philosophy that Stephenson does so well. He'll chuck in a glib sentence or an idiosyncrasy which, for other authors, may have demanded a greater prominence in the tale. Not for Neal though. Truly great sci-fi writers, I think, don't need to horde ideas. They can pack everything they've got into their books, confident in the knowledge that they'll keep pumping out great ideas for other books too. Neal does that well in Seveneves.

His characters are well constructed, if a little simplistic and morally predictable. They are believably wise and stupid, clever in places, teeth grindingly selfish in others.
I enjoyed the book in audio overall, aside from the reader's complete ineptitude at accents (I could do a better job). Ignore that though and enjoy the level of detail for the nerdy nirvana it is and there really is only one complaint to level at Seveneves. It just stops.

I don't know if this intended to be the first of series of volumes, certainly if it is I would read the next ones, but if not then really wtf Neal? Did you just get bored or something?

So, in summary, mega-detailed scifi spanning thousands of years with vivid imagery, genuine emotional resonance and a total non-event of an ending.

7/10
 

Sparrow

Journeyed there and back again
#2
I think I'll add my two cents...
Seveneves, was the most disappointing listening (audiobook) experience I have had in recent memory.
Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age remains one of my all time favorite books, so I had high expectations for Seveneves, and why wouldn't I; it employs reasonable hard science, end of the world as we know it theme, and an interesting premise to boot! Seveneves was one longwinded infodump after another. I am not a fan of infodumps. I consider them a poor narrative tool used excessively by lazy writers. I'm not a lazy reader; I expect a real honest to goodness story and world building that isn't done by a magical narrator talking down from the ether. Infodumps are so numerous and lengthy in Seveneves, it would make Larry Niven blush!
Out of five stars, I give Seveneves-- two. And that's being generous.
 

Silvion Night

Sir Readalot
Staff member
#4
Seveneves is Neal Stephenson's latest epic tome. This is a book that detractors of Neal's style are going to find easy to dislike. It has been levelled at him that he can be too wordy and in this effort I might agree with them. Some authors reach a certain critical mass where their editors have less and less sway over then. It feels a bit like that might be the case here.

The book has numerous side tracks into scientific points and explanations of various mechanisms. It's possible it could have done without a lot of these, but I'd imagine arguing that point with Neal wouldn't have gone well. That's because he would organise his argument solidly, providing citable reasons and logic as for their inclusion. That's because Neal is a scientist. From a family of scientists. Boy does it show.
At times Seveneves feels like he's just taking you by the hand and showing you around his own personal thought experiment, demanding that you suspend disbelief due to the sheer intricacy and detail he has imbued it with. In defence of this, pretty much every sidetrack so explained does normally have a narrative role to play. If it wasn't understood then its counterpart event would be confusing. In that sense he provides the meat hard sci-fi fans want on the bones of whimsy.

Seveneves also contains the sort of fantastic "throw away" philosophy that Stephenson does so well. He'll chuck in a glib sentence or an idiosyncrasy which, for other authors, may have demanded a greater prominence in the tale. Not for Neal though. Truly great sci-fi writers, I think, don't need to horde ideas. They can pack everything they've got into their books, confident in the knowledge that they'll keep pumping out great ideas for other books too. Neal does that well in Seveneves.

His characters are well constructed, if a little simplistic and morally predictable. They are believably wise and stupid, clever in places, teeth grindingly selfish in others.
I enjoyed the book in audio overall, aside from the reader's complete ineptitude at accents (I could do a better job). Ignore that though and enjoy the level of detail for the nerdy nirvana it is and there really is only one complaint to level at Seveneves. It just stops.

I don't know if this intended to be the first of series of volumes, certainly if it is I would read the next ones, but if not then really wtf Neal? Did you just get bored or something?

So, in summary, mega-detailed scifi spanning thousands of years with vivid imagery, genuine emotional resonance and a total non-event of an ending.

7/10
Interesting read. Thanks! I was planning on buying this book to check it out. I loved Anathem, but didn't much care for the Cryptonomicon. Would you say it's worth my while, keeping those preferences in mind?
 

MrMarbles

Fought a battle in the name of the old gods
#5
Seveneves also contains the sort of fantastic "throw away" philosophy that Stephenson does so well. He'll chuck in a glib sentence or an idiosyncrasy which, for other authors, may have demanded a greater prominence in the tale. Not for Neal though. Truly great sci-fi writers, I think, don't need to horde ideas. They can pack everything they've got into their books, confident in the knowledge that they'll keep pumping out great ideas for other books too. Neal does that well in Seveneves.
Haven't read Seveneves yet, but I totally agree with this description of great writers. Certain felt that way when reading Snow Crash and Anathem.
 

wakarimasen

Journeyed there and back again
#6
@Silvion Night I haven't read Anathem yet. Not sure I'm going to be rushing to after the Seveneves experience, kind of detailed out.
Cryptonomicon is based in a much more contemporary setting, which is similar to the first two thirds of Seveneves (albeit in orbit). On that basis I'd be reluctant to recommend it to you. On the other hand if you're a space nerd and like detailed orbital mechanics then you might like it more...

@MrMarbles Well, don't start with this one! I'd go for his cyberpunk stuff, Snowcrash and Diamond Age are both brilliant books. Then he starts to pump out longer stuff, all of which, up until now I've thought was fantastic.
 
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Silvion Night

Sir Readalot
Staff member
#7
@Silvion Night I haven't read Anathem yet. Not sure I'm going to be rushing to after the Seveneves experience, kind of detailed out.
Cryptonomicon is based in a much more contemporary setting, which is similar to the first two thirds of Seveneves (albeit in orbit). On that basis I'd be reluctant to recommend it to you. On the other hand if you're a space nerd and like detailed orbital mechanics then you might like it more...

@MrMarbles Well, don't start with this one! I'd go fro his cyberpunk stuff, Snowcrash and Diamond Age are both brilliant books. Then he starts to pump out longer stuff, all of which, up until now I've thought was fantastic.
Thanks for the info! I do love the way in which Stephenson educates his readers. I loved the lengthy philosophical digressions in Anathem.
 

Boreas

Journeyed there and back again
Staff member
#8
I give it a 7.5/10 or 4/5.

@Silvion Night, "Anathem" is my favourite Stephenson work. Before, it was "The Diamond Age". "Seveneves" doesn't quite meet the standard that "Anathem" set because of its unsatisfactory denouement, but it is most definitely a worthwhile read. Excellent in many respects.

Like @wakarimasen, I'm also wondering whether Stephenson is going to write a sequel to "Seveneves". The ending gave me a sense of déjà vu similar to what I experienced with "Cryptonomicon", another novel that I loved, but whose ending left me disoriented and expecting a sequel that never materialised. The disorientation with "Cryptonomicon" was worse than with "Seveneves".
 

Sparrow

Journeyed there and back again
#9
I give it a 7.5/10 or 4/5.

@Silvion Night, "Anathem" is my favourite Stephenson work. Before, it was "The Diamond Age". "Seveneves" doesn't quite meet the standard that "Anathem" set because of its unsatisfactory denouement, but it is most definitely a worthwhile read. Excellent in many respects.

Like @wakarimasen, I'm also wondering whether Stephenson is going to write a sequel to "Seveneves". The ending gave me a sense of déjà vu similar to what I experienced with "Cryptonomicon", another novel that I loved, but whose ending left me disoriented and expecting a sequel that never materialised. The disorientation with "Cryptonomicon" was worse than with "Seveneves".
The ending was disorientating?.. I'd settle for being disoriented any old day compared to what I felt at the end.
I was almost having to remind myself that this is the same guy who wrote The Diamond Age.
I would not have believed that Neal could become a lazy writer, but that's what it is. Seveneves is poorly written, breaking one of the golden rules of storytelling... show, don't tell. I have never read a book with so many outrageously long info dumps in my life. At least with other writers, Larry Niven comes to mind, they shoehorn info dumps with some finesse.
Perhaps some of the problem for me, was that going into this read I knew what Seveneves is, it's a reference to The Seven Daughters of Eve, by Bryan Sykes. The Seven Daughters of Eve is an evolutionary theory I'm familiar with, so one of the surprises of the book was no surprise. But even so, the idea that you can just catch the reader back up to speed after 5,000 years passes was indeed disorientating. If there's a sequel, I will not read it.
 

Boreas

Journeyed there and back again
Staff member
#10
The ending was disorientating?.. I'd settle for being disoriented any old day compared to what I felt at the end.
I was almost having to remind myself that this is the same guy who wrote The Diamond Age.
I would not have believed that Neal could become a lazy writer, but that's what it is. Seveneves is poorly written, breaking one of the golden rules of storytelling... show, don't tell. I have never read a book with so many outrageously long info dumps in my life. At least with other writers, Larry Niven comes to mind, they shoehorn info dumps with some finesse.
Perhaps some of the problem for me, was that going into this read I knew what Seveneves is, it's a reference to The Seven Daughters of Eve, by Bryan Sykes. The Seven Daughters of Eve is an evolutionary theory I'm familiar with, so one of the surprises of the book was no surprise. But even so, the idea that you can just catch the reader back up to speed after 5,000 years passes was indeed disorientating. If there's a sequel, I will not read it.
Hmm, then you should not read any books after The Diamond Age. From Cryptonomicon onwards, the books become progressively longer, many with abrupt endings. Although, I thought he did a smashing job with Anathem.

The "show, don't tell" rule is overrated. Fiction doesn't need to conform to such rules and while the "show" bit is generally preferred by most, the "tell" bit can be equally compelling in certain kinds of narratives. Neal Stephenson does those kinds of stories well. It's true that I did find the ending a bit of a let down after the superb Anathem, but I ultimately ended up loving the whole story. I just wish he'd stopped at the 2/3 mark and written a whole new 800 page sequel, or extended Seveneves by another 200-300 pages.

And I disagree, Seveneves isn't poorly written. In fact, the expository sections are very well written and enhance the story. I love reading Stephenson for his digressions. This has been true all the way back from Zodiac to his most recent Seveneves (I have yet to read his Baroque trilogy and Reamde). Of all these novels, Cryptonomicaon and Seveneves have had the most disorienting of endings, and, despite these shortcomings, they have still ended up being fabulous, absorbing novels. A testament to Stephenson's story telling skill.
 

wakarimasen

Journeyed there and back again
#11
I actually liked the ending to Cryptonomicon. I don't remember feeling cheated by it at all. Normally Stephenson's style of writing agrees with me, which is why I'm surprised I couldn't get on with Seveneves, I thought he just took it too far and then got bored.
I agree with @Boreas that "show don't tell" doesn't have to be sacrosanct. I've always enjoyed the detail and digressions in Neal's work before. I also agree though it would have been better to stop 2/3rds through and then have a fully formed sequel.
 

Sparrow

Journeyed there and back again
#12
Hmm, then you should not read any books after The Diamond Age. From Cryptonomicon onwards, the books become progressively longer, many with abrupt endings. Although, I thought he did a smashing job with Anathem.

The "show, don't tell" rule is overrated. Fiction doesn't need to conform to such rules and while the "show" bit is generally preferred by most, the "tell" bit can be equally compelling in certain kinds of narratives. Neal Stephenson does those kinds of stories well. It's true that I did find the ending a bit of a let down after the superb Anathem, but I ultimately ended up loving the whole story. I just wish he'd stopped at the 2/3 mark and written a whole new 800 page sequel, or extended Seveneves by another 200-300 pages.

And I disagree, Seveneves isn't poorly written. In fact, the expository sections are very well written and enhance the story. I love reading Stephenson for his digressions. This has been true all the way back from Zodiac to his most recent Seveneves (I have yet to read his Baroque trilogy and Reamde). Of all these novels, Cryptonomicaon and Seveneves have had the most disorienting of endings, and, despite these shortcomings, they have still ended up being fabulous, absorbing novels. A testament to Stephenson's story telling skill.

Seveneves isn't so much a matter of storytelling, more a series of long explanations and unnecessary technical minutiae. At various times while listening to the audiobook, I could understand why the literary world doesn't take Science Fiction seriously. The other big problem I have with this book... 5,000 years roll by, there ought to be a stark difference in the human condition. Dialogue is much the same, sentimentality is unchanged, it's like a really bad production you might watch on the SciFi channel.
It's just weird, The Diamond Age is on my all time top ten list and Seveneves is one of the worst books I've ever read. Seveneves is to SF, what 50 Shades of Grey is to popular fiction... just monumentally bad.
 

Boreas

Journeyed there and back again
Staff member
#13
Normally Stephenson's style of writing agrees with me, which is why I'm surprised I couldn't get on with Seveneves...
Strange, your review gave me the impression that you enjoyed it except for the ending. Here is my review.
At various times while listening to the audiobook, I could understand why the literary world doesn't take Science Fiction seriously.
The reason the literary word has a hard time taking science fiction seriously isn't because of the relative lack of 'literary' merit in the field (which is also a false assumption on their part), but rather the multi-generation long stigmata of its pulp fiction origins. Gradual acceptance of its importance has been on the rise within the last generation because of the proliferation of critical appreciation of the genre in academic fields since the early 70s. Science fiction is rightly labelled the literature of change and is increasingly being considered one the most significant forms of literature of the 20th century for its aptitude in tackling and highlighting social taboos and holy cows that even mainstream literary fiction would often overlook or neglect. Science fiction isn't just linked to various science and social disciplines, but has very strong philosophical and epistemological roots.

Mostly, it's just plain snobbery from the mainstream 'literary' community, an attitude that is increasingly being curtailed.
Seveneves is one of the worst books I've ever read. Seveneves is to SF, what 50 Shades of Grey is to popular fiction... just monumentally bad.
Even if you dislike the book, your comparison is not only a hyperbole but also extremely disingenuous. Seveneves is a good example of what science fiction as a field aims to achieve.
 

Sparrow

Journeyed there and back again
#14
The reason the literary word has a hard time taking science fiction seriously isn't because of the relative lack of 'literary' merit in the field (which is also a false assumption on their part), but rather the multi-generation long stigmata of its pulp fiction origins. Gradual acceptance of its importance has been on the rise within the last generation because of the proliferation of critical appreciation of the genre in academic fields since the early 70s. Science fiction is rightly labelled the literature of change and is increasingly being considered one the most significant forms of literature of the 20th century for its aptitude in tackling and highlighting social taboos and holy cows that even mainstream literary fiction would often overlook or neglect. Science fiction isn't just linked to various science and social disciplines, but has very strong philosophical and epistemological roots.

Mostly, it's just plain snobbery from the mainstream 'literary' community, an attitude that is increasingly being curtailed.
If you're talking about writers like Michael Chabon, Iain Banks, Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, etc, than I totally agree that it's sheer snobbery that SF doesn't receive proper respect. But let's face it though, the whole zombie fad thing hitting the SF genre isn't helping the situation.:) It would also help if I'd stop reading those stupid SF zombie books, but I can't seem to stop myself.:)
 

Boreas

Journeyed there and back again
Staff member
#15
If you're talking about writers like Michael Chabon, Iain Banks, Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, etc, than I totally agree that it's sheer snobbery that SF doesn't receive proper respect. But let's face it though, the whole zombie fad thing hitting the SF genre isn't helping the situation.:) It would also help if I'd stop reading those stupid SF zombie books, but I can't seem to stop myself.:)
Not just those writers you've mentioned, but also the likes of Octavia E. Butler, Christopher Priest, M. John Harrison, James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon), Samuel R. Delany, Walter M. Miller, Jr., Margaret Atwood, J. G. Ballard, Kate Wilhelm, Aldous Huxley, H. G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, David Mitchell, Gene Wolfe, Roger Zelazny, Doris Piserchia, Harlan Ellison, Stanislaw Lem, Brian Aldiss, Joanna Russ, David Foster Wallance, even some of Arthur C. Clarke's works, supposedly many of Philip K. Dick's mid-to-later works (have only read some earlier novels and short stories), Kurt Vonnegut, William Golding, Thomas Pynchon, Doris Lessing....the short stories of GRRM...list of science fiction authors with literary merit goes on and on.

I'm not really a zombie fan, but I have to say that I've identified one or two zombie works that I do want to try out.
 

ofer

Journeyed there and back again
#16
Recently finished Seveneves and decided to resurrect this thread since so much of the OP reflects my own opinion.

This is one of those rare books when, even after completing it, I can't say whether I liked it or not. Almost everything said above is true:
It contains tons of infodump (or, if you're in a generous frame of mind, exposition). I mean, seriously, when did you last picked up a book that have about 300 pages on orbital mechanics? And believe me, it's not an exaggeration. If anything, I'm probably underestimating the number of pages. And that's without taking into account the exposition about genetic engineering and other science branches.

Characterization is adequate but nothing more. I mean, characters are believable, but not the kind that you find interesting or care whether they will survive the chapter or not. In addition, although the story in itself is interesting, it's not really the page-turning, can't stop reading kind of interesting. More like academically interesting.

So, a bad book? Well, not quite. The thing is, despite everything I just said at no point did I consider putting it down, because there was something undefinable in it that made me interested, even after glossing over 20 straight pages of physics 101.

So, to summarize: As a book, it's a failure, but as a concept, it was magnificent. This book is for you if you're after concepts and big ideas. However, if you're after entertainment, you should skip this one.
 

Sneaky Burrito

Crazy Cat Lady
Staff member
#18

CelestialAeon

A farm boy with a sword
#19
I found also that it had lots of promise and excellent ideas and even executed scenes, but all in all, the further the story went it just eventually fizzled and the reader was left with frustration and disappointment. If this is somebody's first read from Stephenson, I'd say to give him another chance if you feel like it was a bust. Definitely not his best works, a bit of a blunder.
 

kenubrion

Journeyed there and back again
#20
If this is somebody's first read from Stephenson, I'd say to give him another chance if you feel like it was a bust.
It was my first Stephenson and I loved it. I then went straight to the 3000+ page The Baroque Cycle which is now in my top 10 reads. Stephenson calls Baroque science fiction.