Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson. Science Fiction. Palindromes. I’m in!

This was my thought pattern for about a month before this book came out. When it finally came I out, I pretty much devoured it as fast as I could. I’ve been a fan of Stephenson’s work since a friend gave me a copy of Snow Crash about 15 years ago. His works have gone up and down in story quality even if his writing has always been fairly top notch. Seveneves falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. If you like speculative fiction, you should love this book. If however, you’re looking for a plot that wows with its stunning climax drawing all the threads of the book together, keep looking. In fact, read Stephenson’s Anathem.

The main premise of Seveneves begins when the moon explodes for some uncertain reason. Why the moon has exploded doesn’t really matter that much when the protagonists realize that the moon fragments are going to burn up the Earth’s atmosphere in two years’ time. What matters is that most of the population of the Earth is going to die, and that to survive, a lot of people who are prepared to live for 5000 years off-planet need to get into space. Simple enough, right?

The first two-thirds of this book read like Apollo 13 for the whole human race. It’s fast paced, full of lots of really cool science and common sense. It gets the reader thinking about how they are going to survive massive calamities. Should I even take a toothbrush? Will my bad breath kill someone? Maybe the toothbrush can be a multi-purpose tool? Nah, just use your finger. But really, the author develops so many realistic scenarios that one believes that this exodus into space could really be accomplished. (Editor’s note: It can’t. We would all be toast.) The characters that are put in charge of this Herculean feat are alive and vivid – full of all the nuances you would expect out of them. The drama and suspense suck you in to turning page after page. Even when long explanations of things like “Lagrangian points” and “orbital mechanics” go on for way too long, it builds the intensity of what the extraterrestrial refugees have to go through. It becomes, literally, high drama. I found it very enjoyable.

The last third of the book is a denouement that wants to be its own story. It didn’t succeed. Without giving away any spoilers, it would be hard to divulge much, but the author gets involved in true speculation on a possible future. He develops a great world full of wonderful things, yet the storyline put forth here falls flat. It is if the plot is just a vehicle for world-building ideas. This reads more like a travelogue plus – “just a little bit of character interaction as I tour you around what I have thought up.” This is very unfortunate because up to this point the story had been quick and gripping. It becomes almost a quest of loyalty to the characters to finish the book. I would have felt better if the first part was released without the second part, and a follow up novel that was more thought out was written later.

Oh well, maybe Neal is trying to get some acclaim as a futurist like he did post-Snow Crash. He became renowned for his term Avatar and of his vision of an web-linked society presaging the Internet connected present. Maybe Seveneves will get more people to invest in asteroid mining. (I know I am.) However, my finishing thought was that a lot of really good conceptional work was done for a story that ended a little flat. It was solid writing throughout, it just needed a little more payoff to be top notch. A must read if you’re a Stephenson fan; otherwise, it might not check all your boxes.

5 stars out of 10.

photo credit: via photopin (license)

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Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

If you’re not reading a Nevil Shute book from time to time, you’re missing out on one of the great joys of reading pleasure. Shute’s ability to fashion a story out of the lives of ordinary people has few modern rivals. However, it’s his knack for seeing the best in all people that makes his books completely enjoyable. Pied Piper takes place in France at the outbreak of World War II – a time when it would be easy to have Nazi villains abound. But, Shute’s books are always filled with grace. Even when his main characters run into “enemies,” he chooses to humanize rather than caricaturize them. (In this context, humanize does not mean to degrade to the lowest passions of human nature but rather to reveal the commonality of thought and love that every person feels.) His tales are solid and dependable. You can count on them.

Pied Piper follows the story of John Howard, an elderly British widower, who decides to take a fishing trip to the mountains of France in the summer of 1939. Though Germany is threatening war with all of Europe, the invasion of France is too unimaginable. Yet when it comes, Mr. Howard must return to England. Before he does, he’s persuaded to escort two children back with him. A long day’s trip with two children under eight seems daunting to the septuagenarian, but when the Nazi occupation comes faster than expected, the trip becomes much more arduous. Along the way, the group picks up more and more children until it becomes a roving orphanage seeking the safety of Allied ground.

In the typical treatment one would expect for this storyline, it would become a depressing, heart-wrenching melodrama. Shute, however, presents a story filled with humor, patience, and love. There are efforts of brave endurance and scenes of pathos, but through the lens of the protagonist, Mr. Howard, it is shown how individuals can overcome war with good character. Polemic made irenic. Never preachy or judgmental, the tale’s even course has comedy and suspense with a large dose of good feeling. This will not go down as Nevil Shute’s strongest piece, but like all his books, worth the read.

6 stars out of 10

photo: Associated Press