Tag Archives: Neal Stephenson

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)

The Mongoliad (The Foreworld Saga: Book1) by Neal Stephenson et al.

A while back I was listening to a podcast (I wish I could remember which one) where they were interviewing Neal Stephenson. Neal’s been one of my favorite authors since I read Snow Crash almost twenty years ago. The main material in the podcast was over his then most recent work Anathem, but what stuck out to me at the time was his interest in ancient weapons and fighting techniques. He later got together with several (many, if truth be told) authors with a similar fascination. They decided to work on a collaborative effort which involved a realistic world where many of these forgotten martial arts could be put on display in word form. Thus was birthed the first book in the Foreworld Saga: The Mongoliad.

I’ll list all the authors since I’m sure they all want credit: Erik Bear, Greg Bear, Joseph Brassey, E. D. deBirmingham, Cooper Moo, Neal Stephenson, and Mark Teppo. They combine to tell the fairly straightforward tale in 13th century Europe and Asia. There are dual storylines in play – one in Asia where a young warrior is trying to save the Mongolian Empire from courtly corruption and one in Europe following a band of knights on their quest to kill the Khan of Khans. The tales thread back and forth throughout the book with zero overlap and without much thought to pacing. There is however quite a bit of – I’m sure fairly historical – fighting and war-making. Unfortunately all the martial prowess cannot make up for the lack of actual plot.

The book started off slow, but picked up with some early character development. This however played out into a story that went nowhere. Half of this book is supposed to be a knightly quest, yet the heroes never went anywhere significant. The other half is supposed to deal with courtly machinations and intrigue, but only got as far as some thin innuendo. This book did have some interesting characters and seemed to set up some clever plot ideas, but ultimately the story just stops without anything coming to fruition. I’m not sure if this had to do with the multiplicity of authors or the foreknowledge of sequels to come, but typically there is some payoff at the end of a volume that makes you want to follow up. This book provided none. I have some curiosity to see what becomes of some of the characters, but probably not enough to take the time to find out.

I have looked at the Foreworld website, and in the past couple of years, they have put out many sequels and “side-quest” stories. There must be some depth to the series, I just wish this talented group of authors could have done a better job of introducing the world to the reader. Read this only if you have time to spare.

3.5 stars out of 10

photo: Jeff Abt

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

So, the first book I’ve read (listened) to this year was Reamde, Stephenson’s latest novel. I’ve actually owned this book in hard copy form since it was released a couple of years ago, but let’s face it, a 1000+ page tome can be intimidating. It is Neal Stephenson; if he put out a 700 page book, people would think he’s gotten into short stories. But, no way around it, his books are time investments. Specifically 38 hours and 34 minutes as read by Malcolm Hillgartner. I would like to say this book was like listening to a season of “24” – except obviously even longer.

The novel is a straightforward action plot with kidnappings, Russian gangsters, terrorists, and online role playing games. The story starts with a lot of development of the online game T’Rain and the business of goldfarming (developing in-game characters or attributes to sell for real world money). For as much time as was spent elucidating the reader on how this works, it does not come into the outworking of the plot as critically as one would think. This is the main problem of the book on a whole. As is typical, Stephenson spends a lot of time in description, but there are many fleshed out topics and characters that are just dropped when the plot passes them by. The pace is quick and the tension stays so high that you will wonder if you need to start anti-anxiety medication; but still, when big characters just disappear, you notice.

I was convinced to get going on this book after finishing his previous work Anathem – which was probably the best book I read in 2014. While Reamde may not be his best, his “ok” is much better than many authors’ “good.” The plot has no major surprises save for some fascinating developments. But even when you know what’s going to happen, you’re compelled to keep turning pages. It carries you to some exotic locales that you may want to visit after reading like British Columbia or Xiamen. It’s completely enjoyable, and if you’re a fan of action, intrigue, spies, or hackers, you will love this book. The time put in is like a good long movie…or a good long season of “24.”

7.5 stars out of 10.