Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

A mammoth achievement but a real challenge to finish,
Seveneves book cover

I have been a fan of Neal Stephenson’s writing for a while now, and at least two of his works can easily be brought to mind when someone asks me for something brilliant. But I have had a horrifying tendency to not finish Stephenson’s more recent, and more mammoth books of late, and when Seveneves finally arrived on my doorstep, I made a silent pledge not to do the same thing again.

Neal Stephenson seems to have heard my challenge in advance, and written a book that seems to go out of its way to prevent someone from finishing it.

Seveneves is, in my opinion (and I know it’s not necessarily the opinion of all) the result of a brilliant writer surrounded by editors unwilling or unable to tell him to stop, rewrite, condense, or anything else an editor is supposed to do with a book.

What we are left with is two-thirds of a book that is a complete and full story – but that reads more like a think-tank’s novelization of their doomsday preparations – and one-third of a book that is so cramped, condensed, and rushed – while representing a think-tank’s novelization of their preparations for rebuilding human life – that it either should have been its own book, or removed entirely.

And making it even more confusing is the fact that, for a healthy portion of the time I was reading Seveneves, I was utterly enthralled. The premise is breathtaking, the characters are truly engaging, and the challenges and adventures that stem out of these two facets make for really interesting reading.

If only someone had worked up the courage to edit the damned book.  

Neal Stephenson is, indisputably, a genius. His mind is able to conceive of things that would put to shame ordinary think-tank organizations, and he’s able to see them through to relatively legitimate conclusions. But it would have been really helpful if an outside party had suggested to Neal that not everyone who is reading fiction these days is necessarily looking for a complete mechanic’s guide to the end of the world and human civilizations future thereafter. The number of pages dedicated to explaining some virtually-inconsequential piece of trivial machinery, policy, or science-proof verges on the ridiculous, leaving in its place a book that is one-part novel, one-part scientific journal article.

Seveneves is a mammoth achievement, and I think Neal Stephenson deserves better from me. But the reality is that this book was a real challenge to finish, and could have been dramatically improved had an editor been allowed to actually edit the book for more than grammatical and spelling errors. I’m left to recommend this book with heavy caveats – be prepared for a slog, set aside all other books, allow yourself breaks with the knowledge that much you have read will be forgotten, and hope to hell you are even partially as scientifically-minded as the editors of the journal Science, because otherwise you’re going to be utterly lost.

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