lunes, 18 de mayo de 2015

Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson


(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)

Review Soundtrack: I suggest reading this review while listening to A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, by Bob Dylan (Spotify, YouTube). 

It would be too easy to open this review saying that Seveneves starts with a bang. But, come on, Neal Stephenson just destroys the Moon in the first sentence of the novel: "The Moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason". As you can imagine, this sets the tone for most of what is to come. Almost 900 pages full of amazing images and unbelievable engineering feats with a scope that can only be described as epic.

In fact, everything in Seveneves is just a bit shy of excessive, starting with its length (300,000 words) and ending with the amount of detail that Stephenson, with his trademark style, uses to describe even the last screw of even the last spaceship in the novel. All this enormity is, at the same time, the greatest achievement and the most dangerous pitfall of the book. As it usually said, Seveneves is a book that it is easy to admire, but that to some (including this humble reviewer) will be difficult to love. 

There are many things to like in Seveneves. As almost any Stephenson's novel, it is packed with ideas that provide abundant food for thought. In this case, the focus is in how to survive an impeding global apocalypsis by constructing a series of habitats that will orbit Earth for five thousand years. Obviously, that is no easy feat by any means, and our heroes will have to face quite a number of unexpected events. The author explores many different aspects of the situation, including the psychological and social problems of living in Space and, especially, the physics and engineering of the problem. While reading Seveneves you will learn more than your share about spacesuits, propulsion systems and cosmic ray shielding. If orbital mechanics is your thing, you will utterly fall in love with Seveneves.

To the average reader (and I am, only for this time, including myself in that category), it can be a bit tiring, though. Stephenson has never been too shy with his infodumps and I, for one, love how he frequently detoured from the main road in Cryptonomicon and Anathem to take an excursion into the realms of mathematics and philosophy. But finding chapter after chapter with almost no dialog and page after page of explanations, in excruciating detail, of the inner workings of an arcane propulsion system of an arcane space capsule, proved to be too much for me. 

Also, I think that both its title and its synopsis paid little service to the novel. Some of the events that are mentioned in the description of the book only take place after you are about 600 pages into the story. So to get that cool part (that, actually, was not that cool after all) with the seven different races in Earth's far future, you have to read 200,000 words of tomorrow's nerds trying to survive on the International Space Station. I'm used to some synopsis being a bit deceptive, but I think that this one simply crossed the line.

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that Seveneves is a bad novel or that you should not read it. Quite to the contrary, I strongly believe that, if you are into science fiction, you need to read this book, because it will be one the most talked about this year and it is obviously an important work in many respects. It also has some scenes that can only be described as truly brilliant. I, however, cannot help feeling that Seveneves would have been a much better story had it been half its actual size. At its 900 pages, though, it is just another case of a book by a hugely talented and well-established author (George R.R. Martin, anyone?) in badly need of editing. 

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