Seveneves (Neal Stephenson)

Without any prior warning, the Moon suddenly explodes and splits into seven large pieces, known hence forth as ‘sisters’ – however even these huge chunks of rock don’t last too long, as they soon start to collide with one another, splitting into ever smaller fragments.

The scientists predict that this exponential fragmentation of large rocks into smaller ones would eventually result in a massive cloud of lunar debris that would completely obscure the sky, the so-called ‘White Sky’, that will be followed about three days later, when the uncountable bolides begin to enter the Earth’s atmosphere, by a bombardment and rain of fire on an unprecedented scale, or at least of the intensity and magnitude that Earth hasn’t seen since the primeval times, they come to call ‘Hard Rain’. This is the basic premise of Seveneves, a science fiction novel by American writer Neal Stephenson.

Facing the inevitable, humanity has roughly two years to figure out some kind of rescue plan, but in the end, there are only two ways how to avoid certain death: Go underground, or, go skywise. With regards to the latter solution, building of a giant ‘cloud ark’ composed of multitude of self-contained arklets that can separate from the central hub when there is a danger of collision with one of the Moon’s fragments, goes underway, using the International Space Station (ISS) as its foundation.

The population of the cloud ark is gradually increasing, until by day 700, it consists of close to 1300 inhabitants, a.k.a. ‘Arkies’. This number is later boosted by a desperate surge of last-minute launches, so that when the White Sky finally comes, the cloud ark houses nearly 2000 souls.

But no sooner is the surface of Earth battered by the first fragments of Moon, than an argument breaks out among the Arkies about what is the best survival strategy. While most of the inhabitants of the ISS (or ‘Izzy’ as it becomes affectionately known), led by commander Ivy Xiao, favour the ‘Big Ride’ scenario, where the altitude of the Izzy, and the cloud ark around her, would be gradually raised to match the orbit of the ‘Cleft‘ – one of the biggest remnants of the former Moon, where they would be once and for all free from the dangers of the Hard Rain, most of the Arkies support the ‘Dump and Run’ strategy, where the individual arklets within the cloud ark break free from the cumbersome, hence less-manoeuvrable, Izzy and raise their elevations to a higher, relatively bolide-free orbit, where they would form a new cloud ark.

Without any prior warning, the Moon suddenly explodes and splits into seven pieces, known henceforth as ‘sisters’

Since they lack the enormous amount of propellant required for their audacious manoeuvre, the proponents of the ‘Big Ride’ strategy send out commercial spaceflight mogul Sean Probst and his small crew of daredevils aboard Ymir spacecraft on a daring mission that manages to blast off a huge shard of ice from comet Grigg-Skjellerup, bring it back to Earth’s orbit and eventually rendezvous with Izzy. Unfortunately, just as Ymir, embedded within a huge chunk of ice approaches Izzy, in the cloud ark, an ambitious and scheming Julia Bliss Flaherty, former US president, stages a coup and breaks away from Izzy in her ‘White Arklet’ taking with her a substantial number of other arklets with about 2/3 of the remaining human population aboard.

Eventually, Izzy, boosted by the propellant obtained by splitting water from acquired comet-ice into hydrogen and oxygen, accomplishes the ‘Big Ride’ manoeuvre, but not before rendezvousing with the remnants of the break-away faction of cloud ark community, whose population, decimated by malnutrition and exposure to radiation from coronal mass ejections caused by solar flares, is by now reduced to mere 11 emaciated individuals, who in order to survive turned to cannibalism, and who finally concede their defeat in order to be accepted on board.

The populace of Endurance (how the inhabitants of Izzy ended up calling the merger of the space station, remaining arklets and comet ice brought in by Ymir) in the meantime ventured only slightly better, standing now at just 28 persons. However, the call for help from the breakaway Arkies turned up to be only a ruse – they pretended weakness and submission in order to get aboard Endurance and wrestle control of the spaceship away from its crew. In an ensuing conflict, made worse by the fact that Endurance was at the time passing through a large field of bolides in order to catch-up with the Cleft, most of the rogue Arkies and some of the Endurance’s crew, perish. Those who didn’t sustain fatal injuries during the combat or as the consequence of bolide strikes, were suffering from acute radiation sickness as a result of not being able to take shelter from the cosmic rays. Therefore, by the time the Endurance reaches the relative safety of the Cleft, all what remains from the entire, once 7-billion-strong race, are 16 withered, exhausted human beings.

Humankind is faced with a stark choice: leave the Earth and survive, or stay put and become extinct

A week later, after the last of the victims had succumbed to the wounds suffered during the battle or to radiation sickness, only eight humans remain alive and healthy: Dinah, Ivy, Moira, Tekla, Julia, Aïda, Camila and Luisa. These women would later become known as the ‘Seven Eves’ (hence the title), for, although eight women were still alive, one of them, Luisa, had already gone through menopause and therefore was useless in the future task of rebuilding the human race, which, for the lack of males or preserved sperm (the latter of which was originally stored, but was either lost during the bitter infighting between the Arkies or destroyed in various accidents), is kick-started by the process known as parthenogenesis (form of asexual reproduction in which growth and development of embryos occur from an unfertilised egg). Moira Crewe – mankind’s only remaining geneticist, gives the ‘Eves’ a choice on how their respective offspring will be genetically modified or enhanced, despite Aïda’s prediction that, hundreds of years from now, this will eventually result in seven completely different human races.

At this point it should be mentioned that the novel is divided into two, roughly equally long, parts which are so disconnected that you could almost read them as two separate books. The first part deals with the survivors of the ‘Hard Rain’, as they strive to preserve what is left from human civilisation and charts their epic journey from the surface of Earth, that is no longer habitable, to the safety of the Cleft, one of the biggest fragments of the former Moon (as detailed above). The second part is set some 5000 years in the future, when the descendants of the ‘Seven Eves’ finally leave the safety of Cleft’s haven in order to build an enormous space habitat in the Earth’s orbit from which they slowly start recreating ecology of what they now call the ‘New Earth’.

Epic, a semi-divine video narrative detailing the heroic voyage of humans from Earth to Moon’s fragment, is what the Bible would have been had Jesus and his Apostles been filmed by CCTV 24/7

The main characters of the second part, ‘Five Thousand Years Later’, are completely new, but, in accordance with Aïda’s prophecy that was fulfilled to the letter, at the same time eerily familiar, as they each carry a distinct genetic signature, as well as the name, of their respective Evean foremother.

There are now three billion souls living within a gigantic ring-shaped habitat in the Earth’s orbit and this new civilisation of space-megastructure builders is commemorating the heroic voyage of their ancestors from Earth to Cleft in the so called ‘Epic’ – a semi-divine documentary-cum-soap-opera video narrative that centres primarily on the ‘Seven Eves’ and other important characters of humankind’s exodus (such as Doc Dubois ‘Doob’ Harris, astronomer who first warned of the impending ‘Hard Rain’) of this larger-than-life saga, which is essentially what the Bible would have been had Jesus and his Apostles been constantly monitored by CCTV cameras 24/7.

Predictably, humanity’s descendants have divided along racial lines into two major factions, ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’, which are perpetually engaged in a form of Cold War manifested by total cultural and technological isolation, espionage and frequent border skirmishes.

Struggle of these two factions of ‘Spacers’ (how the descendants of Seven Eves become collectively known) Reds and Blues for the ‘New Earth’, complicated by the discovery of two additional races of aboriginal people – Diggers and Pingers, descended from the inhabitants of Dinah’s father Rufus MacQuarie’s underground shelter, and the dwellers of Ivy’s fiancé U.S. Navy Commander Cal Blankenship’s underwater refuge respectively, dominates the second half of the novel.

The author portrays space as it really is – an unwelcoming, unforgiving, life-incompatible environment, where all the difference between life and death is an inch-thick metal wall of one’s space habitat

Stephenson is known for the overly descriptive nature of his writing (he is, after all, one of the adherents of the Maximalist (‘more is more’) literary movement) and this truly epic novel, running to 880 pages, is not an exception. Unfortunately, the descriptiveness, mainly of the astronauts’ equipment within the first half of the book which is often unnecessarily far too meticulously detailed, can get a bit tedious. In fact so much so, that at some places – mainly in the first few chapters – you could be forgiven for thinking that you have by mistake picked up some sort of NASA manual.

On the plus side, in stark contrast to some overly romanticised depictions of space colonies in other recent sci-fi works (The 100 springs into mind), the author portrays space as it really is – an unwelcoming, unforgiving, life-incompatible environment, where all the difference between life and death is an inch-thick aluminium wall of one’s space habitat. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the survival rate of the cloud ark’s population which rapidly dwindles from the ambitious two-thousand-persons-strong in the beginning to mere eight individuals at the end.

All-in-all, the formerly mentioned minor points change nothing on the fact that Seveneves is a great work of science fiction, an intriguing space opera and one of the books that I found very hard to put down.

TRIVIA: Skydance Media has tasked screenwriter William Broyles Jr., director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer with adapting Seveneves into a feature film.