by Neal Stephenson
Published May, 2015
The end of the world has never been more popular. Speculative fictions positing cheery futures are, these days, infinitely rarer than novels detailing apocalypses. It is not difficult to understand why. Slate’s astronomy blogger Phil Plait recently presented a parable in which the world’s scientists identify, tentatively at first and then with increasing certainty, a meteorite that is destined to hit Earth. Their warnings are ignored, even as the threat becomes more palpable. ‘Eventually,’ Plait writes,
the asteroid is bright enough that it can be seen in small telescopes. Anyone can see it themself with just a little bit of understanding of how the science works. NASA still tries to get money from Congress, but is slapped down. One Congressman denies asteroids can even exist at all, since they’re not mentioned in the Bible. Another, with heavy ties to the mining industry, claims that an impact would be beneficial, since it would bring a huge amount of precious metals to Earth, right on the ground where we can access them.
You get the point. Today, even the weather has been denatured. For the Romantic precursors of science fiction, a blustering storm or a raging sea could represent a sublimity against which the ambitions of man might be measured and found wanting; unusual meteorological phenomena now remind us not of our insignificance, but of our power. Climate change engenders such cultural gloom not because we do not know how to save the world, but because we do – and yet, despite that knowledge, we seem set to let the planet burn.
Given the times, it is not surprising that Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves begins with a catastrophe – namely, the explosion of the Moon, an event that promises to shower the Earth with debris and render it uninhabitable for thousands of years. The peculiarities of the book become apparent when you read it alongside Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman (2012), a novel with a very similar premise. Winters also posits an unstoppable, Earth-destroying asteroid – and then uses the conventions of detective fiction to explore questions of morality and justice in the context of imminent extinction. He is not particularly interested in the asteroid per se (The Last Policeman is not a novel about science), except insofar as its coming impact reshapes human priorities. If everyone is about to die, why solve an individual murder? Why do anything, for that matter? There is an elegiac tone to the whole work, with detective Hank Palace, the Dudley Do-Right protagonist, presented as an anomalous representative of a time that is already past.
Seveneves has very different preoccupations. Unlike The Last Policeman, it is the hardest of hard science fiction, unflinchingly focused on technology as the species’ salvation. In that respect, it feels, at first, almost anachronistic, a throwback to the Golden Age of Science Fiction, when genre writers shared an earlier era’s confidence about the ability of science to shape the world for the better. ‘In the typical Golden Age SF story,’ Rjurik Davidson noted in an Overland article from some years back,
the protagonist – almost always white and male – faced a plot-puzzle created by some science fictional dilemma, to be solved by either intelligence and scientific knowledge (the more liberal Golden Age writers), or through action (Heinlein and others from the Right). For Golden Age writers, science was to lead us in a glorious progress from the suburbs to the stars. The Golden Age authors could thus ask: what kind of worlds will we be engaging with? What sort of alien environments and inhabitants exist there? … In its elevation of science, its technological determinism and its belief in progress, the Golden Age was thus an expression of the dominant postwar American liberalism, itself born from the moment that the US moved to centre stage politically and economically.
Davidson’s description seems to fit. Certainly, Seveneves begins with scientists estimating that, after the Moon’s disintegration, humanity has two years before a Hard Rain of debris sterilises the Earth for five millennia. That’s the plot-puzzle – and it is resolved with intelligence and scientific knowledge, in a narrative chronicling the dilemmas involved in establishing and maintaining a viable colony in space.
Seveneves weighs in at a whopping 880 pages. Into those pages, it packs an extraordinary amount of information about the behaviour of orbiting space habitats, the nature of asteroids, the capabilities of nano robots, the physics of whips, and much more besides. A brief example:
The radiators were, in essence, a gigantic exploit in zero-gravity plumbing. The excess heat had to be collected from where it was produced … and transported to where it could be gotten rid of (the ‘empennage’ growing to aft). The only plausible way of doing this was by using a fluid, pumping it around a loop, heating it up at one end and cooling it off at the other. At the hot end they used heat exchangers and so-called cold plates that just soaked up heat from wherever it was a problem. At the cold end the fluid fanned out through networks of thin tubes, like capillaries, sandwiched between flat panels whose sole purpose was to become slightly warm and shine infrared light into deep space … Joining the hot and cold ends of the loop was a system of pumps and pipes that got bigger every day and that was prone to many of the same kinds of trouble as bedeviled earthbound plumbing.
Somehow, Stephenson manages to make his repeated information dumps engaging, even occasionally fascinating. It is a considerable literary achievement. In the acknowledgements, he cites his sources – and one suspects that few other writers could keep readers engaged for so long in a novel that thanks scientists responsible for ‘a 2000 study on high-altitude rotating tethers [that] serves as the basis for the glider-to-orbit transfer described in the third part of this book’.
Interestingly, there is also a shout out to Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon. Stephenson worked part-time at Blue Origin, Bezos’ private space travel company, where, he says, Seveneves emerged from discussions with Bezos and others. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the novel features a can-do tech billionaire called Sean Probst, who drops into the Cloud Ark on his personal rocket and helpfully explains that NASA is miscalculating the resources the project will require.
The Bezos figure represents more than simply a tribute to a powerful boss. The cast of characters also includes a Neil deGrasse Tyson-style science educator named Dr Dubois – and the people saving the race with him are, indeed, a kind of Talented Tenth (or, more exactly, a Talented Tenth of a Billion). Consider the description of Dr Moira Crewe:
of all the people on Earth she was one of the most obvious candidates for inclusion on the Cloud Ark. She was of West Indian ancestry, wearing her hair in finger-length dreadlocks that had adapted pretty well to zero gravity – better than white people’s hair, for sure … Raised in a dodgy part of London, she’d gone to a posh school on scholarship and went on to earn a biology degree at Oxford. She had gone to Harvard for her PhD, working with a project there on de-extinction. Her general charisma, and an accent that Americans found charming, had made her into the most well-known spokesperson for that project. She had done TED talks and other public appearances describing her lab’s efforts to bring the woolly mammoth back to life. After a brief sojourn in Siberia, working with a Russian oil billionaire who wanted to create a nature preserve stocked with formerly extinct megafauna, she had returned to the UK and begun postdoctoral work …
The protagonists, then, are of a distinct type: TED-talking, entrepreneurial Ivy Leaguers, whom we could very well imagine working with Bezos at Blue Origin, or perhaps hanging with Tony Blair and Bono at a WTO forum. Unlike The Last Policeman, Seveneves does not focus on how ordinary people react to the end of the world. In fact, we learn very little about the response of the ninety-nine per cent to their imminent demise. ‘The economy is shutting down, and people are just eating beans and entertaining themselves with screen time,’ explains one of the astronauts to another – and that’s about all we get. At one point, Doc Dubois hopes that that the planet will just hurry up and die:
The government had been handing out free euthanasia pills to anyone who wanted them; thousands had already swallowed them and bodies overflowed the morgues. Mass graves were being dug with end loaders. Meanwhile, Doob was preparing – to be blunt, to be honest – the greatest adventure of his life. He wished, at some level, that they were already dead.
Dubois regrets the sentiment. But the desire is embedded in the structure of the novel itself, with the technological adventure of establishing a new civilisation dependent upon the extinction of the old one.
Seveneves is not, it should be stressed, a conservative book. There is nothing in it comparable to, say, the long diatribes about the moral necessity for military dictatorship that lard every Robert Heinlein novel. But nor does Stephenson’s enthusiasm for science coincide with the gee-willikers liberal optimism of Golden Age science fiction. On the contrary, the novel treats politics as a problem, something to be overcome by the technocratic elite. Again and again, the Cloud Ark must manage and stifle unfortunate outbreaks of democracy. The spokespeople for the project consistently and casually misrepresent what they are doing – for instance, by lying to the public about the supposedly random process by which some ordinary people might get a berth. ‘The choice is best not left to chance,’ says the King of Bhutan to Doc Dubois. ‘We must send only the finest candidates.’ Eventually, it proves necessary to nuke the Venezuelans to prevent them protesting about the selection methods. When a demagogic politician incites those on the Ark to rebel against the martial law imposed by its leaders, the rebels mismanage themselves so badly that those who do not die must resort to cannibalism. That is how the population of the Cloud Ark is reduced to a mere handful – the seven Eves of the title.
The novel’s final section takes place 5000 years later, as the recolonisation of the newly geo-engineered planet begins. Humanity has, we learn, thrived in outer space. The descendants of the Cloud Ark crew have developed a high-tech society of their own: a civilisation that (wouldn’t you know) looks more or less exactly like twenty-first century capitalism, except that it is based on ‘races’ descended from the seven female survivors. ‘It had become clear,’ Stephenson explains,
within the first few generations after the Council of the Seven Eves that the seven races were going to be around forever. They were as permanent in the human picture as toenails and spleens.
The divisions between the people of the far future are not those of skin colour. Rather, the Eves have genetically engineered their offspring in various ways, thus shaping the various peoples who developed. Nonetheless, the emphasis on race in this section is peculiar and a little unpleasant: sentences like ‘Her use of the passive voice … was racially typical’ leave a bad taste in the mouth.
In the final chapters, we discover two other sets of re-made humans emerging from the rubble. One tribe can be traced back to an ISS crew-woman’s father, a mining mogul and Tea Party conservative, who started digging tunnels before the Hard Rain fell. The other group – the ‘Pingers’ – traces its roots back to another astronaut’s fiancé, a nuclear submariner who descended into deep water just after blasting the Venezuelans. The underground people are now white and pallid; the Pingers have become grey and blubbery like seals.
Lacking the hundreds of pages of technical details that lend the Cloud Ark chapters a veneer of plausibility, these po-faced discussions about a society flourishing for 5000 years at the bottom of the ocean seem rather risible. But that is not really the point. In his book Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste (2013), Philip Mirowski outlines how the naturalisation of the free market in contemporary neoliberal thought motivates a fascination with the construction of the self. Because the market is accepted as the arbiter of every interaction, humans must reshape themselves to better meet its exigencies. The neoliberal subject becomes a never-ending project, a continual re-engineering of the soul:
This is the true terminus of the neoliberal self: to supplant your own mother and father; to shrug off the surly bond ratings of earth; to transform yourself at the drop of a hat or the swallow of a pill; to be beholden to no other body but only to the incorporeal market. It doesn’t matter if the procedure actually lies within the bounds of contemporary scientific possibility, because it is the apocalypse and the Rapture of the neoliberal scriptures.
If we think back to Phil Plait’s parallel between climate change and an asteroid strike, the logic of transformation in Seveneves makes sense. Mirowski argues that the neoliberal response to global warming comprises three separate components: denialism, carbon trading and geo-engineering. It is a trifecta designed to ensure that whatever action is taken on climate never challenges the hegemony of the market.
The promotion of denialism buys time for the other two options: the financialization of carbon credits gets all the attention in the medium term, while appeals to geoengineering incubate in the wings as a techno-utopian deus ex machina to swoop down when the other options fail. At each step along the way, the neoliberals guarantee their core tenet remains in force: the market will arbitrate any and all responses to biosphere degradation …
Seveneves is not simply a parable like the one produced by Plait. But if the book cannot be reduced to an allegory about the threat of climate change, nor can it be separated from the context in which it has emerged. Indeed, it provides an effective and rather chilling illustration of the neoliberal imagination. ‘The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason’ – that is the very first line of the novel, a sentence in which the catastrophe engulfing Earth is simply presented as a given. Not only can we not save the world, we should not even wonder about why it is ending. All we can do is make the best of our new circumstances. This is strikingly reminiscent of the neoliberal attitudes to climate change. As Mirowski explains, neoliberals must, at all costs, prevent discussion about the causes of a warming planet, since that might foster anti-market policies. Besides, from their perspective, there is nothing to investigate. Whatever outcome the markets produce, even planetary destruction, is correct by definition and we must simply embrace it.
In Seveneves, we read how Doc Dubois had ‘wasted a week on the fascinating scientific puzzle of “What blew up the moon?”.’ The text continues: ‘That had been a mistake.’ Those familiar with the dismal genre of management theory will hear in Dubois’ question ‘What blew up the moon?’ an echo of Spencer Johnson’s wildly successful Who Moved My Cheese? (1998), a book that has sold an astonishing 26 million copies. It is a silly neoliberal allegory depicting two executives, Hem and Haw, as little figures running through a maze in search of food. When the titular cheese vanishes, Hem wastes time bemoaning its disappearance, ‘rant[ing] and rav[ing] at the injustice of it all’. Haw, however, abandons any sense of entitlement, and sets off again through the corridors, embracing perpetual insecurity as simply the way the world works. ‘If you do not change,’ he announces, ‘you can become extinct.’ Johnson’s message – which he spells out repeatedly – is that asking what happened to the cheese is almost a category error. Adaption is all that matters. As Haw puts it: ‘The quicker you let go of old cheese, the sooner you can enjoy new cheese.’
Thus it proves for the people of the Ark. Rather than asking ‘Who moved my moon?’, they let go of old Earth and 5000 years later they are happily enjoying a new Earth, alongside the mole men and the sea people. Well, that’s one imagined future. In reality, of course, many of us remain stubbornly attached to our planet and would like to think there is still a chance of saving it.
Spencer Johnson, Who Moved My Cheese? (Putnam, 1998).
Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (Verso, 2013).