From times immemorial, we have dreamed about it, painted it on caves walls, written fiction and speculations, prayed for it not to happen: it is mankind’s common nightmare, Armageddon, the end of our world, the end of our species. Will it be caused by our own misbehaviour, a punishment from our creator, our poisoning of the Earth, our Mother, or a nuclear holocaust? Neal Stephenson’s novel tells the story, of Armageddon from Space, from an unknown source, by an unknown “Agent”. This book, perhaps his best work to-date, is an uncompromising account of our destruction, down to, literally, a dwindling group of survivors, pitiful remnants of a once arrogant civilisation, ours, now hiding in tin cans orbiting the once beautiful planet. The story is, also, of a possible rebirth, couched in such a way as making the reader wonder: has this happened before? For, in some ways, haven’t we been there: the fire from the sky, the flight, the long terror, the survival of the few?
The description of the destruction of the old Earth by the “Hard Rain”, and of the hopeless, harrowing, and ultimately pathetic struggle of those, chosen to escape to Space, occupies the first and larger part of the novel. We learn of the heroic sacrifices of a few, of human nature, once again, leading to disaster after disaster. The males of the species are wiped out, leaving to the seven Eves the final decisions as to the future of humanity. This prepares the reader for the rebirth, the renewal of mankind from the shelter of the asteroid where the Eves have found refuge.
The second part of the book has a distinctly Arthur C-Clarkian flavour to it, as we sweep through five thousand years of post Zero history: mankind lives mostly on a ring of spatial habitats orbiting the Earth; the “New-Earth” is being seeded with recreated creatures and plants; the descendants of the seven Eves, from whose genes the two billions of “Spacers” derive from, have developed separate cultures, in each of the seven genomes legated by the Eves. This is a world of partial segregation between “races”, where orbital mechanics, robotics and genetics dominate science. The description of the “Cradle” reminded me of the “Fountains of Paradise“, but this legacy is not acknowledged in Stephenson’s notes, so it must be an association of ideas. This world is evidently very different (but very classical in terms of the science fiction literature) from ours, and yet the same old rivalries have reappeared (Blue versus Red).
The reader, after a long journey, is left with many unanswered questions. Stephenson, like Clarke before him, holds the human female as more adapted to the conditions of Space: better able to cope with cramped living conditions, isolation and solitude, biologically superior. The novel shows that the decisions made at the Council of the Seven Eves, to fundamentally conduct a differentiated genetics-enabled rebirth of mankind, initially through parthenogenesis, endure after five millennia. As the Spacers come to meet some of the “rootstock” survivors on the surface of New Earth, will they be considered as alien mutants, cowards who abandoned ship, and unwelcome intruders, or a curiosity from Space? As we remain baffled by the “Purpose”, the nature of the Agent likewise remains veiled in mystery: judgement of God, random micro blackhole, or, simply, destiny?
Seveneves is a fantastic read, from end to finish. The world Stephenson created, its appeal and at the same time repulsive logic, will stay with us forever. So will the Seven.