A reading of Seveneves

Seveneves, a novel by Neal Stephenson

 

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.

 

Dream #TheDailyPost

Write a new post in response to today’s one-word prompt.

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The sky was deep blue, the four moons guarded by silver clouds: the waves slowly caressed the black sand… There you stood, wrapped in the red toga of your caste, the two deep wells of your eyes reflecting an amused surprise, looking at me.

What was that alien form, was the creature alive, or a mere machine sent to trouble the peace of the chosen by some jealous minor deity?

I felt humbled by such beauty, on this faraway world: wondering about you, the myths and the science that had created you, perhaps the devils that besieged your soul.

Then you started answering me, wordlessly. Images flashed at great speed: the formation of this planet, the golden sea, the moons, enormous waves, people fleeing the floods, you and your tribe on top of a vertiginous cliff… Thunder, monstrous machines, a temple.

You were closer now, your arm lifted, palm extended…

The waves stood still, you were fading, and the vision fast dissolved in the grey dawn.

Andromeda.

Earth #TheDailyPost

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Write a new post in response to today’s one-word prompt.

“We’ll be fine here,” she says, looking to the horizon and the melting ochres of the desert. I acquiesce: not only this is a blessed land, but we also know the people here, they are our friends, they have adopted us, and they will bury us according to the rites.

“And you see, this little house, this is so much better than the stupid apartments we spent fortunes on in the city!” The house is simple, thick natural walls, a little nest against the cliff, invisible from the ground…

And far away from the noxious fumes and radioactive dust of what is left of civilisation…

Photo: Walnut Canyon cliffs and ancient Pueblo dwellings, Arizona © Honoré Dupuis 2016

Rendezvous #AtoZAprilChallenge

thepassageoftime

For the first time the voice he heard, in his sleep, was not Melissa’s. The woman introduced herself as Gabrielle, Melissa’s teacher, and proceeded to explain where he would find her, in clear, geographical precision, courteous, but leaving no doubt that he was expected to attend. The message was delivered without preamble, as a matter of fact. That night Melissa did not talk to him. But she had previously said she wanted him to meet Gabrielle.

The date was three days hence, and he wanted to think about it, to discuss it with Sarah. Why meeting the teacher before the pupil, or was the pupil attending too? He was intrigued, a little excited, his mind considering all weird possibilities. If the whole story was an hoax he might discover who was at its origin. He may even get a glimpse of his friend, or someone related to her. He thought of the avatar – was there another way to describe that vision? – his sister Jane had met on Chi. What computer wizardry had created that encounter?

In the following three days he worked and trained. He was reading The Passage, a  tale of human madness and of the destruction of America. The book reminded him of The Stand, perhaps his favourite novel of the last thirty years. In The Passage, the character of Amy, the Girl from Nowhere, and ultimate saviour of mankind, was immensely attractive to Julian. As in The Stand, the primary cause of the disaster was military delusion and political ineptitude, a cocktail he recognised in his own country.

The night before the meeting, which was set in the evening at eight, Sarah and Julian talked about what they knew so far. Melissa, a friend of his school days, or pretending to be, had contacted him and continued to communicate with him, although so far never in person. Jane had seen someone claiming to be her, on a virtual world where Melissa had invited Julian. Through her Facebook page they knew – or were led to believe – that Melissa had been murdered some twenty years ago, which would make Melissa a ghost, or a pretend one. Yet Julian had been given detailed information, in his dreams, about Melissa’s studies and progress in mathematics and physics. Sarah thought that if Julian was to meet anyone, it would be whoever was behind the “tale” of Melissa. She wanted to play down the possibility of her husband meeting the actual Melissa. Julian agreed that the the most probable outcome was that a friend, or relation, of his dead friend would then explain why and perhaps how he had found himself the target of the story.

The following day he stayed at home, reading and meditating until the evening. Before leaving the house he dressed as he thought suited to the chilly walk that awaited him once he left the underground. The part of the city Gabrielle had indicated was not known to him. He got off the tube at an unknown station. The streets were crowded with late shoppers. The air was chilly and damp: he was pleased to be wearing his heavy parka and warm walking boots. He walked along the main street for half an hour, aware of the mix of ethnic shops and suburban squalor: the area may not have changed much since the last war, a home for newcomers, from far-away war-torn corners of the world. He thought of the evacuation of Cincinnati, narrated in The Passage.

As he was instructed he turned off into a quiet side street, which after two hundred yards exhibited a very different landscape of narrow town houses, evidently very old. He walked past a long brick wall with overhanging branches of yet older trees: a very strange contrast with the high street he just left. After ten or fifteen minutes the street appeared to narrow into a medieval looking lane, with a cobbled surface. The night grew darker, and the street lights were dimmer and far between. He looked for the number plate of the house. He nearly missed it, hardly visible, above the door of the thin facade of a very old house. The enamel of the plate appeared cracked and ancient. The house was in darkness. Following his brief he used the door hammer – an old brass object polished with age – and knocked twice. The sound seemed to be swallowed by the door. He then waited. There was no-one in the street, and the sky was hardly visible from the threshold of the house. After a few minutes the door opened silently on a dark corridor, and Julian walked in. As he took a few steps along the corridor he knew the door had shut silently behind him, in front of him there was a faint light.

Julian stopped, disorientated, listening to voices that appeared to be coming from inside the house, women’s voices, but not words he could understand. Suddenly he was in front of a closed door, with light filtering from underneath. The door opened: a short woman of indeterminate age was standing, inviting him through:

“Welcome Julian, I am sorry not to have met you at the front door – you must forgive an old historian, lost in her reveries…” The lady was smiling, gesturing to a comfortable-looking sofa facing a chimney. A large bay window gave a view of a garden in shadows. A bright wood-fire was burning in the chimney. “I am Gabrielle” continued his host. “I am very grateful you could come all the way to our little place, I find it more difficult to negotiate the city at this time of the year” she added with another bright smile. She sat on a chair facing the sofa and invited him to make himself comfortable. “Melissa’s making coffee” she said, “or would you rather have tea?” Julian replied in a shaky voice that coffee was fine. So, was Melissa living here? Gabrielle’s hair was a soft copper with grey streaks, she wore thick glasses that seemed to protect her clear blue eyes: the image of a mature, benevolent academic, or scientist.

“I know you are anxious to meet your friend, and I owe you some explanation. You see, I am very fond of Melissa, you could say I am her adoptive mother, if I may use these words…” Julian was trying to control his nerves: the house was silent, only Gabrielle’s voice, the crackling wood fire, and the sound of his own blood through this body. “I hope you have the time to listen to a long story, but tell me if you need a break, just stop me” she said looking at him with a gentle and protective look. “I will use some visuals to help you along the way”, but Julian felt he was falling into darkness: the room had dissolved, leaving him in infinite space, then he heard Gabrielle’s voice again: “I must first explain who I am and why I am here…”

Space was filled with a majestic view of a galaxy: Julian was trying to recall its name, when Gabrielle’s voice  resumed her narrative. The image – if it was that – was a high resolution three-dimensional view, of extraordinary clarity. The galaxy was slowly rotating, and bright spots, like explosions, appeared her and there in its midst. “This is where I come from. You call that area M31, or Andromeda. I know you may find it difficult to accept, and I will not try to convince you of anything, yet. But I have to be absolutely honest with you. My species is high on ethics – I think this is the right way to express it…” The view was changing, homing on a cluster of five stars, figures and symbols appeared around one of the stars, and Julian guessed it was some system of coordinates. The depth of the view was staggering. “This, Gabrielle said, is my home star, the equivalent for me of your sun, and as you see the planet system around it is not that different from yours, but there are have five stars, you could say, looking after my species”. Julian was now looking at a long perspective of perhaps twenty smaller bright spots of various diameters, rotating in a complex pattern around the stars: a planet system. He wondered if what he saw was a live view: he was no longer questioning Gabrielle’s words. The image changed slowly, zooming to show a silvery structure, visibly artificial, that reminded Julian of the Peï pyramid in the Louvre’s courtyard in Paris, but this was suspended in space and, probably much bigger. “Our species is also strong on engineering, but”, Gabrielle said, “for some time now, we have evolved a collective way of thinking everything. I just wanted you to see one of our early creations: this is quite old, although our sense of “old” is somewhat different from yours…” Now Julian was looking at a wide sweep of space, and another galaxy, seen from the edge, as gradually he realised that this was his galaxy: the Milky Way, seen from space, from a point possibly situated half way between it and Andromeda. “Julian: this shows you what you would see, travelling from my place to yours, as we are really neighbours, in cosmic terms. And, yes, the being you see has been visiting your world”. The view changed to one Julian recognised: the solar system, approached through the asteroid belt and Pluto. He saw the rings of Saturn, and Jupiter’s massive bulk, surrounded by the five moons. He was now aware of the extraordinary clarity of the image and wondered about the structure of the lens that had taken the photography or the film. As if reading his thoughts, Gabrielle continued: “ Those images are simplified, using filters specific for the human sight: I am showing you only a small fraction of the information held on those records”. The earth appeared, the familiar blue and white sphere, the liquid paradise he was the product of. “Now I suggest we make a pause” said Gabrielle, and you may have some questions for me.”

He was back in the room. The fire was burning. He said hesitantly: “How long have you been here, on our world, Gabrielle?” Gabrielle’s kind eyes were observing him, quietly and gently. Finally she replied: “I am a recent visitor, a mere five hundred years, but my kind has been observing and studying this world for much longer, let us say, since well before you came in”. With a sinking feeling Julian tried to gather his thoughts. “And how did you come across my friend?” Gabrielle was hesitant for some time. “Certain views I can show you, but please be patient. Shall we say we have started a journey? I am a historian, as I said to you earlier, when you came in. My job, is to gather facts and evidence on human development and evolution.”

Julian was now immersed in an aerial view, as if taken from a helicopter, of a small town. The image was again clear, as if in slow motion. He could see smoke rising from tall chimneys, a river, some old buildings. After a few minutes he realised this was his childhood town, where Melissa and him had lived all those years back. The “camera” was now zooming on familiar places, the town main square with the big lions, where the library was. The traffic was light, and Julian saw that the cars were vintage of his youth: this was a recorded film. Now the film accelerated, with sweeping views taken along narrow streets, as if whoever held the camera was riding through the air, almost touching the walls. He recognised the market place, the small park, and the canal. Tall trees were lining the canal: how well he knew this path! Small tears were running down his face. The view was now of a small lane bordered by crumbling walls and badly kept gardens. For some reason the camera showed a corner of the lane, covered with muddy grass and small stones, then froze. He was back in Gabrielle’s room. “That was where Melissa was murdered” said Gabrielle with a tender and sad tone of voice. “That is where I found her, too late to save her, but not late enough to be unable to save her… memories.”

Julian felt his heart sink into a well of ice and sorrow. “Are you saying that Melissa is really dead?” he managed to ask –  “She died, and she lives again” said Gabrielle calmly. Then Julian was aware of a presence next to him, close, on the sofa.

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Fight #TheDailyPost

Write a new post in response to today’s one-word prompt.

 

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It took me a long time, to understand who you were, and how it was that you came to us now, reminding me of a nearly all forgotten past. Sarah and you are one, even if herself did not see that when you first came in our lives. It is a complicated tale for us humans to fully apprehend – and yes, I know you are as human as us, only ahead of us, the being we will one day become. Sarah’s happy, for me and for herself. We are reconciled with you, Melissa, and I am reconciled with my lost youth.

Of course I cannot follow all the mathematics, and even less the physics, although Gabrielle’s spent a fair time explaining the transforms to us. Sarah is a much better mathematician, and she does understand quantum physics far more than I do. You and her had a good time discussing the reasons for Lagrangian logic, or we would say, mechanics. Old Newton must be turning round in his grave…

As you recall I am an incorrigible romantic: watching the two of you, in Gabrielle’s old house, laughing and juggling with those exquisite slides, I kept dreaming. How similar you two are, and how beautiful. Gabrielle said I had nothing to fear: neither she nor you are pretending to be extraordinary, merely living at a level of complexity slightly away from us, but still it leaves us plenty of space and time to enjoy ourselves, with you. Sarah has bought into the idea that I am now able to visit you, Melissa, in Gabrielle’s world, and that does not involve any risk to my body. Still it is a little difficult for me to accept that simple reality: what travels are quantum of information, to use our archaic description, and this avoids the quantum electrodynamics limits of old very gracefully. So, for now, I have given up deciphering the equations, I just enjoy listening to you, the sound of your voice, the warmth you and Sarah have brought to my life. As a writer I am very privileged.

But will I be able to tell our story? That is without betraying the sweet secret: Melissa is immortal.

Originally posted as “What I see”

#VisDare 114: Prepared #WritersWednesday

PreparedOn this far-away horizon we fly, age-old balloonists, at peace. I long thought, in the moonless nights, reading, dreaming, of those eons ahead of us – the universe ‘s infinity, the long journeys, our transformation, progressive, imperceptible, on the shores of time.

Old-fashioned I am – we are – in the eyes of the past centuries, albeit not our own: fashionable we might become, on those alien planets we visit in the midst of our everlasting sleep.

Explorers, yes, young still, without the edge of possible awake, for we will never return, to the old world, to the mother ship: lost we are, willing prisoners of an endless tale, one many times recounted – till now.

Now, we live the dream, sliding by foreign stars, through the intricacies of space, as we were convinced we would, one day, not by magic, but driven, prepared, accepting the fate of those who deny their own mortality…

#FiveSentenceFiction: S(team)punk

CaptainShe’s a great captain: in her world, perhaps the most decorated of them all, besides being a beauty.

Sailing is her life, through the eery oceans of virgin planets, observed by multiple stars, and by alien, voracious and concupiscent eyes.

Adulated by her crew – and what a crew! of crustacean giants, sea spiders and weird creatures from the depth…

She’s feared by her rivals, but does she have any, or just jealous dwarves?

For she, who will conquer them all, is inviolable, the true mistress of Space.

#DailyPrompt: Shape of Your Year

Inspired by today’s Daily Prompt: State of your Year…

这@vervol采集到雕塑(274图)_花瓣人文艺术She stopped near the girls’ cave, noticing the sensors were still on. “They are so careful, now they have learned…” she told herself. Soon they would depart, for the long journey…

It had been a good year, at long last she’d cracked the code, and the girls’ language. Of course she’d been lucky. Not only she’d kept alive – not a mean feat being alone with twenty feet high monsters that could split a rock in one blow – but they had started communicating, and quickly understood what she expected.

Yes, there was the solitude, she was after all the only human being in an immensity of millions of parsecs. She sometimes thought of him, her hero, her lover, the one who had protected her with his life, his cherished body now buried in the deep grave near Alph Centauri. She carried his memory, deep, in the secret core of her heart.

The girls emerged, their pleasure in seeing her visible from the tremendous oscillations of their antennae.

“Good morning comrades!” she said. “A good year in front of us, and the ship is well advanced already!” They greeted her in return, the huge bodies mimicking a little dance. Each one of them must have weighed twenty tons. A great help when you deal in high energy metallurgy…

“One year” she thought, and on this vast planet, so rich in the resources she needed, one year was ten Earth years.

#FiveSentenceFiction: Forgotten

2001They approach slowly, through the landscape of rocks and dust, their steps forever silent.

It is as was written: the crater pocked by the impact of smaller asteroids, through millennia, and the uniform grey dust.

Their leader holds the white torch high, in their radio they have heard:

The slow rumble, punctuated with short burst of sharp notes, the sound of hyperspace messaging…

And the monolith rises in a shower of dust and rocks, dwarfing the scenery around them: the Sentinel has woken.

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