Neal Stephenson on the story behind Seveneves

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I would rephrase it as “turning orbital dynamics into a book’s worth of infodumps loosely tied together with action sequences.”

This is, by far, the most infodumpy Stephenson book I’ve ever read. Admittedly, I’d only read about half of his work, so maybe I’ve just been incredibly lucky.


“Neal Stephenson discusses (MP3) the challenges of turning orbital dynamics into pulse-pounding fiction”

My first thought on reading that, after reading Seveneves, was: “Oh, don’t worry, he didn’t.”

It’s really a dreadfully boring book. I’ll forgive Neal Stephenson because he wrote “The Diamond Age”, but, damn.

Sorry Neal. I love a lot of your other work, but this was just an awful slog.

Have you sampled Anathem? It’s far better than Seveneves, but still cheerfully, relentlessly didactic. He’s been off form his last two novels IMO.

Yeah, I think I have a signed copy even. To me, it doesn’t come anywhere near Seveneves in terms of infodumps.

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I love infodumps. Hell, he even made one of the book’s main infodumpers a science popularizer. If you’re going to get infodumped on it might as well be by someone who’s good at it!

Of course, a lot of those infodumps make you say, “Not by any of the known laws of agronomy/anthropology/astronomy/botany/ecology/ergonomics/evolutionary biology/genetics/geology/materials science/oceanography/oncology/physics/physiology/population biology/psychology/sociology/statistics/thermodynamics/zoology is the info I just got dumped on me plausible for even a hot minute,” but whining about that is part of the fun.

To the extent that Anathem was better (and I think it was) it was because he stuck to the tried-and-true SF formula of asking the audience to swallow one carefully justified impossibility (“the quantum consciousness of certain monks lets them jump between alternate universes!”) rather than asking the audience to endure a million little improbabilities. But different strokes and all that.


I don’t suppose we can get a link to the podcast, as a whole, in case we want to subscribe, and not just the mp3 file of this interview?

I thought Reamde was quite good.

My review:


I see people keeping saying this, but I have yet to see anyone point out any actual examples. The only science that is truly questionable that I saw was the genetics, and he more or less admits upfront that he is taking serious artistic licenses by saying something along the lines of, “all this shit was sci-fi up until a couple of years” in a book set in the future and glossing over the details. The orbital mechanics though? As an expert in the field* it all looked fine to me. In fact, anything where he started info dumping seemed more or less solid enough that I couldn’t see an obvious flaw.

Frankly, I think folks are setting too high of a bar and getting pedantic simply because it is Stephenson. Sure, I can point to a couple of spots where where I might wonder if that is what really would happen, but it is kind of missing the forest for the trees. Whether or not the thermodynamics of tunneling while the Earth is one fire works really isn’t all that important. Perfect scientific precision isn’t generally what we demand out of sci-fi novels. We tend to accept “good enough” and turn a blind eye when a little artistic liberty is needed.

All that said, Seveneves wasn’t my favorite book of his. I really enjoyed the first third. I really liked how humanity dealt with pending doom. Frankly, I think that is how we would deal with it; with a little dignity. I truly wish the book had carried on in that same vein. I am fucking bored to death of humans facing the apocalypse deciding that the best way to deal with it is to become poo flinging apes who waste their last resources on spite. What made the first third so good was that humanity got its shit together; not perfectly, but good enough.

What made the second third less awesome was how the remains of humanity promptly tore itself up. It just wasn’t needed. The technical challenges and some personal conflict would have been enough. They could cut the entire mutiny and arrived at the end of the second third of the book without anything major being different. They could have killed everyone without needing it be due to stupid poo flinging.

The final third was a mixed bag for me. I didn’t hate it, and I didn’t love it. I like what humanity had done with the place, but once you got past the scenery, I thought the conflict they decided to focus on was kind of meh. I liked the characters, I just didn’t love the conflict itself. More than anything, that last story arch just didn’t really fit in with the first two thirds of the book. I feel like we dipped in too quickly into the future for it to be a proper piece to stand on its own, and stayed too long for it to be a prologue.

I think the first third and the destruction of Earth was awesome enough to justify the entire book. The second half of the book was also decent, if not great. I liked the book overall. It isn’t for everyone though.

*I play Kerbal Space Program a lot.

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Well, that explains that.

Ask and ye shall receive

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Then it wouldn’t fit the character of a race of apes/monkeys.

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