Posted on behalf of Daniel Cressey
Sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson has a rare gift for building page-turning novels out of unlikely scientific subject matter.
The hero of Zodiac, an early work, is an environmental activist taking on a huge chemical corporation – perhaps trite today, but on point in 1988, when it was published. The Baroque Cycle trilogy, published in the early 2000s, dresses up the scientific revolution of Isaac Newton’s day as a knowing romp with echoes of Alexandre Dumas’s Three Musketeers: it manages to be both an excellent action movie and a good fictionalised history-of-science primer. Anathem (2008) is a strange futuristic meditation on the dangers of ivory towerism and the assumption that knowledge can be divorced from its application, with a cross-country adventure, a giant train and a space battle thrown in.
But Stephenson’s latest book, Seveneves, reviewed by John Gilbey in this week’s issue, hinges on more conventional sci-fi subject matter. It follows an assortment of people selected to try to survive the total destruction of all life on Earth. (Wrist-wreckingly massive, it is by no means the longest Stephenson novel, as the chart below reveals.)
This “tale of straight-up global disaster”, Stephenson explains in the acknowledgements, is “an opportunity to showcase many of the more positive ideas that have emerged, over the last century, from the global community of people interested in space exploration”. Many of the “big hardware ideas”— which Stephenson noted in a Q&A as dear to his heart — will be familiar to sci-fi fans, he admits.
Stephenson acknowledges that the premise stems from his time, around 2006, working for Blue Origin, the private spaceflight company owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. (One major character in Seveneves is clearly inspired by Bezos, with perhaps a dash of Elon Musk.)
Stephenson has had a lot of irons in the fire recently. Along with this book, he was involved in an aborted attempt to make a realistic swordfighting video game, an innovation-fi anthology called Hieroglyph, and a multi-author series of stories set in the Middle Ages, The Mongoliad.
That load has not hobbled his ability to research Seveneves, but I preferred his previous works, in which the characters drove the story. Stephenson’s 2011 globetrotting tale of terrorists and cybercriminals Reamde, for instance, was hugely fun, if lacking some of the grand thematic sweep of Anathem or Seveneves.
For the scientifically inclined, the real delight of reading a Stephenson novel is the clear joy he takes in a scientific idea and its application. At his best, Stephenson is a chronicler of what we know and how we know it, and most importantly, what that means.
Daniel Cressey is a reporter for Nature in London. He tweets at @DPCressey.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.