Neal Stephenson: Keep Killing My Plants

Neal Stephenson is great. His books are concrete block-dense worlds that are the physical embodiment of that snake that eats its own tail – they can swallow you whole even as you devour them. I’ve read the near-1,000 page novel Cryptonomicon at least 4 times since 2003, and each time I still get so engrossed that my house plants die.

I recently read the cleverly palindromic Seveneves and had my mind blown. So here’s my horribly incomplete & inadequate summary that some super fan will no doubt take issue with.

The basic premise from a layperson – asteroid strikes the moon, creating seven smaller moons. Nerd does math, showing Earth has ~22 months to launch a giant space-faring RV (bigger than this one) before all those mini-moons start colliding with each other & start a ‘white rain’ that will drown human society in tidal waves & steam. All countries of the earth unite to mount an exodus-capable vehicle, each with space for only 2 candidates from each country. They also take a bunch of samples of all living things & store it in a giant cooler for transport & eventual cloning. Once in space, everyone hangs out at an enlarged International Space Station, where there’s a lot of drama & shit starts to get real.

The moon thing & the nerd math take up the first act & get out of the way pretty quickly. He spends some time dealing with the emotional up-fuckery that happens when 0.0000001% of a population leave behind everyone else, though – which keeps it in the realm of human existence, rather than becoming just a space romp. Me likey.

The book’s second act is basically what I think Star Trek really should have been like – a bunch of humans float in space & are unsure, like, what the fuck is happening, and basically trust a baker’s dozen of experts, experts’  robots, experts’  open-source software, not to totally, like, end the whole fucking race with a fat-fingered 1 instead of a 0, or to accidentally create sentient AI. He actually explains the tech they need to rely on, and spends a lot of really interesting sections playing out the failed experiments, the dangers of deep space exposure… and I SWEAR, I think he helped me understand rotational inertia in zero-gravity six-dimensional space-time.

I know, right? Khan Academy it ain’t.

There’s also a Richard Branson-esque dude who, while the rest of civilization grapples with rudimentary interplanetary travel tech, just hops a ride on his own rocket into space to meet these other folks at the Space Station. He’s the most macho alpha-male type in the whole book, evidenced by his actions: he lands at the Space Station, spends all of 17 minutes getting opinions from the experts as to how to make humans space-capable, and then takes off again to the Kuiper Belt with just his two best buds, leaving the rest of humanity behind. He saunters into the story in spurs, and then… Neal basically sends him into space for half the book.

So he can prove his entire life’s work is valuable enough to accomplish a hyper-important mission: to get some ice.

Well played, Neal. On behalf of nerds who have no chance of birthing a unicorn & being able to afford our own rocket, we salute you. There are many, many people I would love to send to get ice.

By the end of that act, it’s down to seven ladies & their various approaches to the world, vying for… viability. Then the 3rd act totally fucks your brain by leaping forward several thousand years, and creates technologies and sciences that even Roddenberry & Lucas are reported as saying, “Whoa… that’s pretty cool.” He depicts a completely interstellar existence, in which humans spend all their resources manufacturing a ring of tiny bubbles suspended in space & fighting through their own class-warfare evolutions.

You know, just like all those poor schmucks from 4,000 years before, except now there’s no real reason for it because all the resources are limitless, and they’re LITERALLY just arguing over who’s nirvana is most morally corrupt/least likely to repeat the mistakes of human history.

Just by arguing about it, though, they kinda seal their doom to repeat them, in my view.

It’s a totally mind-blowing concept to begin with – and then the amount of detail & science that Neal puts into it is just incredible. He exposed me to heavily-researched concepts in astrophysics, women, materials science, mining, more women, fusion reactions, the difference between the Moon’s orbit (Moon Town), low-earth-orbit (Satellite Town), Mars (Snickers City), and then showed how everything beyond that literally cannot be reached AND returned from in a lifetime using today’s travel technologies. Even by women. Oh, and not to mention that the whole idea of the moon being hit by something big enough to shatter it into pieces IS COMPLETELY FEASIBLE and someone at NASA & the ISS is responsible for looking for those things every day. And that’s just the moon – there are an uncountable number of objects out there that could be big enough to ‘kill Earth’.


Three things that have changed in my life as a result of reading this:
1) I’m now glad that Bruce Willis is not dead, and that Ben Affleck still has a career, and that nukes are still a thing. (Previously I was ambivalent about Mr. Willis, and very much anti-Affleck / anti-nuke.)
2) Elon Musk don’t look so batshit crazy now, does he? (BTW: kudos to him & the SpaceX gang for the vertical booster landing in Florida. It’s kinda a big deal.)
3) I’m open to reading things called “space operas”. Previously I was quite anti-opera of any sort: Italian, space, or soap – didn’t matter. But I am now solidly in the “I can learn from space operas so they must have some value” camp. We have our own t-shirts. They’re HYPERCOLOR, tie-dyed, and awesome.

I love books like this. Books that expose me to new concepts, and then back them up with the actual science from which they’re extrapolating. Books that create a just-outside-the-believable-spectrum world, show me how they think it would work, and explain why along the way.

Books that give me a great cop-out when asked why all our plants die. “It’s dead because I was too busy reading about the end of the Earth, MOM! Geeeez!”

Buy it or get it from your library (I know, who needs help finding a library? … well, millions of people still spending money on books, I guess. Although to be fair, I will soon procure my own copy of Seveneves in my very small home library. Right, Santa?)

What are you reading these days?

This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015 at 8:36 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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