One of the greatest things in the world, I think, is a very long book. And I mean a long book of a specific kind, because a phonebook (whatever that is) might be thought of as a very long book, I guess, as could be the thing that killed the phonebook—the internet. But the very long book I’m thinking of is unique in form and scope. It’s the Very Long and Dizzyingly Ambitious Novel. The VLaDAN is over a thousand pages and happy to be so; it’s actively involved in tackling huge ideas; and my favorite thing about it: the VLaDAN is so long that a reader can experience nostalgia while reading it.
Which is exactly what is happening to me right now, with Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves.
It’s a long one, and (spoiler alert) starts with the moon breaking apart, and humanity doing its best to get away from the destructive rain of debris, which completely pulverizes then fries everything/one on the planet. A few people who were already in space get away, though, and keep humanity going. Which brings us to the second half of the book, which pulls the intriguing maneuver of skipping into the future five thousand years.
All of this is eloquently covered in The Guardian's review of Seveneves. Stephenson is very good at pumping his ideas full of enough science to make the book very compellingly-Hard SF, but parts of it read like corporate internal marketing—a little bloodless. (I imagine Stephenson hanging his characters up at the end of the day by their strings. Which bothers me mostly because I still feel slightly haunted by Hiro Protagonist, the badass pizza delivery hack ninja from Snowcrash, one of the better characters in SF.) And there is just so much potential in the universe that he’s created here, most of it wasted in writing that just isn’t very engaging. Maybe the desire that I’m experiencing, as I finish Seveneves, to return to the beginning (nostalgia, I thought) is really just boredom with the second half of it.
But criticisms of Seveneves aside, what has occupied me while reading it is the idea of the apocalypse. I’m writing a novel right now that includes an apocalypse, and of course SF that concerns The End is all over the place, from The Walking Dead to Mad Max. What is it about SF that pulls it back, again and again, to apocalypse?
It’s certainly true, of course, that SF has leeway that other genres don’t. I mean, try to imagine a detective novel that depicts the end of the world. Or a Western that does. SF can do it because it’s part of what SF does well—using the ideas that used to be evoked through magic, but now through evoked science. What I mean, of course, is that apocalypse used to be a way of thinking about god. Humanity violates the laws laid out by god, or god’s timeline runs out, and boom—the world ends. Now it is a way of thinking about the role of science in our lives, and the ways that we affect the environment, alter our bodies and souls with technology, and even
Which brings me to another apocalyptic SF story: the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. Toward the end of the show, as the team of writers was trying to figure out what to do with the bruised colonial fleet (which wasn’t so different from the humans in Seveneves, fleeing Earth in their arklets), Ron Moore came into the room and reminded them that, ideas aside, circuitous metaphysical plot-knots aside also, people watched the show for the characters. It was the emotional connections between the viewers and the characters, stupid, he reminded them. People like stories because they are about life and the way that people live it, whether those people are living it five thousand years ago or five thousand years from now. Stephenson should have remembered that lesson also. We'll read a thousand pages if we care about the characters in them.