Neal Stephenson Books – Seveneves begins with a bang
The newest of the Neal Stephenson books (Seveneves) was published in May 2015 and is now available in hardcover, paperback, ebook and audiobook versions. It’s a story about how to preserve human society after an event which renders Earth uninhabitable. Key to the story are concepts about the importance of space travel and the alien nature of humanity. Oh, and a character that’s clearly a not even thinly veiled Neil deGrasse Tyson. I wonder what Tyson did to deserve getting Tucklerized? The book was apparently initially inspired by the idea that if we leave too much space junk in orbit it might make an impenetrable barrier. However, in the book the destroyed moon goes one step further, sterilizing the planet’s surface. It’s also worth mentioning that the book’s palindromic title makes much more sense when capitalized as SevenEves.
Stephenson’s a popular author with a solid fan base, so it’s unsurprising that the book has done well. It has, though, received mixed reviews. The primary criticism, particularly from The Guardian, was that the book is “overly descriptive.” Even the reviewers that like it note that this is a long book – the hardcover edition is 880 pages, although it’s not as long as his #1 New York Times Bestseller, Anathem. The extremely mixed reviews might have put some readers off and contributed to this book not doing as well as Anathem, Reamde or, the author’s iconic Snow Crash. In fact, the highest Seveneves got on the New York Times bestseller list was third. Both the Washington Post and NPR also put the book third in its debut week. It was beaten out by the psychological thriller The Girl On The Train, by Paula Hawkins, and the historical novel All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. True, it was still the number one science fiction book on the list, but it’s a step down from being the number one overall.
One interesting titbit: Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs puts out a recommended reading list and includes this book as number 20. Not many science fiction books end up on a list that also includes How to Win Friends and Influence People. TIME picked it as one of the ten best books released in the first half of 2015 and ranked it second. The only other speculative fiction volume on the list is Neil Gaiman‘s latest collection, Trigger Warning. Amazon added it to their Books for the Beach list. In this case, it was the only science fiction book on the list. In other words, this book is ranking well on mainstream reading lists. Locus placed the hardcover as number one in August and September, dropping to number two for October, so it’s clearly popular with science fiction readers as well. The Huffington Post also mentioned it on a science fiction and fantasy specific summer reading list, as did SFGate, and it’s mentioned on non-genre summer lists from the Toledo Blade, GPB, and several others. Much of that popularity likely comes down to the popularity of the author himself.
Going back to the mixed critical response, one primary criticism of the book was the infodumps. Most often using Doc Dubois (the deGrasse Tyson) character as a vehicle, the first two-thirds of the book contain a lot of information about orbital mechanics and the reality of trying to live in space. The New York Times gave it a mixed review partially for this reason. The Guardian however definitely disliked it. There’s a large shift in time and tone two-thirds of the way through the book – and most critics preferred the first part of the book. The Boston Globe‘s reviewer actually found the science too hard and the jargon too confusing whilst the (British) Financial Times loved it. It is also commonly referred to as a “tome,” given the length and weight of the hardcover. None of this, though, has put off the fans, based off of the book’s sales figures. Stephenson also did a book tour in May and early June, covering a good part of the country. His popularity as an author remains solid and although this book has not received the acclaim of some of his others, it is certainly not a flop. It’s also considered by many to be the most conventional science fiction story he has yet produced.
Seveneves is the first book in a two-book deal with HarperCollins, so there is presumably a sequel in the works. The second book will be written in collaboration with historical novelist, Nicole Galland, who previously worked with Stephenson on The Mongoliad. She has no previous science fiction experience so, assuming the second book is indeed a sequel, this might be interesting. I was unable to find out anything else about this book, which is scheduled for release in 2017. Whether it’s a sequel or whether it will fill in some gaps in the 5,000 year jump in the middle of Seveneves, it should answer some of the questions the book, like most, leaves open. Stephenson has also made a Lithive community site for the book, allowing for reader discussion and containing a developmental notebook, and a making of video and technical drawings accessible to those with Lithive accounts. Some of these drawings are also up on Gizmodo, with the caveat that the images and write-up include spoilers.
Overall, Seveneves has been a successful book but hasn’t shone the way some of the past Neal Stephenson books have. Critics have summed it up as excessively long and overly descriptive, but so well written that not everyone cares. With a debut of 3rd on the New York Times bestseller list and high ranks elsewhere, the book continues Stephenson’s solid and reliable career as a writer. It also continues his tendency to write books that are large both in their number of pages and the scope of their ideas. The book is likely to be one of the most successful science fiction novels of 2015.