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Neal Stephenson's novel Seveneves starts off with a bang - quite literally - and manages to maintain a quick pace for the first two-thirds of the book, despite massive amounts of what would be terminal infodumping in less skilled hands. The final third is rather more leisurely, the narrative twists perhaps a bit too telegraphed, and the conclusion seems rather unconclusive. But what carries the novel despite its flaws is the humanity of the characters and the magnitude of both the initial catastrophe and the urgency of the action.

The trajectory of the story is established from the very first sentence: "The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason." Within a few pages, scientists determine that as the fragments collide in orbit, they will eventually reach a critical point where millions of small to medium particles will begin to fall to earth in a massive and prolonged meteor shower that will destroy all life on earth. Humanity's only hope is to build a space habitat around the International Space Station that will serve as both as an ark and a base from which surviving humans will be able to build a new civilisation in space that will sustain them until the earth is ready for life again - an estimated five thousand years.

The best part of the novel is the first half, which covers the two years between the destruction of the moon and the beginning of the long death of the earth's biosphere, as a flotilla of mini-habitats, small enough to build on earth and send into space, but large enough to serve as homes to a handful of people, grows around the ISS, turning the station into an orbiting village. Taut plotting, a rollercoaster of minor and not-so-minor catastrophes, both in the lives of the station's inhabitants and in the struggle to make a habitat that can give a reasonable breeding population a chance at survival, lots of near misses and a few real tragedies, drive this section forward. Once the Hard Rain of meteors begins to fall and the station's inhabitants are left on their own, the tension rises dramatically due to internal conflicts, but by the time the habitat is physically secure for future growth and the conflicts resolved, the situation is long past critical in another area.

And this is my biggest problem with the novel. I don't believe - despite all the technical detail that's given us - that the various long-term survival narratives are actually possible, given the situations that the immediate survivors find themselves in. The final third of the novel - which begins under the heading "Five thousand years later" - attempts to persuade us that these narratives are valid, that it could have happened this way, and certainly the cultures and circumstances Stephenson describes are fascinating and fun to think about, but I do not quite believe in them enough to fully suspend disbelief, and that dulls my enjoyment a teensy bit.

Still, it's a decent read, and the sheer excitement of the beginning is strong enough to carry one's interest through to the end.


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