June 25, 2015

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In the realm of science fiction, few things are as much fun to read about as the near extinction of the human race.

Some awful catastrophe strikes humanity, wiping out all but a tiny remnant. Assuming the annihilated masses had some foreknowledge of the event, how did they behave as doom approached? How will the remnant get the species up and running again? Will they be able to rebuild technical civilization?

On the last of those questions, Greg Cochran recently hosted a good related discussion at his blog:

One of our local error sources suggested that it would be impossible to rebuild technical civilization, once fallen. Now if every human were dead I”€™d agree, but in most other scenarios it wouldn”€™t be particularly difficult, assuming that the survivors were no more silly and fractious than people are today.

If the planet Earth itself is to be killed off, sci-fi authors have usually set their stories in the future when space travel is sufficiently advanced that the survivors can head out to colonize elsewhere, as in Anthony Burgess”€™ The End of the World News.

“€œYou either like this kind of thing or you don”€™t. I couldn”€™t get enough of it, and breezed through the first 566 pages.”€

However, the fictional catastrophe works on the imagination most strongly when it is set in the present or very near future, in a world familiar to us. For authors, that has meant keeping the planet intact while culling Homo sapiens by war, disease, or starvation.

The premise of Neal Stephenson’s new novel Seveneves is that the human race of 2020 or so will have just enough of a toehold in space to give us”€”a few of us”€”some chance of surviving the destruction of all life on Earth, if allowed a couple of years”€™ lead time. We don”€™t have the technology to colonize other planets, but we might survive in Earth orbit. Stephenson can therefore destroy the planet without having recourse to warp drives or multigeneration starships.

So the dread event arrives. The moon suddenly disintegrates, cause unknown. There are seven big pieces and innumerable smaller ones.

At first there seems no cause for alarm. The fragments are gravitationally bound. The single, solid moon has been replaced by a rubble cloud; that’s all. The big pieces”€”orbiting their common center of gravity”€”occasionally collide and shatter, but there seems to be no danger in that.

Then someone does the math. The number of collisions will increase exponentially, reaching a “€œhockey stick”€ upward turn in two years”€™ time. Then trillions of moon fragments will fall from orbit onto the Earth, superheating the atmosphere and sterilizing the surface. The bombardment will last for millennia.

The first two-thirds of Seveneves describes the frenzied two-year effort to get enough people and materials into orbit for life up there to be self-sustaining. The International Space Station, somewhat enhanced from its actual current configuration, plays a lead role.

At this point in what we used to call “€œthe Space Age”€ (remember?), ISS”€”now in its 15th year of continuous occupation”€”is deeply unglamorous. Probably most Americans are not aware of its existence. Neal Stephenson is very aware. He has researched ISS down to the last lug. It’s the toehold he needs to make his story work.

So this first two-thirds of the book is in fact not so much science fiction as engineering fiction. There are no just-barely-imaginable scientific possibilities in play here, only Newtonian mechanics and a relentless press of technical problems large and small. Large: Those trillions of falling rocks will fall through the orbital zone ISS inhabits. Small: The human eyeball loses its shape in prolonged weightlessness, so everyone needs new eyeglasses.

You either like this kind of thing or you don”€™t. I couldn”€™t get enough of it, and breezed through these first 566 pages. (Stephenson is not a devotee of minimalism in prose.)

What about the human element, though? Are there actual people here with characters that we can engage with imaginatively? There had better be, because Stephenson’s story, especially the latter third of it, works the human and social sciences almost as hard as it does the physical ones, drawing from a similarly deep well of knowledge (although I winced a bit at his appeal to epigenetics).


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