This is a guest post from one of my wonderful co-workers, Paulo! Since I never shut up about my blog, I’ve convinced a few people I work with to write for me, so you can all look forward to more of these.
Paulo’s Review: It is rather appropriate that my first review of a book is about Neal Stephenson’s latest book, Seveneves. Despite being a fan of the science-fiction genre, this is the first time I have read anything by Neal Stephenson. Make no mistake, I was fully aware that the man existed and he had written quite a fair number of science-fiction titles, but for whatever reason, I never got around to reading his work. I have to admit, I feel a little bad that I did not read his work earlier because I really liked this book.
To be fair, I may be biased on liking Seveneves as much as I do, and that is because I like complicated stuff. Sure, sometimes I want the stories to be simple, but honestly, I love a good mental challenge. I like being forced to think and understand about not just the characters but the setting, and the realities of the world that the story takes place in. More than half of this book takes place during the modern-day era but the story is not rooted in a typical town or rural setting. For a lot of readers, trying to imagine in their minds the story’s environments may be difficult to grasp, and in Seveneves, it gets really tricky. In this case, we talking about the cold, unforgiving outer space, and life aboard a space station. Fortunately for us, Stephenson vividly describes the mood and atmosphere (pardon the pun) experienced by people floating in outer space while trying to live inside a confined space.
From robotics, to genetics, to space technology, Stephenson spends a lot of time (meaning: a heck of a lot of pages) explaining, without dumbing down or being condescending, how those technology works and the science behind the solutions discussed by the characters. And that brings us to the other difficulty in telling his story: almost every character in the novel is an astronaut, engineer, or some other type of scientist. If Stephenson did not take the time to properly explain, I assure you, a sizeable chunk of what the characters talk about would go over some people’s head.
For all of the difficulties that I mentioned above, I have to admit that I feel like he did a great job. At no point did I have to stop reading and look online (yes, I use Wikipedia as a starting point for any research I do) for more information just so that I would have a clue about what is going on. I should, in all fairness, point out that although I am a bit of a geek, I would not say that I understood 100% of everything. If anything, Stephenson made me became much more interested in learning about the technical stuff once I finished reading the book (I am one of those people who are almost unable to stop reading a book once I started). In my opinion, if an author succeeds in making me actively want to read more and learn more, then that author fulfilled one of his responsibilities as a writer: engaging the mind of the reader. That alone may explain why I was able to finish a book that is so thick that I could have used it as a brick in building the exterior wall of a house.
I am not generally a fan of authors killing significant characters for reasons that serve no purpose in the story-telling narrative. In Seveneves though, it is expected that people, even significant characters, will die (and sometimes horribly so) because the environment is that unforgiving. There are so many twists in the story that when I finished reading the book, I felt like what I read was a combination of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Game of Thrones, with a dash of Firefly on the second half. There were a few plot advancements and character relationships that I had correctly guessed before they occurred but those were the exceptions; I generally was surprised throughout the book, and that’s a good thing for any reader. People like surprises (generally speaking, of course); it is the primary reason why we like getting gift-wrapped presents on our birthdays.
In summary, Seveneves is a challenging read and I urge anyone who chooses to read it that they take their time. Do not rush through it (my mistake, really), read it during the afternoon or early evening. If you read it before going to bed, I make no promises that you will not get nightmares or some really weird dreams (I know I did). I will probably buy the book (when it becomes soft-cover) so that I can re-read it again and do some more research on the technical stuff because I am fascinated by it. For all the amount of technical content in it, Seveneves is not a textbook – it is a story about human perseverance, even in the face of overwhelming odds and cruel fate. It is about surviving when others have sacrificed themselves so that you could live. It is about how, as living creatures, we see ourselves, our roles to each other, and how we cope with being a survivor. Above all else, it is a saga telling us the ending of the old story, the promise of a new beginning, the journey, and the start of a new story: how the human race adapted and survived a planetary-level extinction event. It is a dark, often depressing, story, but always does it carries with it hope – it never gives up the hope for a better future.