Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves Review Round-Up

With Seveneves, Neal Stephenson has lived his dream of creating the three most awkwardly titled novels in SF history. Has there ever been a run of tongue-twisters as profound as Anathem, Reamde, and Seveneves?

Snark aside, Seveneves is one of the biggest SF novels of the year in every way: length, ambition, execution, and sales. Seveneves is going to make plenty of noise when the 2016 awards season rolls around. Stephenson has been a major SF writer for more than 20 years (Snow Crash hit in 1992; that makes me feel old), and Seveneves continues his investigations into the nature of knowledge, the future of humanity, and the ways that technological and social systems interact.

Seveneves begins with a bang: the moon is blown up on the first page. This sets off a chain of occurrences disastrous to humanity, and we’re launched into an 800+ plus journey about the survival of the species. A large cast of characters has to take to space, facing off with problems both practical (dwindling supplies), interstellar (cosmic radiation), and self-inflicted (divisive internal politics). Stephenson’s novel mixes a lot of discussion about orbital mechanics with the mechanics of group conflict. While I don’t want to give away all the twists, Stephenson launches us far into the future so that we can see the end-results of the choices made by human groups. We also eventually learn what Seveneves means and how to pronounce it.

This is the kind big, meaty, philosophical SF that Stephenson has perfected since Cryptonomicon. While you aren’t going to fall in love with Stephenson’s characters (we have an stand-in for Neil deGrasse Tyson, for instance) and you may object to the meandering plot, no one delves into the connections between science and social systems more deeply than Stephenson. You’ll either love the depth here or be turned relatively quickly. While I’ll have some later posts that get more deeply into the “meaning” of the novel—this books makes a great companion piece to Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, by the way—let’s focus now on his award chances.

For all of Stephenson’s fame, he hasn’t done particularly well with the Nebulas and Hugos. Stephenson has 3 Hugo nominations and 1 Best Hugo win, all in the Best Novel category: The Diamond Age won in 1996, and Cryptonomicon and Anathem scored nominations in 2000 and 2009. I think Seveneves is of similar length, ambition, and SF-ness to Cryptonomicon and Anathem, so I expect another Hugo nomination. The Nebula awards have largely ignored Stephenson: only 1 nomination back in 1996 for Snow Crash. That’s an impressive 20 year record ignoring Stephenson; I don’t think it will be any different this year.

A lot depends on how people talk about Stephenson. I think a real argument could be made that it’s Stephenson’s time to win another Hugo, as a sort of “way to go” for the past decade of writing. Alternatively, Seveneves could be written off as not as good as Cryptonomicon or Anathem, and thus not as worthy to win. Keep an eye on how people start blogging and writing about Seveneves.

To be fair to the Hugos and Nebulas, Stephenson is pretty much a novel only writer, which gives him less chances for awards nominations than an author publishing both novels and short stories. His novels are also formidably long, which I think helps and hurts his chances. If you commit to reading Seveneves, you’ll probably remember it, but the bar of entry is pretty high.

Or is it? When we turn to sales metrics, Seveneves does extraordinarily well for a SF novel. Seveneves reached the #5 spot on Publisher’s Weekly bestseller list, the second best as SF novel has done this year (Armada hit #3), and PW reported 30,000+ sales before it dropped off their list. On Goodreads as of 8/6/15, Seveneves has 9,280 ratings and a 4.03 score. As a contrast, Ancillary Sword only has 8,398 ratings and that came out 8 months earlier and already scored Hugo and Nebula noms. Amazon rings in at 1,066 ratings and a 4.0. There won’t be many SF novels this year that put up better numbers than Stephenson.

So what does this all mean? I think Seveneves is primed to follow Anathem to a Hugo nomination in 2016, and I think the Nebulas will ignore Stephenson just like they have for the past 20 years. This is a big, substantial novel that will attract the core SF audience, and Stephenson’s fame and positive reviews will break this novel past that core audience to other SF fans. The length is going to turn some readers off, and the more experimental (and at times pessimistic) nature of the book will also alienate some. Still, Stephenson is going to get enough readers, and enough positive readers, to be a strong player in 2015.

On to reviews:

Sevenves

Published May 19, 2015.

About the Book:
Neal Stephenson’s web page
Amazon page
Goodreads page

Mainstream Reviews:
Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
Kirkus Reviews
The New York Times
The Guardian
Entertainment Weekly (A-)
NPR
LA Times

Pretty much everyone in the mainstream reviewed Seveneves. This is extraordinary coverage for a SF novel, and the reviews are pretty uniformly positive as well. I could have gone on and added another dozen mainstream reviews, but the point is to compare this books using the same 7 venues. For an 800 page SF tome to get an A- from a venue like Entertainment Weekly says all you need to know about the mainstream embrace of this book. Basically, the mainstream is saying, “If you read one SF book this year, it should be Seveneves.”

SFF Reviews:

Tor.com
Barnes and Nobel SF Blog
Fantasy Book Critic
Boing Boing

Some of the SFF reviews have been slower to get out. Locus is usually here, but they haven’t put an online review up yet. It was definitely reviewed in the print magazine, but who reads print anymore? Reviews here are positive but actually less enthusiastic than the mainstream. Interesting.

WordPress Reviewers:
Bill’s Book Reviews (5 out of 5)
Relentless Reading (2.5 out of 5)
Rhapsody in Books (4 out of 5)
More Notes from Aboveground
Sharp and Pointed
Yet There Are Statues (3 out of 5)
The Dilettante’s Dilemma

Now we really get into it. I could have included more reviews—the book is very broadly discussed on WordPress—but this slice gives you a good representative sample. Seveneves was very divisive: some loved it, some hated it. You expect that with a book that’s so long and takes so many chances. For those readers who disliked it, it was often a question of engagement. Seveneves is a very dry read, and, in some ways, very philosophical/political. I think as the online discussion evolves, more people will engage with those politics, and anything political has a real chance to alienate some readers. Stephenson’s view of humanity is highly critical, and the books conclusions about scientific versus social knowledge cut against some 21st century political trends. As more readers have read the book and we don’t have to worry about spoilers, I expect Stephenson’s highly unusual take on knowledge, race, genetics, etc., to become even more divisive.

My take: For me, Seveneves has been the best SFF novel I’ve read in 2015 (although Cixin Liu’s Dark Forest is coming out soon). While it can be slow-moving and awkward at times, this novel had such a depth of philosophical and scientific discussion that it overwhelmed any character/plot shortcomings. I appreciate the ambition and scope of Seveneves—as well as a surprisingly detailed amount of hard science about orbital mechanics—and that ambition and scope carried me easily through the 800+ page length. I don’t necessarily agree with Stephenson’s observation about humanity, but they were well enough made to be highly interesting. I find more value in a book I can argue and debate with than one that I simply agree with, and Seveneves gave me plenty to think about. Highly recommended, 9 out of 10.

So, what do you think? Is Seveneves a Hugo frontrunner for 2016?

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One response to “Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves Review Round-Up”

  1. Mark says :

    It will certainly be on my ballot. Like you, I wasn’t necessarily on board with some of the more extreme elements, but they were thought provoking, and that’s what I look for out of this sort of thing. I think it will make the ballot next year – only his debatably non-SF efforts don’t make the ballot (Baroque Cycle and Reamde weren’t really SF, so they didn’t make it – Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, and Anathem were very SF, and they made it). This presumes that the Puppy forces don’t align to closely next year (I’m pretty sure Vox hated Seveneves)…

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