I’m going to veer off in a different direction this week and review what has got to be the weirdest, most epic book I’ve ever read. I’ll warn you straight up that this is a 900-page, highly technical apocalyptic saga, but to my surprise, I saw it was number three on the New York Times bestseller list the other week. Who knew there were that many hardcore space geeks out there? Please bear with me if you’re not the kind of reader who digs on lavish descriptions of astrophysics.
The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.
When a mysterious explosion separates the moon into seven giant fragments, human beings are at first astonished, but quickly accept the new celestial reality. There is no immediate threat: the tides still roll and the moon fragments—the adorably named Potatohead, Mr. Spinny, Acorn, Peach Pit, Scoop, Big Boy and Kidney Bean—still orbit the earth. But within days of the death of the moon, at least one man realizes the truth: the Earth is doomed.
Within two years, give or take, the chunks of moon will split further into an exponentially increasing number of fragments. Once this reaches a certain critical mass—the sudden upswing on the exponential curve—the skies over Earth will light up with meteorites, a phenomenon dubbed the White Sky. Within a few days of the onset of the White Sky, the the planet will be blanketed with torpedoes of fire, a process termed the Hard Rain. The Hard Rain is inescapable: Earth’s surface will transpose into a boiling, fiery apocalypse that will kill every living thing.
No attempt is made to hide this information from Earth’s doomed population. In a worldwide show of unity, the leaders of each nation take to the airwaves, along with preeminent scientists and religious leaders, to inform their people of the coming annihilation. The novel doesn’t dwell much on the aftermath of this announcement; instead it focuses on humanity’s plan to preserve its species. With remarkable (and unlikely) cooperation, every nation selects a few people to send into orbit. (One exception to all this wholesome spacefaring compliance is Venezuela, which goes rogue and has to be nuked by the U.S.).
Onboard the International Space Station, where a large chunk of the story takes place, astronauts prepare for the onslaught, along with a slew of scientists, tech billionaires and other nerdy luminaries. In all, humans will manage to send up a few thousand people, mostly into little pod habitats that coalesce to form an arrangement called the Cloud Ark. The whole thing is emblematic of the insane and indefatigable optimism that humans have always displayed, because—obviously—there are a zillion ways to die in space. (And you are pretty much going to read about all of them.) Another problem: the Hard Rain will last for some five thousand years. Just think about it from an equipment perspective: my computer can’t manage to hold it together for five years without several painful visits to the Genius Bar, let alone five millenniums subject to a cosmic blast of meteorite strikes, radiation, solar flares, and other space catastrophes. Then you’ve got the medical and psychological issues of humans crammed together into minuscule tin cans without any indigenous sources of food. You can safely assume that some bad sh** is about to go down.
I normally do not do this, but—SPOILER ALERT—I’m going to detail some of the plot of the later parts of the novel, because such a large percentage of the book—some 500 pages—takes place after the Hard Rain toasts seven billion people in a biblical storm of blazing hot meteorites, tsunamis and molten ruptures of the earth’s crust. And Stephenson is just getting started at this point.
As usual, I did not read a description of the book ahead of time, so I had no idea what was coming after the destruction of Earth, and boy, was the concept mesmerizing. Of the few thousand people who made it into orbit, a parade of disasters whittles them down until there are only eight human beings remaining. All of the survivors are female (I’m not exactly saying that females are the superior gender, but they do better in space, for a variety of reasons). Seven of the eight—the Seven Eves—are still fertile. Of course, when news of the Hard Rain first broke, every nation on Earth got busy digitizing everything, so the Seven Eves have access to a vast electronic supply of knowledge and technology. What they don’t have, however, is a Y chromosome. They don’t even have any of the sperm banks or frozen embryos that got sent up, because the scheming and narcissistic former President of the United States snuck up to the Cloud Ark and promptly caused a schism that led to the inadvertent destruction of all the stored genetic material and, eventually, all of the males onboard.
Undaunted, the Seven Eves solve the reproduction problem. (I’ll leave a little mystery as to how.) They also manage to find a safe place to lodge for the next five millennia. Each of them, therefore, is the direct ancestor of one of the seven resulting races of humanity who ultimately emerge from this Armageddon to recolonize the Earth. Isn’t that cool? All people are now directly descended from one of seven female Supernerds, each of whom genetically engineered certain desirable characteristics into her offspring.
Now we fast-forward five thousand years. I thought the first two-thirds of the novel was complicated, but the last bit when people return to Earth is so scientifically dense that it would make Stephen Hawking shriek in confusion. Stephenson, who is an unparalleled genius, clearly gave an immense amount of consideration to exactly how space travel and colonization could be achieved, and he is pleased to share every last detail with you. Which leads me to the obvious and dominant criticism of the book: where the heck was his editor? You could easily excise half the words in this book and not affect the awesome storyline at all, while leaving in enough mechanical logistics so that the average reader (me) would still feel like a smug egghead for having read it. Don’t get me wrong: I love science. I want things to be plausible and explainable. But at times, wading through some of this was like suddenly plunging into four gees. It was very, very, very heavy.
The other criticism I’d have is also predictable: the story is so weighted toward descriptions of spaceships and orbital mechanics and whatnot that it glosses over the moral, philosophical and existential tornadoes that accompany the potential end of humanity. The thought of everyone on Earth—and the Earth’s lovely surface itself—perishing is so disturbing that I can’t bear it. The implications overwhelm me. But I’m doing better than most of the characters, who are so busy scrabbling to dock on an asteroid that they barely register any feelings. Paris just vanished? Well, dang. Okay, gotta regroup.
But still: this is an incredibly interesting read, especially if allow yourself to skim over a few chapters here and there. Precisely because of the level of detail, it feels absolutely real. It’s one of the better post-apocalyptic novels I’ve read, and while it is doesn’t have anything like the character development of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, neither is it as depressing. There are also some major plot twists near the end that I could not stop thinking about. There’s clearly going to be a sequel, and probably a movie. I’ve read several other books by Stephenson, and the guy is a superhuman brainiac himself. His novel Reamde is one of my favorites ever and I also enjoyed Cryptonomicon. Neither of them is sci-fi and they both have comparable levels of detail of vastly different subjects. If the moon blows up anytime soon, I vote to send Neal Stephenson up to the Cloud Ark first.
Author: Neal Stephenson
Genre: Science Fiction.
Page count: 880
Prose style: 3.5
Character development: 2
Entertainment value: 4