Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

sevenevesThere’s a golden rule in science fiction and fantasy that goes something like this: Don’t infodump.

Instead of spending paragraphs or entire chapters explaining the rules of this fictional world — the breeding habits of the native Grew, the intricacies of the spacecorn trade, the atmospheric pressure of Planet X — have that information roll out gradually through character action and dialogue. It’s simply a genre specialized version of fiction’s holy paean of SHOW DON’T TELL.

I’m telling you all this to make sure we’re on the same page when I say that Seveneves feels something like sixty percent infodumps. Or more. The moon explodes and all life on earth is doomed. What follows is lengthy descriptions of how, in the brief span of time we have left, humanity builds a set of vessels in space to survive our five thousand year exile from earth, waiting it out until the surface of the earth stops being bombarded by lunar debris and cools down. So the meat of Seveneves is technical explanations of the the structures humans are building in space, and how it is possible to build them. This is coupled with a primer on the science — with a particular emphasis on orbital mechanics — required to understand how space works.

Don’t get me wrong: There are characters, and they’re not poorly developed, though many are stand-ins for real life people. A Neil Degrasse Tyson stand-in named Doob is central. Hilary Clinton and Jeff Bezos analogues make appearances. But we’re talking about a 900 page book here. Characters and plot are not the focus, which is sort of counter to popular theory of what a novel ought to be.

Anyway, I thought it was great. I’ve never been partial to golden rules. Or rules of any kind really.

By attempting to encase the novel in real science, either what we can already do now or what we think we can do in the very near future, there’s an authenticity to the theory that makes it sing. I’m not a scientist. I have zero idea how much of this came from Neal Stephenson’s imagination and how much of it is solidly based in fact. But he sells it well enough that the novel feels like a legitimate merge of non-fiction science text and fictional adventure.

It does take a leap in the last few hundred pages, literally, time jumping to five thousand years in the future wherein humanity is terraforming earth in hope of returning full time. While the science theory is still there, sort of, it morphs into a second-rate fantasy novel that feels vaguely like Stephenson trying to create a setting for a video game RPG. It’s not bad exactly. Still a fun beach read. But a dramatic step down from the first two sections of the novel.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

station11In the near future, an epidemic breaks out in eastern Europe — a deadly, highly contagious flu that rapidly kills off most of the population of earth. Survivors scrounge by, holed up in airports and Walmarts. It’s not a terribly innovative premise as far as fiction goes. Yet it feels both comfortable and fresh.

This is in large part because the collapse and subsequent dystopia are not really the focus, or at least not the only focus. Shortly before the flu destroyed North America, an aging actor named Arthur Leander had a heart attack and died on stage while playing the titular role in King Lear. The book weaves back and forth, prior to the virus, after the virus, during the virus, following Arthur or, more often, people with some connection to him. His ex-wives, best friend, minor acquaintances like co-actors and paparazzi. A series of narrative-supported coincidences led several of them to survive the collapse and cluster around Michigan.

The time-shifts and the way the point of view shifts reveal different facets of the story is the meat of the book and feels almost David Mitchell-lite. The character study isn’t exactly deep. Many of the characters aren’t fully realized entities but they are treated kindly by the author and all serve to further the ‘feel’ of the novel. It’s a pleasant feeling, despite the loss of most of mankind. The human legacy that  survives the apocalypse is Shakespeare — some of the main characters belong to a traveling symphony show that regularly perform his plays. Quoting Star Trek: Survival is insufficient is the main theme of the survivors. The story is more about hope than it is about the depravity humans sink to when resources are scarce. There’s wonder and loss for the magical technology of the past as well as awe for the star-speckled sky in a world with no light pollution.

I really enjoyed this book as I was reading it. And I read it very quickly. I still feel like it’s a good book, but I’m a little less plussed having finished it. The pacing/momentum of the story is one of its greatest strengths. So when the end sort of peters out, without any real oomph or narrative glow, it’s a little disappointing. And due to the shallow characters, I feel like I’m already forgetting the book!

Actually, I think this would make a fantastic TV show. About 60% of the way through the book, I was thinking of Station Eleven as a solid first episode: introduce the characters, their world, their plight. But I knew it wasn’t a series and became doubtful it could close satisfactorily (and this was borne out).

J by Howard Jacobson

jThis book left me baffled, confused, and more than a little angry. As the plot is boring and amounts to nothing, the only real interesting point of discussion occurs in the last twenty percent of the book and thus this review will contain some spoilers.

A great catastrophe occurs in humanity’s near future. Later titled WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, the details are lost as history, indeed any recollection of the past, is forbidden. Technology is frozen, and in some cases gone backwards. Internet and mobile phones are banned. Censorship has restricted all but the most empty and vapid of books, music. Movies seem to have disappeared. All this government-ordained. As a result, people have become rote and boring. They’ve settled for petty antagonism and widespread misogyny instead of their past industriousness. It’s an off-putting and honestly strange thought that the first sign of deterioration in this tightly controlled culture is men hitting women.

Fortysomething year old Kevern, a peevish and indifferent man with OCD tendencies meets and falls in love with ninteen year old Ailinn, whose defining characteristics seems to be a Moby Dick metaphor (she insists she is the white whale and Ahab is on her trail) and her unconvincing fondness for Kevern. The characters are all unlikeable and banal, except for Ailinn, who is merely banal. They’re self-aware and even have a conversation about their own meta-banality. They’re a sort of bland-distasteful unlikeable that does not evoke much genuine feeling. You’d hurry by them in the street or avoid them at work, not curse their name. Not the best anchors for a novel.

As I mentioned, the plot meanders for most of the book. Characters are introduced and have lengthy chapters dedicated to their point-of-view only to end with an irrelevant or complete lack of denouement. There’s a serial killer plot that goes no where. The town the story takes place in is featureless, which could be intentional, but like the intentionally bland characters, intent doesn’t make it any less boring. And then, and then, and then, after slogging through all this, the novel’s crux is revealed: WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED most definitely did happen, and what happened was some kind of mega-holocaust that almost entirely wiped out the jewish people. It turns out that Kevern and Ailinn are some of the very last descendents of the bare few survivors of WHAT HAPPENED. Not only that, they’ve only met due to some government agent’s scheming, and said agents have plans for them — make fruitful and reproduce, revive the jews. It’s an elaborate strategy to reinvigorate society, but altruism this is not.The plan is to return the jews to public consciousness to give people a target they can unify in hating once again.

High concept dystopian literature have clear themes, 1984 gave us Big Brother. Brave New World warned of consumption, escapism, technology. Even something like The Hunger Games elicits a clear and thoughtful point on entertainment and class.

J’s central dystopian thrust is this: society cannot function without xenophobia. Without some Other-group to hate, people become listless, beat their wives, seek pointless extramarital thrills. This is a weak thrust, but maybe defensible as part of a general philosophical notion people sometimes hold: that conflict is essential to human progress and happiness. But narrowing it down to hate is unconvincing. Especially in this world where society is bereft of basic happiness luxuries — technology, travel, history, literature, music, heirlooms, family, spirituality, identity, craft. Is hate really more valuable than self expression? Did no one think, maybe it’s the tyrannical censorship that is making people unhappy?

But what is much more unsettling and infuriating is that it is not any Others that people must hate. No, Jacobson’s horror-future exists, because it is specifically jews that the world needs to hate to function. The shadowy-government entities behind the novels plot have picked out Kevern and Ailinn to reproduce because they are some of the last living people descended from Jewish bloodlines. Bloodlines, a subject the books accepts uncritically and attributes great veracity.

Ailinn is dark-skinned; There’s a district in the Capital with Middle Eastern immigrants; Classism seems largely defunct; while the only mention of non-hetero sexuality is a father accusing his daughter of being a lesbian (negatively), there’s nothing else to indicate the world is particularly hostile to gays. All of the above peoples have traditionally served as scapegoats, objects of derision, someone to pointlessly hate or blame. But it is the Jews who need to be revived specifically to be hated to allow society to run again, for the happiness of all. It’s completely nonsensical in the narrative-built universe (and on real-planet-earth). It reminds me of the end of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead where the novel completely abandons all internal logic and characterization and cause-effect consistency just to make an ill-conceived point.