By Neal Stephenson – All my book-reviewing predelictions are about to be revealed, when I say this is exactly a kind of book I like best! Even readers who ordinarily don’t gravitate to their book store’s science fiction section because of a severe allergy to tired genre tropes—aliens, ray-guns, and domineering robots—cardboard characters, and future visions that strain believability might like this one. It’s science, all right, but it’s all about human beings and their behavior when really put to the test. Why that is, in Stephenson’s own words.
The novel’s premise is that something (we never know what, and it doesn’t matter) penetrates the moon “like a bullet through an apple” and causes it to explode mostly into seven large and innumerable smaller pieces. Watching the fragments of the moon clank about in space becomes an interesting phenomenon until astronomer and science popularizer Dubois Harris—clearly modeled on Neil deGrasse Tyson—stops wondering about the cause of the breakup and starts worrying about its effects. Scientists around the globe quickly agree with his conclusions: the moon’s fragments—bolides—will keep banging into each other making smaller and smaller pieces whose numbers will rise exponentially.
Eventually (in about two years), enough shattered fragments will begin entering the Earth’s atmosphere to create a cloud of debris that will spread out and, as Harris explains to U.S. President Julia Flaherty, “we are going to witness an event that I am calling the White Sky.” A day or two later would begin the next phase, “the Hard Rain,” as a rapidly increasing number of fragments enter the Earth’s atmosphere and their fiery trails “merge into a dome of fire that will set aflame anything that can see it. The entire surface of the Earth is going to be sterilized. Glaciers will boil.” How long will the Hard Rain last? Harris estimates “Somewhere between five thousand and ten thousand years.”
The only hope for human survival is to gear up the International Space Station (“Izzy”) to receive many more residents and, somehow, survive long-term, growing plants for food and oxygen, and mining asteroids and even the remaining chunks of the moon for materials. But there’s no way Izzy can take on several billion or even several hundred thousand souls, and a difficult selection process will be required. International politics must be set aside and every creative mind and resource focused on the survival of a few. With Doomsday approaching, technological development must move light-years faster than previously believed possible—or safe. Yet the meat of the book is the mechanics of the human psyche when subjected to such an extreme scenario. Inevitably, some readers will find the balance between mind and emotion not to their taste, and this may not be their kind of book.
There’s a lot of science and engineering here, but it’s wrapped in such an exciting adventure tale, and presented so clearly and plausibly, that I never lost interest for a moment. The 860 [!] pages fly by, faster than you can say Bolide Fragmentation Rate. In fact, there was so much there that a few loose ends escaped me—like, what happened to the mission to Mars? I don’t believe it had more than a passing reference. What happened to the rings Earth was supposed to acquire after the Hard Rain? These are hardly worth a quibble, though, amid all this amazing content.
As Jason Sheehan said in his review of Seveneves for NPR, “The experience of reading a modern Stephenson novel is like going out drinking with 20 or 30 of the smartest people on earth.”