Garrett (garote) wrote,
Garrett
garote

Digesting Seveneves: Wherein I struggle with being an armchair geneticist.

Stephenson needs to listen to his editor more, or perhaps get a different one. At least that's the impression I get as a reader - it seems like the touch of an editor has been too light. But for all I know, this book started out twice as long as the version we eventually got - and if that's the case I don't even want to think about how frustrating that original version was. There were times I imagined him opening a PDF file of a physics textbook in his word processor, doing "select all" and "copy", then finding a chunk of dialogue in his draft and planting the cursor smack in the middle of that and hitting "paste".

Okay, that's unfair. He is clearly chasing his own interests, and his long digressions into them are almost a trademark of his writing. But he just spends too much time talking about orbital mechanics, perhaps expecting that the concepts will magically become compelling to everyone if only he can get the explanations clear enough. They're fairly clear, and that's quite an accomplishment, but after the third or fourth obsessive tour through the physics, I was tempted to just turn pages without reading, looking for the quotation marks of dialogue that might advance the plot.

And that's especially frustrating, because the plot is fantastic! A thundering adventure with plenty of twists and macabre accidents, emphasizing the danger and desolation of space. Most of the time I enjoyed it hugely and was greedily stealing hours from my errands, workday, and sleep time, just to keep plowing along. I'd definitely recommend it, if you can tolerate the frequent asides.

I do have a few bones to pick, though. If I sound frustrated when I bring these up it's only because I'm holding the book to a very high standard - a standard of hard near-future science fiction, which might be the most difficult standard across all the genres of fiction - and I'm disappointed that every tiny little ramification of every movement into the fringes of science has not been thoroughly considered before me. Yes, it's harsh and unfair, and I'm a little prissy princess, but that's why this is a blog post: It's more about feelings than anything else. And I think there are other people out there - other hard sci-fi goons - who share my frustrations.

With that awkward disclaimer aside, I should also give out a warning: I am about to completely spoil the plot. I am going to spoil the hell out of it. If you want to read it yourself with an open perspective, you really should stop reading now. No, seriously. Hey; what are you doing still here? Go read the book! Quick!
Here we go.

So, they tacked a metal asteroid onto the end of a space station, and then stashed their precious stuff inside it to protect from cosmic rays. Great. Then they got a huge chunk of ice so they could go on the big ride up to the moon. Fine, fine. But the journey took much longer than expected - years longer. And at the very end they decided to jettison the inner core of the asteroid, while keeping the shell as protection. Okay.

So why didn't they jettison the inner core of the asteroid at the beginning of the big run? That mass was immense. They were struggling out of Earth's gravity well. They could have left behind or burned or drank additional water that they wouldn't need as propellant with that weight removed, or they could have simply arrived at the moon sooner and saved quite a few lives. It's a space station full of geniuses with years of time to kill. So why didn't they think of that along the way?

(As an interesting aside, it would take quite a long time to split that ice into fuel, if they tried to do it using the spare power from solar cells feeding a space station, so I assume that's why Neal introduced that big nuke-on-a-stick, "repurposed from a nuclear submarine", to provide the required electricity. That would be a process like high-temperature electrolysis, which is currently deemed to be too inefficient for practical use ... but hey, the whole premise of the book is, speed is suddenly way more important than efficiency, right?)

Now let's change the subject so I can gripe about the antagonist. Madame president. As soon as she arrives we know she's trouble, and we know what kind of trouble she is. Nevertheless Stephenson blows page after page of dialogue with this intolerable one-note character, who might as well be wearing a neon sign around her neck flashing the words VILLAIN at all times, except all the other characters are so damned oblivious that it wouldn't make any difference.

She's cutting surveillance to her habitat! What do you think that means? Huh? To anyone with even a teaspoon of brains, that instantly and unmistakably bellows, at top volume: MUTINY. The first damn thing you do is go in there with an emissary and remove her from the habitat, and yes, stash her in a makeshift prison! A mutiny is no joke! If you're running a spaceship, then run it like a ship, in space! Don't tell me everyone is "too busy" to worry about her - they had time enough to assemble the whole staff for multiple meetings about her. One outing with the security force to fling her into an isolated container would have cost half an hour or less. ... And saved HUNDREDS OF LIVES.

Every damn scene with her in it just felt like a waste of time, since the book never gives us any way to either empathize or sympathize with her, until the last few pages where she throws a fit about clinical depression, too little too late. She may as well be an orc from Mordor, grunting and farting uselessly until someone does us the courtesy of cutting her throat. But we don't even get that. Perhaps Stephenson wants us to believe that there is something in her very genome that makes her a psychopathic narcissist, and that without shoehorning her into the gene pool for the next version of humanity, there magically won't be any more psychopathic narcissists ever again, or something, and let that be a lesson to all you politicians!

I'd rather just edit her completely out of the book, and keep her friend the blogger asshole instead. He's identified as a villain too, so why not.

And yeah, that blogger: Neal takes an overt jab at the moral cowardice and narcissism of social media junkies, with this character. But it's simultaneously under-articulated and a little too sharp. The idea is, this blogger guy played a crucial role in the mutiny, and in encouraging other heinous acts, and when future historians observed him through the various digital records of the space station, they didn't like what they saw. They used the security footage of the station to read over his shoulder, and discovered that when he wasn't writing sharply-worded essays, he spent just about all his time futzing around online, chatting with friends and watching pornography. The blogger's behavior was so distasteful that it spawned a huge social movement in the future society, to reject the technology he used.

In terms of world-building, this is Stephenson's own "Dune"-style rejection of human augmentation going "too far" - except instead of rejecting computers entirely like Frank Herbert did in "Dune", he is rejecting the short-attention-span theatre of our current pop culture; the people that embrace it, and the devices that enable it. Take that, all you internet trolls! You all live in your mom's basement and everything you do is masturbation!

I don't think it's even possible to reject social media on a technological level, because I don't think there's a clean line we can draw, meandering around technologies like the printing press, telephones, the post office, bulletin boards, websites, newspapers, instant messaging, blogs, et cetera, such that we can chuck half those things onto one side of the line and call them acceptable, and chuck the other half in the trash can and call them forbidden, and eliminate the "social" from the "media". It's all about how these things are used, right?

So, I think this development is flawed in the same way that his basic premise about the fate of humankind is flawed: It's too atomic. Too cleanly divided into factions. Conversely, the idea that five thousand years of social redevelopment and integration could result in a society so sharply delineated along such long-ago established lines doesn't stand up to scrutiny either.

The social media revolution that began just before this century has created an effervescent, capricious popular culture. It spawns so many factions and forums that strictly delineated cultural boundaries drown in the chaos -- or at least, they effectively drown, because they lose their primacy in influencing current events. Social media has only been around for about 20 years today but it's wrought huge changes, and continues to evolve explosively. Now imagine a span of social evolution 250 times longer than that. Are people going to remain cleanly divided into seven more-or-less pure factions for that entire time, while they live amongst each other, sleep together, and interbreed?

Not a chance.

So instead, Stephenson attempts to stack the deck by building in a universal cultural distaste for social media, offering it as a partial explanation for how humanity confined itself to prearranged bins for such a long time. But look at our own 5000 years before the term "social media" was applied: Multiple entire civilizations have spawned and disintegrated in that time. Countless branches of culture and tradition have grown, flourished, withered, and died. Entire spoken languages have evolved into unintelligibility or completely vanished. And that's all without even electricity. We're expected to believe that 5000 years of new history and novel experience, with our technology as a starting point, is going to be permanently subsumed by a mere 5 years of digital soap-opera at its beginning?

Whatever, okay, I'll just suspend my disbelief and accept that there are seven factions now, loosely based on the ideas embodied by the seven "source" humans. But now I'm expected to believe that these factions exhibit unique personality types because they are all genetically wired for those types?

Pull the other one; it's got bells on.

Maybe I can just skip over the details, abandon the science behind the fiction, and accept the premise that seven interbreeding women - with a few genetic patches here and there - naturally resulted in seven distinct and easily identifiable personality types, reflecting one of their seven ancestors, for ever and ever.

Maybe it's a kind of allegory. No science involved. Urrrrgh - yeah, no. Sorry, I just can't do it. I tried.

The personality of a child is not just a copy of one of its immediate parents, and it's not even confined to the range shared by its parents. Just as the child of a tall man and a short woman can end up taller than both of them, all the various dimensions that inhabit our concept of personality have skew built into them, and they emerge and develop as we interact with the world. For that reason, seven interbreeding humans would quickly restock the universe with a complete spectrum of personalities in only a handful of generations. Serious tinkering with the mechanics of life has to happen for this re-emergence to be crushed. There are many ways to tinker - the genome, the supply of various hormones in the womb, early childhood stimuli - but Stephenson is sharply focused on the genome. That is a mistake.

Just because we can come up with a concept like "extroverted", for example, doesn't mean that there is an "extroverted" gene anywhere in our DNA that we can tweak in some linear fashion. There might actually be several genes that balance each other, or a feedback loop, or a whole crowd of genes that programmatically trigger each other in an unpredictable cascade, or any combination of these a hundred times over, with their effects changed or completely reversed by some hormone delivered at a certain level at a certain time from the mother or from some external experience. That's a pretty big abstraction from a quality like "extroverted". My point is not just to say that it's complicated, my point is to say that there may not actually be a way, anywhere in the mechanism, to consistently favor any given personality. Scientists may chase it down into billions upon billions of interwoven chemical reactions and come up just as empty-handed as they are now.

To me, this is definitely a place where Stephenson's world moves from the science into the fiction. Geneticists can try things, isolated colonies can selectively breed, parents can make choices - but with such thick layers of abstraction, such huge external influence, and so many other similar experiments going on all around, the deck is stacked against the races in his book ever establishing these different personalities, let alone maintaining them. And how many generations past the original seven arbiters of worthiness would we go, before the original rules got all bent out of shape, or someone rebelled against the eugenics plan out of motherly desire, and had a "contraband" child? I'm gonna say very few generations indeed. People like to be in control of their own parenting choices, and people can be quite iconoclastic.

So what about the physical differences? In this novel, the factions interbreed at first but then quickly split into isolated groups living in separate colonies, and remain more-or-less separate for large chunks of time. Throw a few thousand years into that situation, and you'll see physical differences if you compared the separated groups, but only insofar as they were subjected to different selection pressures. Say, because one group lives underground, and one group lives on the surface, in the style of Morlocks versus Eloi. Is philosophy a strong enough selection pressure, all by itself, to swing the appearance of an entire population? Women and men making reproductive choices based on fashion, or the current moral zeitgeist? I don't know. I have serious doubts, but I don't know. What I do know is, attraction is a complicated and in-the-moment business, and sometimes the exotic is more appealing than the popular.

But maybe I'm reading too much into the genetics angle. Maybe Stephenson is just saying that, in a huge population that exhibits all kinds of personality types, people are self-selecting into cultural groups that value certain things, and the result is a bunch of factions that all ... no. That doesn't fit. He says they have distinct appearances. He says membership can usually be recognized from a distance just by looking at things like head shape, height, eye color, and stance.

Good grief, this is "The Divergent Series", stuck incongruously into an otherwise sane sci-fi adventure. No wait - it's even worse, because it doesn't even claim that children are given a choice in the matter.

There's a saying I like to drag out for occasions like this. It's two sentences, and the first one is: Your genes are not special. Seriously. Humans have been interbreeding for so long, and so thoroughly, that any given chunk of your genome is shared by a significant portion of the rest of the human race. You have just about everything in common with everybody - just not anyone in particular. Here, read about the identical ancestors point. Amusing stuff.

So, to complete the saying: Your genes are not special. THE WAY YOU WERE RAISED is special.

The way you were raised influences your personality, your attitude, and your fate, far more than anything in your genes that doesn't outright kill you. (And sometimes, it even transcends that as well. When people discover their days are numbered by an unstoppable genetic anomaly, they can undergo incredible personal changes and accomplish surprising things.)

Hey, I'll admit, it's a pretty darned cool premise even if I can't fully buy into it. Combining seven very different people together with a portable genetics lab and starting a battle of descendants, trying to eliminate each other from the genetic record by strength rather than the usual way (murder) - that's a fun sandbox to play in. I'm attacking the details so savagely only because it has me really hooked.

By the way - what happened with the fleet of stolen habitats that took off to colonize Mars, with limited supplies? Solar flares crippled the populations we know about, so I guess we can assume that the mission to Mars became a ghost ship before it arrived. Still, even a sentence or two would have been nice. If this new civilization can collect comets from all over the solar system to rebuild the Earth's water supply, they can easily reach Mars...

We'll never know. We'll also never know how the submarine people survived, and what their "epic" was like. Or how a wooden Craftsman shovel managed to last 5000 years. Mysteries abound. Dammit, Neal always does this. I could tell it was going to be another one of his famous non-endings, when there were about five pages left in this monstrous book and he was frittering them away with a totally superfluous dissertation on the merits of whip-chains as weapons and small-scale combat action. He draws seven full characters with exhaustive flashbacks and exposition, then in one short encounter he kills three of them, shoots a fourth up into the sky, and swaps in three more. Two of the remaining three barely say a word for the rest of the book, and the protagonist we get - which is not the one we started with - mumbles a bit about yet another unexplained thing - "the purpose" - and then the book just stops cold.

Well, what can I say. I went careening through it and enjoyed it thoroughly, and afterwards I even enjoyed complaining about it. It isn't Snow Crash and it isn't Diamond Age, but it takes third place behind those two, as my third favorite thing he's done so far. That's still pretty high praise considering his other works.
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