Wednesday, August 26, 2015

"The moon blew up without warning and with no apparent reason." I'm in love with Seveneves

"I learned more from Neal Stephenson's book than I ever did in any class."

Neal Stephenson's Seveneves is why you probably won't see me make many substantial updates for the next few days. I started reading it at six in the morning on Sunday and I'm barely a quarter of the way through, partly because of life, partly because I'm the slowest reader I've ever met when it comes to fiction—particularly Stephenson's fiction. If his writing were any denser, it would pass its Schwarzchild radius and devour us all.

For those of you who haven't read any of his stuff, I say "dense" in the kindest way possible, like the Gene Wolfe kind of dense turned up to eleven. You've probably heard critics accuse Stephenson of slipping into tangents in which he goes into meticulous detail about language, culture, history, science, and/or mathematics. Well, yeah, he does stuff like that all the time. That's, like, kind of his shtick. Or, to be more accurate, his shtick is he does it so damn well.

Savage warns you to turn the video off when the spoilers begin... I did, but can't wait to hear the rest.

I've written that Stephenson's Anathem was my second favorite SF book of the twenty-first century. (Having recently returned to Facebook and spied some stupefying status updates with no shortage of mindless support, I feel the "Sæcular" population he envisioned in that novel is a lot more plausible than I originally thought... hell, it may already be here.) I don't remember if I enjoyed Anathem nearly as much as I'm enjoying Seveneves right now. This really is my ideal summer book. It goes big in a way that would make Michael Bay weep while simultaneously pleasing the sensibilities of golden age grandmasters.

I'll try not to give too much away, but the moon explodes in the first sentence. At first, the damage is mostly cosmetic because, though spread out, all the moon's mass is still up there, mostly in seven large chunks. The moon's center of gravity is more or less where it was before its destruction so it's business as usual for Earth's tides. Unfortunately, it's not long before two of those seven chunks collide and create eight chunks. Scientists the world over realize that each time another chunk is created, the odds of another collision only increase. The collisions are eventually going to result in an earth-wide event called the White Sky, which immediately precedes the Hard Rain.

One character describes the Hard Rain like this: "Those fiery trails we've been seeing in the sky lately, as the meteorites come in and burn up? There will be so many of those that they will 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."

Long story short, the Hard Rain is going to occur in two years, at which point Earth will be inhospitable for a period of five thousand or more. Humans only have a handful of months to prepare the preservation of their species. And it's going to require a ton of jury rigging and risk taking to complete such an unimaginably massive project in such a tiny timeline.

My favorite feat of shotgun engineering so far is the Luk, a makeshift space habitat hastily created for a group of Russian "scouts" who are sent to, but cannot live in, the International Space Station. They're part of the impromptu preparation team and not all of them are expected to make it.

Whoever was running things at Roskosmos had pulled up an old idea for an emergency crew rescue device and begun actually producing them. It was called Luk. The word meant “onion” in Russian. It was pronounced similarly to “Luke,” but English speakers inevitably started calling it “Luck.” 
In the best traditions of Russian technology, Luk was straightforward. Take a cosmonaut. Enclose him in a large plastic bag full of air. 
With any normal plastic bag material, the cosmonaut will suffocate or the bag will pop, because plastic bags aren’t strong enough to withstand full atmospheric pressure. So, fill the bag with only as much air as it can handle—some fraction of one atmosphere—and then place another bag inside of it. Inflate that bag with air at slightly higher pressure. That’s still not enough air to keep a cosmonaut alive, so put a third bag inside of the second bag and inflate it to higher pressure yet. Keep repeating, like with Russian nesting dolls, until the innermost bag has enough air pressure to keep a human alive—then put the cosmonaut inside of that one. All of those layers of translucent plastic gave it an appearance reminiscent of an onion. 

Naturally, Stephenson goes on one of his tangents in which he devises several ways for the Luk to believably screw up, putting the occupants, who weren't really expected to live anyway, in mortal danger. One of the main characters aboard the ISS, who doesn't have any way to directly contact the scouts scrambling about the outside of the station, becomes fascinated with the one whose Luk is just outside her window. It turns out there's a reason the Russians sent to assist the preparation project don't have direct contact with the members inside the ISS. The reason is as heartbreaking as it is logical. 

I'll say no more.

So far I haven't seen much of the reaction back on Earth, but the "Space Okies" is a brilliant bit. With Stephenson's call for optimistic fiction as of late (which I don't entirely agree with), you may think it's odd he's decided to destroy the world in his latest novel. But even this early in the book it's apparent the optimism is there and it's gleaming around the edges. There's a beacon at the heart of it all, pulsing with warmth. It seems to be saying, "Humans are capable of amazing things... at least when it really matters."

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