Book Review: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

A good novel needs a strong opening. A good sentence, one that grabs you by the shoulders and says “Hey! This is going to be good!” Neal Stephenson seems to have figured this one out in his brand-new novel Seveneves. How’s about this to start out a novel:

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.

Mr. Stephenson, you have my full, complete, and undivided attention.

seveneves.2jpgOf course, he would have had it anyway. Neal Stephenson is far and away my favorite living author, the mind behind my favorite series of books, the Baroque Cycle. I inhaled all 880 pages of Seveneves over the course of four days on vacation. I can’t think of a better way I could have used my time off.

Middling spoilers follow. If you want to avoid them, perhaps you can skip down to the last paragraph of the book review.

After beginning the novel by blowing up the moon, Stephenson goes on to explain that it doesn’t blow up nearly the way you might have thought it would. If your mind, programmed by media the way mine has been for forty-plus years, the first thing you think of is the way the Death Star blows up, and Stephenson goes on to explain that no, it wouldn’t be like that at all.

For a couple of weeks, it turns out to be pretty cool. Until it isn’t cool anymore and then it isn’t cool at all. Right around the time that Stephenson, through a character intended as an obvious pastiche for the personable Neil DeGrasse Tyson, explains to the President of the United States, an only slightly less obvious mash-up of Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina, that while the newly-fragmented moon will eventually turn in to a beautiful ring around the Earth, what’s going to happen before that will be, shall we say, unpleasant. Humanity as a whole has about two years to get its collective shit together.

From there, it’s a trip down the “global apocalypse” science fiction path for Stephenson and his readers, which is always good entertainment — but the book owes a standout homage to Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. This was actually one of the first sci-fi novels I ever read, one which tried to bridge Frederik Pohl’s gap: not only should a good science fiction story predict the invention of the automobile, it should also predict the phenomenon of the traffic jam.

In two principal parts, Stephenson takes a technocratic, hard sci-fi approach to the preparation for the end of the world. Niven and Pournelle used the best science available to them in 1977; what Stephenson can know in 2015 about global catastrophe scenarios — both how they are caused and what would happen during them — is unsurprisingly quite a bit more well-informed and carries quite a bit more weight as a result. Stephenson’s end-of-the-world scenario is one packed with the dread of inevitability, which in turn leads to lots of doubt and cynicism.

As with Niven-Pournelle, Stephenson looks with a rather dim sneer out of the corner of his eye at non-technical specialists. Engineers and scientists, whether of the academic or entrepreneurial bent, are the heroes of his story. The politicians and social-science types seem admirable only when they use their skills to clear a way through the red tape in which they usually live for those with actual skills to go out into the universe and do something useful.

About halfway through the book, a very sudden and dramatic shift takes place to show what happens After The Worst Thing Ever, signaled by a temporal incongruity in narrative rather as large as anything I’ve seen before in any medium. Perhaps a bit too heavily wedded to exposition, Stephenson takes a multidisciplinary approach to speculative fiction — he tries to marry robotics, sociology, speculative history, planetary-scale materials science, genetics, and later, atheistic philosophy into a look at a human society vastly different from our own.

To his credit, he pulls it off. By the end of the book, the reader is left with a good understanding of how such a human society, scarred from and molded by the experiences in the first half of the book, might have come about and how it would function. The problem is that to give the reader this understanding, right on down to the body language and tasteless jokes of the far future, he has to delve deep into out-of-narrative exposition, in a more heavy-handed way than he did in his elegant child’s-eye description of the possibilities of nanotechnology in Diamond Age or the dialogue of geeky Second World War cryptographers and eccentric Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in Cryptonomicon.

The elements of the future Stephenson envisions are at once technocratically hopeful, yet deeply depressing. Even if we pick our best and our brightest, and make abundantly clear that past allegiances to race, nation, and creed are obviously superfluous, it may be that human would nevertheless prove unable to break free from our instincts to polarize into tribes and resist accepting the obvious truths that evidence presents to us. The contemporary subtexts of ideological gridlock, global warming denialism, and racial violence are mostly, although not completely, allowed to stand for themselves without holding the reader’s hands. And if you’ve read Lucifer’s Hammer, you’ll see that Stephenson addresses these themes with a seeming consciousness of the way that this territory was navigated a generation ago.

Of all the Stephenson that I’ve read, this work is probably the most filmable. Even the more abstruse second half of the story could be adapted to a visual medium with minimal difficulty, and with some good expository dialogue rendered understandable to a non-technically trained viewer. That probably wasn’t a conscious decision by Stephenson, but it’s fortuitous, because his work deserve translation to the broader audiences available through the movies or, better yet, through the sorts of high-quality cable miniseries where the best deep narratives being made are happening today.

Now, I had a week to myself and very intermittent internet access last week, so I had ample opportunity to sit down and just read and enjoy a book. And this was a terrific yarn, one that exercised my mind and sparked my imagination. You may not have the luxury of a vacation in which to gulp down this book. But that may be for the better. A really good steak dinner should be eaten slowly, in small bites, to appreciate the quality of the food served to the diner. Maybe so too with a really engaging novel: if taken in small bites, it may digest better intellectually, and increase the reader’s enjoyment. It’s tough to put down in places: Stephenson knows the tricks of the potboiler’s trade, and it is an effort of will to look up from the book during its tense moments. But at 880 pages, without many chapter breaks, you’re just going to have to figure out how to exercise your own willpower about when to put it down.

In a sense, it is the perfect speculative fiction novel: it serves up a cocktail of new science ideas on a tapestry of their human implications; it thinks Really Big Thoughts and by analogy, points to sometimes uncomfortable realities about the world of reality. Perhaps a bit more exposition than was strictly necessary, but then again, it’s Neal Stephenson, so the exposition is going to make you smarter.

And after reading it, you’ll never look up at the moon in the sky in quite the same way again.

 

Image: Cover art from publisher, under claim of fair use as commentary about subject work. (Go buy this book!)

 

Burt LikkoBurt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.

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68 thoughts on “Book Review: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

    • Anathem is one of my favorite books, and Cryptonomicon another.

      I loved the first two volumes of the Baroque cycle, the third was not a fun read for me. I still haven’t finished it, I keep plodding through a few pages at a time, and it will take about 10x to get through the last 200 pages what it took to get through the previous 2500 pages.

      I enjoyed Reamde, but it really derailed, going all guns-in-the woods instead of cybergames; but it works as a satire on real world games vs. virtual world games.

      I’m glad to hear Seveness reward the time reading, it’s on my list. But not until the gardens are planted.

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  1. I’m with Zic. I loved Cryptonomicon like a parallel-universe Thomas Pynchon novel overstuffed with a worldful of characters and concepts, nutty jokes and sudden, unexpectedly emotion-twanging zoom-ins/outs. I stopped plowing through the Baroque Cycle after two or three novels where I never felt that way.

    I gave away my copy of Cryptonomicon but could almost quote from memory some of my favorite lines and scenes. I will certainly give Seveneves a shot as soon as I’m done with Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, which I’m still not quite so sure about.

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  2. Idea novels can be consumed slowly. Pulp fiction wants to be consumed as fast as possible — the best way to read GRRM is as quickly as possible, immersing yourself thoroughly and completely.

    But an idea novel? It demands lying back, thinking of your own implications, considering how well the author has done with the material…

    (Speaking of end of the world novels, did you see the one about the Housing Crisis that one of the commenters from Calculated Risk put together?)

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  3. This is one of those times when I feel horribly out of touch. I’d never heard of Stephenson until he was mentioned on this blog, and now it looks like everyone has read multiple works of his.

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      • [Reads through the Wikipedia page.]

        This sounds a bit heavy-handed in its intellectualism (I mean, the names!), but, er… wait…

        Stephenson cites the work of Roger Penrose as a major influence on the novel.

        Alright, I’m out.

        I’m sure it’s a very good book, and he sounds like an interesting writer, but that sentence can be reworded as “Chris will hate this book.”

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        • If you want to try one of his books, I’d suggest Crytponomicon. That one is a LOT of fun.

          I’d give Anathem another shot one day, based on the people here who liked it, but I was so irritated with it when I was done that I gave it away.

          It wasn’t any philosophical difference or anything; I was just annoyed at all the time I’d wasted reading something that never grabbed me.

          It was leagues less “fun” than his other books, which never stop being entertaining even as they are bending your brain and teaching you something obscure.

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          • even as they are bending your brain and teaching you something obscure

            Oh man, I read this sentence and had one of those eureka moments in which you spot a difference that has been staring you in the face for a long time, and feel both relieved and stupid at the same time: This is not what I want out of literature, not even a little bit. If I try to think of any books I’ve enjoyed that could be described that way, the closest I get is Eco, and while I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed some of his fiction, I can’t say that I’ve gone out of my way to read it either. It usually stumbles into my lap (my mom is a fan). Maybe Doctor Faustus? But I can’t imagine anyone has ever read Mann for that reason, and besides, that is easily the most difficult book I’ve ever read, and while it is undeniably beautiful (it is a masterpiece, perhaps one of the greatest of that century), I can’t say that I enjoyed getting through it the few times I’ve managed to do so.

            Seriously, over the years I’ve been distressed, at times significantly so, by the fact that so many people whose taste I respect, even admire, have recommended and talked about books that I either read and didn’t enjoy or heard described and had no interest in reading, and I’ve been unable to find the precise locus of the disconnect between our tastes. Now it’s laid out plain before me.

            This is not, in case I haven’t been clear, meant as a value judgment. I recognize that is is merely a difference in preference, or perhaps personality, but man I had not been able to put my finger on it until just now and I feel more than a little bit stupid for that.

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            • Well, I am probably making it sound worse than it is. Stephenson at his best has a very playful, conversational style, and the “lessons” are often contained in 4th-wall-breaking jokey asides.

              In Cryptonomicon, especially, these sections are entirely-skippable if it’s just the plot/fiction piece you are after.

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              • Oh, I have a pretty good sense of how the learning takes place. I mean, the Anatthem description makes it sound pretty over the top to me, but I get how these sorts of novels usually work from the few I’ve read.

                But the mind-bending part is the real issue. I mean, I like the occasional mind-bending movie, but for the most part, mind-bending isn’t my drug (unless it’s a drug that bends the mind, then maybe).

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                • I realize I am the outlier here, but I wouldn’t take Anathem as representative of Stephenson. In some ways, it probably tried to incorporate its ideas more seamlessly into its narrative than he has done in the past, but good golly I was bored.

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                  • If I want to read a good discussion of Platonism vs Nominalism, I’ll just go from Leibniz to Locke to Berkeley to Hume. This, again, isn’t a value judgment, it’s purely a matter of taste: I like to get my philosophical debates in philosophy (unless it’s philosophy of art, so that I don’t mind the digressions in The Unbearable Lightness of Being or the whatever it is that If on a winter’s night a traveler is trying to do).

                    But I realize this is larger than Stephenson. It was a eureka moment because I recognized immediately something that had bugged me about some of the science fiction and, well, whatever category Eco falls in, that I’ve read. Something that I hadn’t been able to put my finger on.

                    Calvino is actually a perfect example. He can be challenging, in a playful, even silly way, but there’s none of the “mind-bending” that I think draws people to a lot of science fiction and Eco-like stuff. And I love Calvino, I can’t think of a more fun author (a guy who lives in trees? a non-existent knight? two halves of the same knight clashing?). He’s a perfect example of a very late 20th century author (in style) that I appreciate greatly. Max Frisch too, or Günter Grass, say, both of whom are significantly less fun though (“Günter Grass is fun,” a sentence never uttered). I’m trying to think of authors who are “out there” without being “mind-bending.”

                    I think it’s actually quite possible to like the sorts of books I like and the Stephensons of the world (Aaron David’s taste seems to overlap significantly with mine and with that of the Stephenson fans). My taste just isn’t that broad.

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                    • On my walk just now, I thought of an even better comparison: Saramago. But I dunno who else here, if anyone, is a fan, so I’m not sure how much traction the comparison would get. (I have an idea of who might be.)

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                        • Have you ever read Murakami’s Hardboiled Wonderland, or Blood Meridian?* I am sure you have read Castle of Crossed Destinies, what is your opinion of that?

                          I was always of the opinion that If On A Winters Night… was Calvino saying “this is PoMo. Therefore ought it to be PoMo?”

                          *I am asking about these books in specific.

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                          • I haven’t read any Murakami, except his bizarre tweets. I haven’t read Blood Meridian, though I keep meaning to (I loved the border trilogy).

                            I have read Castle of Crossed Destinies.

                            And I think of If on a winter’s night a traveler as extremely playful, which fits within a certain postmodern tradition.

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                            • My point with those two novels in specific is that they could both be thought of as “mind blowing” or they could be looked at as “the only way to get there was to break a few things, but that wasn’t the point.” Castle could be looked at the same way, at least in my view.

                              I am not a big fan of Mind Blowing and therefor dislike Pynchon. I never liked weird for the sake of weird, even thought I love a lot of the Lovecraft/Howard stuff. For me that genre is mostly a method of exploring massive social/tech change.

                              I am working on something re: Murakami right now, I think you would hate some of his stuff, and love others for the same reasons you like Calvino.

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                              • Hmmm… I would have to think about Castle as mind-blowing. I suppose there are mind-blowing elements in much of Calvino, though usually absolutely over the top and not meant to be taken seriously enough to actually blow anyone’s mind.

                                Oh, have you read much Kundera? Because now I’m thinking of a pretty mind-blowing book that I really enjoyed, but I wouldn’t want to spoil it.

                                I am frequently tempted to check out Murakami, but have never gotten around to it. I get a similar endorsement from other readers: sometimes great, sometimes blah.

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                                • I have not read any Kundera, though I have a copy of Immortality? kicking around somewhere. I am (as usual) knee deep in books, but which one would you recommend?

                                  But go read Blood Meridian. I read the first half in a single sitting, and at that point was so overwelmed by it that I had to regulate my reading of it. I wouldn’t want to spoil any of it, but sufice it to say that the within the relentlessness of the text is a work of pure awe, and that is the mind blowing portion. In many ways I am still wrapping my head around it 15 years later. It is on a level with Master and Margarita in many, many ways.

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                  • “I wouldn’t take Anathem as representative of Stephenson. ”

                    I think that Stephenson has different modes, which he combines in varying amounts in any given book. Anathem is heavily on the geekery exposition side, down to having appendices laying out logical arguments. Reamde is on the other side, being more plot-oriented, and occasionally within shouting distance of the word “action.” I am only 22% of the way through Seveneves. It seems so far to be on the Reamde side, but that might change.

                    So Anathem is not representative of Stephenson in that it represents one extreme of his writing, but it is representative in that these elements are present in his other books as well, albeit at lower concentration.

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          • The ending is not what it might have been.

            Same with another rather incredible set of books, Tad Williams 5 Vol. River of Fire series. Amazing books, ending like so far off of potential.

            Best ending ever is Perdido St. Station by China Melville, and maybe Iain Banks The Algebriast, which is probably my take on the value of hero worship more than anything.

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            • Stephenson’s endings are notoriously abrupt. Cryptonomicon was no exception. He attempts a soft landing in Seveneves and while he doesn’t quite stick the landing, it’s a much better dénouement than, say, Diamond Age.

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        • Ha.

          I didn’t know about Penrose; sounds like an intriguing person. Is your discomfort with his take that the known laws of physics can’t explain consciousness?

          If so, I’d say he’s right, but the shortcoming is the set of known-laws-of-physics, and the stuff he might make up to fill in those gaps are science fiction and speculation; but that’s just an off-the-cuff from reading his wikipedia page and zero real information, which reflects the state of the laws of physics we don’t know. We can make our educated and intuitive guesses, and bias together all sorts of evidence for utter bullshit.

          I’m generally pretty tolerant of bullshit so long as one doesn’t cling to it too closely, it’s best use is as a fertilizer for growth, and it should give way to green shoots.

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          • Don’t get me wrong, Penrose is not bullshit, and he is much, much smarter than I, but I can’t stand his writings or his theory of consciousness. The only way it would have been less appealing to me is if it had been heavily influenced by Jaynes.

            I certainly agree with him, and you, that the known laws of physics have trouble when it comes to explaining consciousness, freedom, etc. It’s just his particular quantum consciousness stuff that drive me batty.

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  4. I read, it, it was okay. I kind of think that the entire back half of the novel could have been rendered as a single chapter of a few paragraphs. I know that it’s really cool to think about orbital mechanics megaprojects but that part read a lot more like Neal Stephenson’s Notebook than anything else.

    Spoilers:

    (really, just have it be someone in the year 7502 look up at the sky, describe what they see, then look down at the ocean and say “and now, the last of the Lost Tribes rejoins us”, and the sea people walk up onto the beach, fade to black with triumphant music The End.)

    ********

    I did appreciate that Stephenson made it clear up front that this was not going to be about What Happened To The Moon, and that we were never going to learn what that was. It saved a lot of frustration on this reader’s part.

    ********

    The entire catastrophe in the middle part of the book–and I mean THE WHOLE THING–could have been avoided by closing an airlock door at a critical moment. I’m rather surprised that nobody in the entire novel mentions this, and that the characters don’t even reflect on why they didn’t close the door. Like, there is not a single point at which one character thinks “you know, we live in a world where The Cold Equations is not just speculative fiction, was it really worth saving that particular person’s life”. (And this is a character who definitely would be aware of that story.)

    **********

    You can see Stephenson’s then-current obsession with swordplay in the book’s opening, which has a lengthy digression about fencing that isn’t relevant to the rest of the story and is never mentioned again. (At the time he was working on a video game that was meant to be an absolutely perfectly realistic simulation of combat with swords. It turns out that an absolutely perfectly realistic simulation of combat with swords is of interest only to people who already engage in real combat with actual swords, and for that reason don’t need a video game, and the whole thing was really just an epic attempt to once-and-for-all settle the question of “Who Would Win, A Medieval Knight Or A Samurai?”)

    ***********

    I did like the large number of ways that Stephenson displayed that “if you do it quick and dirty then it gets done, but it gets broken and goes wrong very easily”.

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    • Could you have closed that airlock door? In the moment? And lived with yourself afterwards? Knowing that these were all the human beings that were left in existence, and not knowing the trouble that would result from this particular person, who up until that point had been a reasonably admirable actor faced with tough decisions?

      And then there’s the question of whether even in the absence of the results of opening rather than closing the door, the resulting calamity would have happened anyway. The survival model they chose rendered itself inherently vulnerable to the sort of result that happened.

      The lesson for me was: small decisions that make so much sense in the moment they don’t merit a lot of thought can accumulate quickly into explosive and decisive phenomena. Washington hunkers down for the night instead of rolling the dice to make a charge out of Brooklyn. Fog rolls in the next morning. Result: an independent United States of America, expanding to the Pacific within three generations, rather than a squelched rebellion of colonial malcontents whose thoroughly British descendants desultorily exchange the Ohio River Valley with France until at least the twentieth century.

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      • “Could you have closed that airlock door? In the moment? And lived with yourself afterwards?”

        What I thought was odd was how that question never even gets ASKED. As in, not at all. Not once do any of the characters say “hey, y’know, maybe if we’d just closed the door and said ‘Oh Darn, They All Died’ then we’d be a lot better off right now”. Apparently Stephenson didn’t even consider that question worth exploring, and I found that a little strange given that Do We Let Everyone On The Lifeboat is kind of a core part of these extreme-survival stories.

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  5. Is there any “we must save the human race” science fiction that doesn’t take a dim sneer at non-technical specialists? It seems to me that if your trying to rebuild human civilization from scratch or have humanity survive in harsh environments, it might help to have people who are knowledgeable in things that make it possible for humans to stick together without killing each other around. Lawyers, jurists, diplomats, accountants, and generic business people are all going to be necessary to rebuild civilization. If people want art, culture, and entertainment than it also makes sense to save at least a few people skilled in the fine, plastic, and theatrical arts.

    I’d like to see a “we must save humans” scenario that ignores the non-technical specialists only to get hit in the butt hard when they realize that non-technical specialists make civilization possible.

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    • This is largely something that happens due to the hard/soft SF divide.

      If it’s hard SF, it’s often written by and for techies; it’s ALSO a hard fact of reality that if there are only a limited number of seats on the lifeboat, you and I probably won’t be the ones to get on.

      In soft SF, plenty of fiction deals with this. BSG had lawyers and teachers and etc. I was always amazed at how many news reporters managed to somehow survive the destruction of the colonies.

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      • Even in a limited life boat scenario, I imagine that there is going to be some necessity to have a few people that know about how complex human societies operate in order to get things up and running again. What happens when a murder or some other crime gets committed on the ark? What happens when conflicts develop that necessitates compromise and negotiation? Your also going to need people who know history and literature to keep some types of knowledge alive.

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        • Your also going to need people who know history and literature to keep some types of knowledge alive.

          And paper-and-ink, or better. Unless we’re going to go back to oral tradition, which has a pretty poor track record at least as far as accuracy is concerned. Lots of science fiction stories about things that are the equivalent of the Irish monasteries, preserving history and literature (and tech knowledge, if not understanding and practice) until such time as it becomes “practical” again. Eg, A Canticle for Leibowitz.

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          • Yeah, I’ve mentioned before that the widespread move to magnetic storage worries me. Paper (or other imprinted/engraved media), properly stored by intent or even chance (like the Dead Sea Scrolls), can last a long, long time.

            Once located, mostly all you need is a literate person (and, OK, a translating key/Rosetta Stone) to decipher the information.

            Even if a magnetic hard drive were to somehow survive centuries with all its data intact, there are a lot of associated/ancillary technologies that need to also be re-created (power, and processing, and display), just to access the data; and/or multiple translations of the source data, instead of just one-one.

            The data is far more accessible to us now than simple print; but in a post-apocalypse world, it would be far less accessible. They might not even know what they were looking at, whereas a symbol is a symbol is a symbol.

            I worry that some far-future archaeologist will think we are illiterate, because we appear to have no books; and very very vain, because we spend all day staring into what appear to be palm mirrors.

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      • Seldon wasn’t concerned with saving the human race. He was concerned with minimizing the length of the time between the inevitable (according to his calculations) collapse of the galaxy-spanning civilization and its recovery. One of the unstated assumptions that makes the entire story work is that smaller social units capable of supporting technology at least up to FTL transport would survive the “collapse” relatively untouched.

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        • Seldon wasn’t facing an extinction-of-humanity kind of event, true, but he was facing 30,000 years of a dark age of ignorance, poverty, warfare, and violence before “civilization,” to his understanding, would reconstitute. 30,000 years of dark ages would be pretty bad.

          So Foundation is a pretty close answer to the question posed by : “Is there any ‘we must save the human race” science fiction that doesn’t take a dim sneer at non-technical specialists?'” In Foundation and its progeny, a social scientist, rather than some sort of a physicist or doctor, is the hero of the story, the one who possesses the skill set, vision, and willpower needed to save all of humanity from The Worst Thing Ever.

          Foundation also suggests that ignorance and war are disasters as worthy of heroic efforts to forestall and recover from as are natural disasters like volcanoes and hurricanes. I’m down with that.

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          • In that case, I’ll still argue against Seldon because he fits the meme, popular at the time, of lone genius (and acolytes) saving the world. It wasn’t physical tech in Seldon’s case, but miracle math. Which is still technical. Under the relaxed conditions, but sticking to Asimov, I’ll take Elijah Bailey in Caves of Steel, where there’s clearly some pretty heavy stuff going on behind the scenes that he’s not aware of but at least culture-threatening, who wins the day by virtue of being a non-technical police detective.

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    • “Is there any “we must save the human race” science fiction that doesn’t take a dim sneer at non-technical specialists?”

      Stephenson does include one bit where a human-relations specialist tries desperately to stop the NdG-T character from getting in a screaming match with the HRC character, and she fails, and the HRC character’s feelings from this argument are the source of major trouble later in the story.

      Also, in the future-world bit, the viewpoint characters talk about how they have a terrible time getting people to agree with them because they don’t place any value on aesthetics or performance, and therefore have no way to combat people who *do* value those things and are therefore much better at them. (It’s okay, though, because the people who value those things are also the Evil Jerks, and so their skills in this area are evidence of Perfidious Trickery rather than just genuinely being better at things.)

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    • Is there any “we must save the human race” science fiction that doesn’t take a dim sneer at non-technical specialists?

      Yes, but usually set at some point after whatever the catastrophe was, when things have settled into some new normal. Certainly civilization (cities, let’s say) creates the need for a variety of non-technical specialists. But cities also assume that certain “technical” problems have been solved — sufficient surplus production of water, food, shelter, clothing, and tools to enable all of those to allow the existence of full-time people doing the non-technical things. Or even part-time people — traveling minstrels and tinkers and circuit judges were all a response to the problem that towns can only support a singer and pot-repair-person and a jurist for a couple of weeks per year.

      Stories written about the collapse itself tend to deal with producing enough water, food, shelter, clothing, and tools to enable all of those. Those stories lack the surplus production to support a dedicated portion of the population performing activities professionally that aren’t part of the basics. I’m intrigued by the idea, though.

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      • See my response to Glyph. People on the Space Ark/Lifeboat are going to run into the sorts of problems that require no technical specialists to solve at some point during the collapse. The people saved aren’t going to be perfect saints and there is going to be conflict or crime on the ark like the stealing of an essential supply. People on the space ark aren’t rustic humans rebuilding society. They are well-educated and civilized people trying to preserve what they can. This means that they should know the need for some non-technical specialists.

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        • Not arguing, although the Space Ark/Lifeboat scenario assumes that the “surplus calories” and similar problems have been solved. James Blish’s Cities in Flight series fits that mold nicely — and the main characters are politicians who are knowledgeable about history, teaching is given considerable emphasis, the flying cities are all about being business people, etc. Cities in Flight is one of the oldest examples that I know of arguing that the classic sci-fi trope of high tech being maintained by a tiny group of people is silly — a civilization large and complex enough to maintain that will involve at least millions of people, and most of them won’t be technologists.

          But now we’re outside of the “99% of the human race and (possibly) much of the existing ecology is going to die in the next three years” kind of scenario.

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    • “Is there any “we must save the human race” science fiction that doesn’t take a dim sneer at non-technical specialists?”

      Not quite the same thing, but consider “Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart, from 1949. It is not much remembered today, but ought to be. It is an early example of the “plague wipes out nearly all of humanity” genre. (Were it written a few years later, it might have been a nuclear war. But a few years after that we get back to plagues with Stephen King.) I recommend it highly, so long as you don’t demand that a novel makes you feel happy about life.

      In it, the protagonist accumulates a viable band of survivors. They are surrounded by abundance, so physical survival is not at issue. There also is a refreshing absence of marauding Road Warrior-style bands. There are other groups of survivors, but they are far away and not inclined to the wearing of gratuitous leather. The protagonist’s concern through much of the book, then, is not the survival of his band, but of civilization. Over the course of the novel he concludes that this is impossible, and instead concentrates on creating a sustainable tech, at least the Neolithic level.

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  6. Like y’all are speaking a different language, I swear.

    I say this as a passive, outside observer, but I find it somewhat fascinating. Y’all know so much about the genre, about authors, about their worlds, the various sub-genres, and the sub-sub-genres, and the sub-sub-sub genres, the tropes, the meta-tropes, and so on. I’m genuinely impressed, but man it really is like y’all are speaking a different language.

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    • Consider: a group of people that are brighter than average, have better memories than average, are professionally heavy readers by necessity, and have been trained that it’s important to classify things, recognizing how this case is the same as that one, but also how it’s different. Who speak, professionally, specialized dialects for the subject at hand. Then give them entertaining stories a key component of which is the stuff that they spent years of their lives studying. Same sort of result as asking them about a bolt for a particular important job: what size? what alloy? will the machining be adequate?

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        • A question that I occasionally ask myself is “Why has speculative engineering as a literature genre succeeded to the point that it’s possible to talk about sub-genres and meta-tropes and all, but not speculative-other-stuff?” For example, TTBOMK, there’s no broad “speculative law” genre. Why is “When do we decide that AIs are people?” which is legal question so often written from the engineer’s perspective and not from the lawyer’s?

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