Reflections on Seveneves

Today I finished reading Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves [public library], a 3-part sci-fi novel about the destruction of Earth due to the fragmentation of the moon, humanity’s last ditch effort to prevent species extinction by creating a small space colony around the ISS (International Space Station), the journey of the ISS colonists to a safe/stable environment, and the world 5,000 years later as the descendants of the colonists re-terraform Earth and meet with earth-bound survivors.

I usually don’t like sci-fi as a genre, but this book was exceptionally well written, with enough human stories and organizational dynamics (perhaps as is typical from a nerd/engineer’s perspective, politics fucks things up and nearly wipes out the human race) to balance out the science-based descriptions of new technologies.

Random thoughts and reflections from reading the book:

  • I should learn more about physics, astronomy, and genetics–how can I tell whether the ideas and scenarios he writes about are plausible or completely fictional?  What things are based on current technologies, which things will take us 10 years to build, which things will we never build (because there is a better solution elsewhere)?
  • The Earth’s surface is destroyed by an exponential increase in the fragmentation of space debris from the explosion of the moon, as too many debris fall into the atmosphere and trigger a millennia of firestorms worldwide.  Why didn’t they find a way to blow up the fragments into such small fragments that no firestorm would have been triggered?  Why didn’t they find a way to blast/move the moon rocks away from each other so they wouldn’t hit each other and fragment?  Why didn’t they try to re-attach the rocks, or cover them with some kind of adhesive or other chemical that prevented fragmentation?  Maybe these questions are scientifically implausible, but I didn’t understand why all the scientists (and the military!) just accepted that moon fragmentation/falling debris would wipe out everything, so the only solution was to find a way to preserve life off the surface of the Earth.
  • When they made the announcement to the world that the world was going to end, they told people what they could do to help the efforts to prevent species extinction (e.g. send us cultural artifacts, pictures, memories of what life was like, etc. so we can preserve them digitally or physically in the space colony).  But then a character comments that realistically 99.9% of these efforts were useless and just a means to prevent widespread panic by giving people something to do (the illusion of helpfulness), a means to give them fake meaning/significance in this traumatic event.  That is to say, in a species extinction event, the majority of the population is useless.  Which prompted a very uncomfortable realization: I am one of these useless people.  In a disaster situation, I would be pretty useless and replaceable.  No specialized knowledge or skills that would make me an invaluable asset to an apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic team of survivors, nor to a team that aimed to prevent/mitigate the disaster from happening.  If I were the kind of person who could humbly accept that my life is meaningful in small ways, and that a full and meaningful life does not require me to contribute to these grandiose projects, then I would wisely and lovingly spend the rest of my limited days with family, accept my impending death, and then pass away in peace.  But I am not this kind of person.  The issue is, I want to be on that team that solves this problem…I want to do something, but I don’t have the skills to do it.  So, obvious solution: identify what skills/knowledge would be valuable and necessary, and acquire them.  (Next question: what price am I willing to pay to acquire these skills/knowledge?  What am I willing to give up for the chance to become this kind of person?)
  • It is sad that even in a species extinction event, there are misguided incompetent self-centered arrogant assholes who politic their way into power, divide the team, and influence less rational (but still valuable!) members into wasting valuable resources (e.g. by going on missions that will result in the death of all team members and the loss of equipment/supplies).  Alas, it is not a part of human nature to defer to the person who knows the most and is the most qualified to lead.  It is also sad that the person who is sometimes most qualified to lead is also a self-sacrificing hero who dies early on, and thus is unable to counteract the insidious influence of these charismatic incompetents.  In that case, I wonder if it would have been better to kill off these people before they had the chance to cause trouble?
  • It is touching that there are people (heroes) who are willing to take action and call bullshit when they see it, even at the risk of losing their lives.  It inspires me to know that there are people who will sacrifice their lives for the good of the group without a second thought.  Or that they will sacrifice their lives just to increase the probability of preventing species extinction by some small probability (not even having the guarantee of success!).  People who will quietly and without bragging, do what needs to be done.
  • The earth-bound survivors lived in enclosed colonies far from the surface of the Earth for 5,000 years WITHOUT GOING EXTINCT.  How is this possible??  Somehow this seems significantly more implausible than the space colony not going extinct.  If politics can fuck up a team of hand-picked civilians and highly trained engineers and scientists, how can it not fuck up groups of mere civilians?  (The military enclaves might have the discipline and foresight to stockpile enough supplies and build a disciplined system/regime to keep the population alive, but definitely not a civilian group.  Plus if they had to stay alive for 5,000 years, these populations should have died out by in-breeding since the limited space imposed a population cap and you had the same few thousand bloodlines criss-crossing over and over without the benefits of a space colony super genetics lab.)
  • Perhaps I should read more apocalypse sci-fi to compare different species extinction scenarios and proposed solutions by different writers.  I’m so unfamiliar with the genre that I don’t know whether there are specific tropes or repeated themes/technologies in Seveneves, or whether it’s quite new and innovative.  In any case, many of the cited ideas allude to current trends in tech (e.g. distributed processing/swarms of small interconnected machines, space technology, asteroid mining, terraforming, genetic modification, social media, etc.).
  • Reading this book reminded me of 7 Seeds (surprisingly, not on Amazon, so just read a fan translated copy online), a manga series that spins an alternate species extinction/post-apocalypse story.  The relevant thing here was, the government hand-picked the best of the best to preserve and survive the species extinction event and spent a lot of time putting them through super hardcore training (similar to Seveneves), but they also picked a last group of misfits and outcasts who weren’t trained at all (just in case all of the training and elitism turned out to have some fundamental flaw).  I actually think this is really intelligent, because sometimes people who seem like the creme de la creme in normal situations are completely inept or have ingrained habits/belief systems that are counterproductive in extreme situations (edge cases).  Sometimes the ability to learn the rules of the game and play by the rules of the game is actually a hindrance, because really you need to remake or ignore the rules entirely, or because the rules have changed and it’s better not to have the bias of what they were.  And sometimes the fucked up-ness of the training and the isolation and the pressure of being chosen for some super important task will just break someone, whereas someone else who didn’t have all this baggage might be able to rise to the occasion.  In short, life is unpredictable, so it’s better to introduce some diversity (but not so much that you’re unable to move in the right direction as a cohesive unit when necessary).

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