Go Read Seveneves

I recommend reading Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Seveneves. Moreover, I recommend doing it right now.

Science Fiction, broadly defined, means thinking hard about reality, tweaking a few variables, then running it in fast-forward to see if anything interest happens. Defined that way, it’s not merely influenced by current tech trends—startup pitches and internal strategy emails in fact are a sub-genre of applied science fiction. As long as software is eating the world, the easiest science fiction to write is all about the implications of newer and cooler software. It’s easy to just assume that hardware will keep advancing, too. That assumption used to be merely simplifying, but now it’s been explored thoroughly, so it’s boring, too.

Seveneves is not boring.

I recommend reading it right now for two reasons:

  1. The reality Seveneves tweaks is very much late-2014/early-2015. The book feels ridiculously current just now, down to details like the ubiquity of clickbait slideshows to how many Twitter followers a famous pop-scientist would have. It’ll still be a good book in 2025, but it’ll feel distinctly dated.
  2. Seveneves is a clarion call for doing cool stuff with atoms rather than bits. And one of the reasons people hate atoms is that they have such a long lead time from idea to workable execution. On the off chance that Seveneves inspires someone build something cool, they’d better get cracking.

For a book that’s all about awesome hardware in a world where lots of the action is in software, Seveneves does not exactly discount the importance of being able to code. I’d estimate that two thirds of the dramatic peaks are in some way precipitated by the surprising output of a computer model. But Stephenson treats software the way lots of software people naturally treat hardware. Of course it will be there when we need it. But not in an interesting way.

A lot of the conflict, besides your traditional “humanity versus the howling void of inner space” stuff, actually boils down to nerds versus narratives. In this case, the nerds are constructing deterministic solutions in the face of risks that are understood in general but pretty random in particular. Meteors and radiation are, in different ways, very statistical ways to die. And—not just because we didn’t evolve in orbit—humans are not well-equipped to intuitively interpret risks. We are pretty well-equipped to form factions and allocate blame, so as risks get more statistical you can expect leadership, in general, to get worse.

The usual interpretation of disaster fiction is that disasters are surmountable but human beings are incorrigible. In this book, the disaster is bad enough that my money wouldn’t be on humanity, regardless of how many technical tricks we have up our sleeves. But it’s hard to keep up a good fictional pace when your dramatic arc is literally defined by a segment of an orbit.

But if anything is going to actually help human beings prepare for disaster, it’s going to be recruiting people into the nerd faction and away from the narrative faction. And Seveneves is definitely masterful pro-nerd agitprop.

| May 24th, 2015 | Posted in books |

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