Big Ideas Book Review: How Seveneves by Neal Stephenson is a modern Moby-Dick

I love to rip on Moby-Dick. Some people love Moby-Dick. That’s cool. I can be okay with that even though I’ve often thought that book, in today’s publishing market, is the literary equivalent of a one hundred year long tire fire. I mean, any agent, editor, or publisher who looked at Moby-Dick these days, having never heard of Herman Melville, would read the long-running sentences, the slow dragging plot, the pointless trip to the church, and then say–“okay this could be slimmed down and made more concise, but really, I don’t think I have time to work on it with this author.” And this is only the first few chapters! They haven’t gotten to the 400 pages in the middle of the book where nothing happens other than long descriptions of whaling and whales and sea and sky and the problem of the universe.

220px-seveneves_book_coverHey, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the problem of the universe as much as anyone. The problem being. . . Ishmael, what is the problem? Well, I can guess, but despite the fact Ishmael is the narrator, he never actually says outrightly what he means, which is to say, Melville never says outrightly what he means either. Moby-Dick is two books at a bare minimum. There are 200 pages of plot and story in which things happen and characters do something interesting. The first 100 pages and the last 100 pages. The middle 400 pages shouldn’t be called Moby-Dick at all. Those pages should be bracketed with the words: Herman Melville: Thoughts on Life.

And why would this not work in today’s current publishing industry? Well, apparently it would because Neal Stephenson is a person who writes novels that people pay for so that they can read his thoughts. And Seveneves is the current day Moby-Dick I never knew I wanted. Now I’ve read it and I loved it. That being said, I still think Moby-Dick is a tire fire.

So, why is Seveneves a current day Moby-Dick? Well, first of, let’s get the differences out of the way. Seveneves is not about: revenge, obsession, religion, or (obviously) sailing, and whales. What it is about, which Moby-Dick is also about, is traveling into an unknown world even when you are not prepared.

For Ishmael, that unknown world is Ahab’s mind. His fury. His obsession. Ishmael is completely unprepared for what he will find once he is on the Pequod. Similarly, humanity is utterly unprepared to live in space when the first sentence of Seveneves rolls around.

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

That’s the first sentence and I might add, by modern standards, its a much better hook than Moby-Dick’s first sentence.

“Call me Ishmael.”

Dude, I don’t care about you! Why should I give a shit what your name is. Why are you worth reading about? That’s what you should tell me in the first sentence of a book that is over 500 pages. Not your fucking name!

The point is: the moon blowing up, that’s worth reading about. From the very first page of Seveneves, you know things are going to be bad. And bad things create interesting solutions, stretch characters to their limits, reveal what is inside people–even if those people are only literary characters.

While Melville goes on a long 50 page honeymoon about whaling and what he imagines a whale might look like if it were out of the water (when Melville wrote Moby-Dick whales were not really understood), Stephenson goes on long (maybe not 50 pages long, but long) explanations of technologies such as nanorobotics, space mining asteroids, epigenetics, orbital mechanics and more–much more.

All these topics that Stephenson explores are mind-blowing to me, just as, I hope and assume, all the descriptions of whaling and whales were mind blowing to readers of Melville’s particular era.

When it comes to Melville’s “Problem of the universe,” Stephenson takes a different tact. It is not a problem of, but an equation for humans to fit in to by using technology, genetics, etc. Seveneves is strangely sparse on religion and philosophy, in the traditional sense, but achieves the same type of questions despite the lack of head on approach.

“With the problem of the universe revolving in me, how could I — being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude, — how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whale-ships’ standing orders, ‘Keep your weather eye open, and sing out every time.'”

While Ishmael is awed by his view of the ocean while atop the mast-head, the occupants 16684028-_sx540_of the international space station (or Izzy, for short) watch hunks of the moon blaze down onto the only planet that can sustain human life. Just as Ishmael wonders what his place is in all this vastness, so to do the characters in Seveneves. Without a home, and humanity reduced to less than 2,000 people floating in a bolide ridden orbit around a burned planet, who are we? What are we? Does it even matter if humanity ends here?

Simply put, I would not have thought a modern Moby-Dick story would have peeked my interest. The long-winded descriptions of orbital mechanics were, at times, about enough to make me put Seveneves down, but the conclusion is worth all the time, as is what you will learn. While Ahab chases the white whale, the crew of Izzy chases their own white whale–survival. And though it is more skillfully distributed throughout, Seveneves may have just as much, or more, thoughts on life but this time those thoughts are Neal Stephenson’s.

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