Author Topic: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson  (Read 5983 times)

Offline Burninate

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Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
« on: 06/10/2015 12:34 PM »
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22816087-seveneves

Neal Stephenson has stated an interest in Society Doing Big Things, and the concept of the Great Stagnation.  He previously delivered a book named Anathem about an extrapolated Clock of the Long Now, and what truly long-term thinking in a society would look like, utilizing the monastic and academic traditions as a durably intellectual counterweight to the passing fancies of technological, political, popular society (which has no small dose of Idiocracy), retaining & advancing knowledge in quiet sanctuary while it alternates total war with the Kardashians.

He later gave a talk on the Tall Tower, another megaproject to pursue for aspirational rather than instrumental reasons, that asks how far a building can physically go.  These are, in a way, riffs on the familiar passage from JFK:
Quote
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win

He has previously meditated on the space exploration business as a fascinating tale of path dependency: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2011/02/space_stasis.html and I am happy to say he finally got around to writing a space novel.

The premise to this new novel is Neal Stephenson looking at the rent-chasing, conservative, unambitious government bureaucracy that NASA-as-funded-by-Congress has become, and asking: What would it take to change that?

So he has some unexplained agent destroy the Moon, and in doing so, trigger a series of events which eventually render Earth uninhabitable.  In this world, we have petered along with the ISS in almost its present configuration for a few more decades, adding a small torus and a captured asteroid, but gone no further.

Humanity has about two years to turn a twenty-years-in-the-future-at-the-present-pace ISS into an Ark for the Earth biosphere, starting with humans, before the Earth burns.  Events proceed to unfold in a relatively believable manner, with only minor nods to narrative necessity, and expansive technical detail on a highly compressed space exploration program;  Orbital mechanics are treated seriously for the most part and explained at length, and might even be decipherable to the people who've never played KSP, who knows.

For that alone, this is highly recommended.  The fact that the dramatic narrative is entertaining makes it that much better.

This is sort of a split book;  The first two thirds are on that topic, and the last third is an epilogue that occurs ~5000 years later, which I have not gotten through yet.
« Last Edit: 06/10/2015 12:38 PM by Burninate »

Offline Burninate

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Re: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
« Reply #1 on: 06/10/2015 12:34 PM »

Offline Krevsin

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Re: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
« Reply #2 on: 06/10/2015 01:05 PM »
I have bought and read the book and liked it immensely.

Not to spoil anything but there is a really jarring transition when the novel goes from basically modern times to the far future. Otherwise it is good and I recommend reading it to everyone.

Offline sfrank

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Re: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
« Reply #3 on: 06/30/2015 04:29 PM »
Just finished the first half of this book (the part set in the near future).  Love the extremely detailed discussions of orbital mechanics and the practicalities of trying to get as many people in to space as possible in a two-year period.  Honestly it felt a bit like reading some of the discussions on this forum.  I wouldn't be surprised if Neal Stephenson's posting here under some other name. 
 
I'm curious what folks think about the science behind some of the plot elements.  This would be a fun book to break down and try and figure out how plausible some of the elements are. 

For example, right at the beginning (MINOR SPOILERS) we are introduced to a near-future version of the ISS that has been attached to an asteroid.  Its an iron asteroid at least as big as the station itself.  It just seems crazy to me to put it in such a near-earth orbit, as something that big would pose a danger if it deorbited.  Plus the delta-v to get it down there would be enormous, and the subsequent extra fuel needed for reboosts would be cost-prohibitive. Stephenson argues the asteroid would actually make it so less reboosts were needed due to less drag coefficient. I'm not so sure about that.


Offline Burninate

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Re: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
« Reply #4 on: 06/30/2015 05:11 PM »
Just finished the first half of this book (the part set in the near future).  Love the extremely detailed discussions of orbital mechanics and the practicalities of trying to get as many people in to space as possible in a two-year period.  Honestly it felt a bit like reading some of the discussions on this forum.  I wouldn't be surprised if Neal Stephenson's posting here under some other name. 
 
I'm curious what folks think about the science behind some of the plot elements.  This would be a fun book to break down and try and figure out how plausible some of the elements are. 

For example, right at the beginning (MINOR SPOILERS) we are introduced to a near-future version of the ISS that has been attached to an asteroid.  Its an iron asteroid at least as big as the station itself.  It just seems crazy to me to put it in such a near-earth orbit, as something that big would pose a danger if it deorbited.  Plus the delta-v to get it down there would be enormous, and the subsequent extra fuel needed for reboosts would be cost-prohibitive. Stephenson argues the asteroid would actually make it so less reboosts were needed due to less drag coefficient. I'm not so sure about that.
No, if it's about the same cross section as the expanded ISS (and we can expect that within an order of magnitude), then the asteroid would not reduce or increase the amount of propellant needed to fight atmospheric drag, but what it *would* do is slow down the orbital decay process by several orders of magnitude.  Instead of "1500kg propellant every month spent on reboost to sustain 400km altitude, or the ISS decays at 5km/month, rising rapidly at lower altitudes", if there was a large asteroid attached it would be "1500kg propellant every month spent on reboost to sustain 400km altitude, or the ISS decays at 100m/month, rising rapidly at lower altitudes".

(Numbers are to convey the concept, I don't know the specifics).
« Last Edit: 06/30/2015 05:12 PM by Burninate »

Offline QuantumG

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Re: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
« Reply #5 on: 06/30/2015 10:36 PM »
Just an idea of what we're talking about here.. in the back of the book you'll find this illustration.

Jeff Bezos has billions to spend on rockets and can go at whatever pace he likes! Wow! What pace is he going at? The slowest possible.

Offline Burninate

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Re: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
« Reply #6 on: 06/30/2015 11:00 PM »
Just finished the first half of this book (the part set in the near future).  Love the extremely detailed discussions of orbital mechanics and the practicalities of trying to get as many people in to space as possible in a two-year period.  Honestly it felt a bit like reading some of the discussions on this forum.  I wouldn't be surprised if Neal Stephenson's posting here under some other name. 
 
I'm curious what folks think about the science behind some of the plot elements.  This would be a fun book to break down and try and figure out how plausible some of the elements are. 

For example, right at the beginning (MINOR SPOILERS) we are introduced to a near-future version of the ISS that has been attached to an asteroid.  Its an iron asteroid at least as big as the station itself.  It just seems crazy to me to put it in such a near-earth orbit, as something that big would pose a danger if it deorbited.  Plus the delta-v to get it down there would be enormous, and the subsequent extra fuel needed for reboosts would be cost-prohibitive. Stephenson argues the asteroid would actually make it so less reboosts were needed due to less drag coefficient. I'm not so sure about that.
No, if it's about the same cross section as the expanded ISS (and we can expect that within an order of magnitude), then the asteroid would not reduce or increase the amount of propellant needed to fight atmospheric drag, but what it *would* do is slow down the orbital decay process by several orders of magnitude.  Instead of "1500kg propellant every month spent on reboost to sustain 400km altitude, or the ISS decays at 5km/month, rising rapidly at lower altitudes", if there was a large asteroid attached it would be "1500kg propellant every month spent on reboost to sustain 400km altitude, or the ISS decays at 100m/month, rising rapidly at lower altitudes".

(Numbers are to convey the concept, I don't know the specifics).
Slight suspension of disbelief issue here though - the SEP tug required to get Amalthea into LEO would be at least a hundred times larger than that required to keep it there, and it's somewhat bizarre to contemplate chemical boosts against that backdrop.

Offline JasonAW3

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Re: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
« Reply #7 on: 07/01/2015 01:16 PM »
Just finished the first half of this book (the part set in the near future).  Love the extremely detailed discussions of orbital mechanics and the practicalities of trying to get as many people in to space as possible in a two-year period.  Honestly it felt a bit like reading some of the discussions on this forum.  I wouldn't be surprised if Neal Stephenson's posting here under some other name. 
 
I'm curious what folks think about the science behind some of the plot elements.  This would be a fun book to break down and try and figure out how plausible some of the elements are. 

For example, right at the beginning (MINOR SPOILERS) we are introduced to a near-future version of the ISS that has been attached to an asteroid.  Its an iron asteroid at least as big as the station itself.  It just seems crazy to me to put it in such a near-earth orbit, as something that big would pose a danger if it deorbited.  Plus the delta-v to get it down there would be enormous, and the subsequent extra fuel needed for reboosts would be cost-prohibitive. Stephenson argues the asteroid would actually make it so less reboosts were needed due to less drag coefficient. I'm not so sure about that.

     At 400 Km above the Earth, its not such a danger.  however, you'd have to find an asteroid that's not too far away and is enough of a NEO to do it.

     Sure, you'd need a "Spaghetti Orbit" around the Earth and moon to kill the velocity enough for a stable orbit, but that's fairly straightforward math and could be ri8gged to impact the moon, rather than the Earth, should anything go wrong.
My God!  It's full of universes!

Offline Ludus

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Re: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
« Reply #8 on: 07/05/2015 01:00 AM »
Another NSF aspect of the novel is it's take on minimum requirements for backing up civilization and life. It makes a decent case that given biotechnology of a decade or so from now, a very minimal Mars colony could act as a complete backup.

It's not a huge spoiler to note that the title refers to the human population being reduced to 7 women (eves) who are the mothers of all humanity after.

The issue of genetic diversity for a reboot from a small group of survivors (or the similar sub-genre of interstellar colonies) might be nearly as irrelevant as the issue of storing all the data needed to reboot all of civilizations science and tech.

Stevenson put a lot of thought into this.
It's also human civilization at about the current technology level in other respects, reimagined as organically space faring.

Offline Cinder

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Re: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
« Reply #9 on: 07/05/2015 06:32 AM »
..  That definitely will be a spoiler for some people.  Even if only because they were too distracted with actually reading to think about the title again.

Online su27k

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Re: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
« Reply #10 on: 07/13/2015 02:36 AM »
Another NSF aspect of the novel is it's take on minimum requirements for backing up civilization and life. It makes a decent case that given biotechnology of a decade or so from now, a very minimal Mars colony could act as a complete backup.

I don't know, I think the author is hand waving a bit near the end of the first part. I mean the genetic scientist herself said earlier that the equipment is not rated for space, and it would take decades of work to get it working or something, then near the end of first part, suddenly they can do all sort of fixes. Also left out is where do they get the energy needed for continuous survival, since the nuclear reactor and RTGs only last a few decades.

Otherwise a fantastic book, a few levels above The Martian. BTW, the 7 thing is a pretty big spoiler, I certainly didn't expect it to go there.

Offline cscott

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Re: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
« Reply #11 on: 07/13/2015 02:45 AM »
At the end of the first part they are explicitly discussing the placement of solar panels at the entrance to the cleft, iirc.

Online su27k

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Re: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
« Reply #12 on: 07/13/2015 08:43 AM »
Yeah, but I thought solar panel degrades pretty fast in space? At least that's what I remember as one of the negatives of space solar power.

PS: I didn't realize Neal Stephenson was the first employee of Blue Origin (http://www.nealstephenson.com/blue-origin.html), no wonder he is so familiar with space systems and orbital mechanics, this also explains some of the alternative launch concepts used in the 2nd part.

Offline Cinder

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Re: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
« Reply #13 on: 07/14/2015 10:40 PM »
That experience was also pretty evident in Anathem (2008), which has a bit of hard space SF to its plot.  At the time IIRC he was also involved with the Long Now clock project.

Offline Wonger

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Re: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
« Reply #14 on: 01/09/2016 08:43 AM »
Since LIFE has intervened and I no longer have the time to be a prolific reader, I find that I gravitate to authors that can be relied upon to deliver a good read.  Neal Stephenson has been the go-to guy for some time now, especially after his tour de force of Snow Crash, populated with sympathetic protagonists not afraid to go with the crazy and not afraid to embrace their bad assSeveneves is less pop culture and more realistic, but the protagonists are just as sympathetic in their perseverance and stoic heroism.  As other posters have already noted, the first half of this novel is compelling to those interested in Space, and I can see how many NSFers would find this book an interesting read.  However, there is a problem inherent in the plot that works against the author. 
 
Because the story covers a great span of time, we cannot follow the first group of protagonists beyond their natural life spans. As such, the narrative thread is broken halfway through the book.  The second half is set in the far future and a new set of protagonists is introduced.  Unfortunately the author has chosen to drop a big exposition dump at the start of the second part of the book, and it fights the ability of the reader to reengage.  I think the extensive work Mr. Stephenson put into world building is impressive, but the desire to include it all into the book crosses the line between show versus tell.  Butů if you just power through the 100 or so pages of this, the read becomes engrossing again and the book finishes with a satisfying ending.

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