Thursday, June 04, 2015


"Seveneves" is the latest novel by Neal Stephenson (@nealstephenson). This one is pretty much straight hard science fiction, 880 pages - Neal don't do no short books.

Several reviewers have commented on the books beginning:

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.
I guess the first line of a novel cannot be a spoiler??? I will also posit that the title of a novel cannot be a spoiler either. Nor can something listed in the table of contents. The point is, I am going to go into a little more plot details than normal, maybe these dispensations hold, maybe not, so, just to be safe, SPOILER ALERT.

Next the Neal Degrasse Tyson figure quickly figures out, oops, fragments of the moon will, in around 2 years, bombard earth and destroy all life.

The 1st 1/4 of the book follows the race to expand the ISS (now attached to Near-Earth asteroid Amalthea - wait a minute, Amalthea is Jupiter's 3rd moon???) to be the hub of a swarm of small modular spacecraft being launched ASAP by everyone who has launch capabilities. The candidates for survival in orbit are being selected and trained on Earth from all countries. Then, slightly ahead of schedule, the Hard Rain falls and Earth is trashed.

This part of the book begs for comparison to the gold standard "end of the world" sci-fi novel, "The Forge of God", by Greg Bear, 1987. There, the cause of the end of the Earth is known: it is being reduced to slag to be harvested for raw materials by Von Neumann machines dispatched by malevolent / indifferent advanced alien civilization. In "Seveneves" there is no discussion of why the moon blew up, other than limited speculation about aliens doing it, or god. In "The Forge of God", a tiny fraction of humanity survives due to the intervention of benevolent advanced alien civilizations. In "Seveneves", we engineer our own survival, which is I guess more uplifting.

The 2nd 1/4 of the book follows the survivors in orbit, where politics and equipment failure eventually wipe out all but 8 females. 1 of them is past menopause, hence "Seven Eves". With advanced genetic engineering they are able to keep their gene pool viable, and reintroduce the Y chromosome. But they somehow get into a discussion of to what extent they should try to correct / enhance what they each see as the weaknesses / strengths of humanity. They decide that each of them gets to determine the traits for which their offspring will be optimized.

The 2nd 1/2 of the book takes place 5000 years later. I found the jump rather jarring, it took me a while to get locked back into the narrative. There are now 3 billion members of the 7 human "races" living in geosynchronous orbit around the Earth. Most of the plot of this part of the book deals with political and other conflict between the 4 good guy races (blue) and the 3 not-so-good guy races (red) as they finally start to repopulate the earth.

I found the whole 7 races thing slightly ... repugnant, I guess? Like the race of the Malala figure Eve, who decided to remove competitiveness from her descendants, who are now health, child, or personal service personnel. It reminded me of the scene in the Star Wars prequel where the clone master explains to Obi-Wan how the clones have been bred to be great warriors but to be submissive and follow orders. Instead of killing the guy and calling for more Jedi to figure out how to restore the poor clones to full humanity, Obi-wan says "I'll take a million!"

Maybe in the far future, like in "Dinosaurs" by Walter Jon Williams, 1987, it will make sense for the human race to splinter into more specialized forms. But for the near future, we still have so much of a problem with racism that for the 7 Eves to go out of their way to create a new source of racism seemed off to me. It was to me a somewhat shocking lack of faith in the human race (general purpose model), which was not responsible for the Earth's destruction, for the 7 Eves to decide, in a very ad hoc manner, that they should start a eugenics program.

The book is of course a great read, Stephenson is one of our best modern sci fi authors. Lots of neat tech in both parts of the book. But, a little bit of a "yuck" factor to me for the engineered races. And, overall, I did enjoy "The Forge of God" more - I have reread it and its sequel at least once.

Stephenson did his thing with the title. His last book, it took me a few months to notice that the title was "Reamde", not "Readme". This one at least it was only a few days before I noticed the title was "Seveneves", not "Seveneyes".

Now, back to "Value and Capital", by Hicks, 1939. It's got 5 parts, I'm reading a part, then something else. My Unread shelf in my Kobo eBook reader has 22 books now, mostly sci fi and fantasy. Is it time to give up on economics? Or maybe just Twitter.


greg said...

Hey, Chris. Your efforts to master the economic classics are praiseworthy, but lighten up and read some economics blogs, too. I recommend, and the links therein to start. I think you're trying to learn the language without actually practicing it, which is tough.

There are also a lot of popular books written by economists that are very useful as an introduction to economic thinking. Right now I'm going through a book called 'More Sex is Safer Sex' by Steven E. Landsburg. Just the first chapter is on sex. I can give you other titles if you're interested.

The Saint

Chris Heinz said...

Thanks. I added the 2 sites you provided to the 28 others in the Economics folder of my RSS reader (I use NewsBlur & like it very well). I do read popular economics texts, but haven't for a while. I think the last was Krugman's "Stop This Recession Now". I struggled with Keynes's General Theory but finally did get something out of it. Not sure if the same will be true of Hicks. Generally I speed up reading mode to Skim if it doesn't seem worthwhile. My other attack vector is the online MIT intro macroeconomics course, 14.01 or 14.02. I think I'll wind up back there - but before that, I think going to read some Marx.

My overall strategy is, keep feeding in the data, it will start assembling itself into patterns soon enough. That used to work well for me. Not sure it still does at age 64. ;->

Again, thanks for the suggestions.

greg said...

All right. Newsblur, eh? Thanks, I'll check it out.

Marx is famous for being, ah, digressive. You might want to warm up with some secondary sources. Or not. My own concern is how what I read stimulates my own thinking, which I think is starting to come together, and not in the conventional way, for one thing since I started in physics. I believe conventional economics is missing some important bricks in its foundation, but hey, I could be delusional.