So here’s what Neal Stephenson’s SEVENEVES is, and why literary critics have apparently been having so much trouble with it. It’s a classical mid-20th-Century American hard science fiction novel. Most writers have a little unspoken bucket-list in their heads of things they’d like to try before they get planted in the dirt. Five space dollars says Stephenson wanted to try a full-on Heinleinian hard sf novel. A Fifties book — no postmodernism, no funky Alfred Bester proto-literary-sf. Lots of astonishing competence and scientific danger, Cold War conflict and a seasoning of cold equations, brilliant heroes and crazy villains. It’s a big yarn about and for nerds, in the old style. Passion and personality are inferred rather than expressed, mechanics preside over culture and politics are cartooned.
And, honestly, it’s marvellous fun. If you can get over the disaster-novel opening and the handful of hurdles — there was, for me, one or two large story elephants in the room, but your mileage may vary — then it’s a page-turning machine, and, because it’s Stephenson, the charm, character, brio and flow in its prose carries this reader over most of them with a smile. The big wink to the reader is simply that he’s trying on someone else’s suit and tailoring it as he goes.
Not Neal Stephenson’s best book, no. The Baroque Cycle remains his crowning achievement for the moment. And if you approach it as anything other than a deep genre exercise, you’ll come away empty. But if you fancy reading a big stomping old-school science fiction novel like they don’t make much any more, with nimble, pleasing prose? You’ll have some fun with this.