My rating: 3 of 5 stars
If there’s a cardinal sin for a novelist, it’s to fail to recognize when he’s trying to combine too many stories into one. I understand that Stephenson is known for packing in lots of ideas rather than building great characters, and that’s fine. But I was deeply disappointed, after blazing happily through the first ¼ of the book, to find myself marooned in a bog of details one moment and then whiplashed forward to some other subplot in the next as he attempted to drag us all through an Epic Story About The Survival Of Humanity.
He really should have listened to his editor. And if the man doesn’t have an editor with the balls to stand up to him and say, “Dude. Either turn this into a series or cut out half this shit,” then he’s being poorly served by his publishing house.
I’d have to describe this novel primarily as “overwritten.” I am stupidly stubborn when it comes to finishing books so I slogged through 20 pages on a future humanoid setting up her glider. What. The. Hell. It didn’t further the story, it didn’t connect me to the character. It was Stephenson showing off that he’s done a lot of thinking about gliders. Great. Good for you.
The novel’s premise isn’t new, but Stephenson sets it up pretty well. But then the story diverges into too many directions at once. Is this a book about an apocalyptic ending of the earth? about survival? about the role of genetics in determining behavior? about how humans are pretty shitty most of the time? about future space tech? I’m not sure. I think it’s all of those. I call this “Chappie Disease” — potentially good stories are damaged by their authors when they bury them under the other 19375646328 ideas they forced into the narrative.
Mild spoilers ahead:
I have to comment on the odd decision to co-opt character development in some cases by inserting currently famous people into the novel, yet not as their actual selves, but as a weird form of archetype or stock character. Thus, Neil deGrasse Tyson becomes a sort of stereotype of “the popular astronomer” in the form of Doc Harris, a man in the book that I liked quite a bit, but only because I couldn’t escape seeing Tyson’s face, imposing my opinions of him as a real person, and hearing his warm voice. It was kind of creepy actually, as if someone I knew got possessed by a totally different soul. Harris was Tyson but not. Ditto the Elon Musk “tech guy who takes matters into his own hands,” the Hillary Clinton-esque asshole/paranoid woman president (kinda offensive really), and — perhaps the most potentially objectionable — Malala (“Camila”) the Famous International Woman who gets a ride away from death only to be duped by the Evil Female President into hatching her Ridiculous Plan which never shows up again. Gah. The “real” Malala survived the Taliban, and now she’s going to be turned into a foolish, quavering stooge to fit Stephenson’s narrative? >.<
This kind of writing strikes me as lazy. He didn’t have the space (due to the sprawling plot structure) to build his own characters, so he grabbed personalities we would recognize, and hung some new clothes and faces on them. It’s also going to date his novel terribly within a few years. And in 50, no one will get the comparisons.
While I’m on a rant …. Does anyone else find the constant references to genetic predispositions in the new seven races a bit…. racist? I mean, we have races now and through natural processes, differences between them (as we consider specific examples) can be pretty stark. But Stephenson’s races are so stereotypically predictable that I’m actually uncomfortable reading the last portion of the book. If his story-scientists had bred blacks and Asians instead of Mourns, Ivans, and Teklans, he would written about “insatiable, instinctive hunger for fried chicken” or “a strange affinity for math,” and acted like that was totally ok. (It’s not.)
There was a lot of potential here, and Stephenson did build a story that kept me coming back to find out what happened in the sweeping arc of the narrative. I mourned the death of some people, and I was strangely gripped by some of their dilemmas (and bored to tears by others). I’ve learned about orbital mechanics and I understand much better why meteors probably destroyed the dinosaurs.
But that doesn’t make up for the fact that Stephenson’s novel is, structurally, a mess.