Seveneves

The last Neal Stephenson book I read was probably Anathem, which was a while ago (I remember I was enamored enough to have subsequently bought the “accompanying soundtrack1”).

Before that had been the massive and delightful “System of the world” trilogy (as it turned out, I read all of these on the Kindle device I then possessed, and only realized how fat these books were in physical form when I saw them in a store).

Seveneves begins with a bang2 (and yes, Neal does seem to be good at beginnings, better at middles, and not-so-great at endings, and … what’s wrong with that? 🙂

I came for the exquisite world-building and was not disappointed at all. This was an extremely detail-oriented expository sort-of book, that would turn off anyone who wasn’t ok with that style.

So … having completed this book a week ago, I’m a satisfied reader here, especially since I’ve been waiting (for many years now) to do a better job of slowly reading some fiction. It’s hard because time is short, but it’s still satisfying, so it’s worth being creative about fitting in a few minutes of reading here and there 3.

The story is largely in three parts: what happens soon after the moon breaks up, what happens after the “hard rain” wipes out all life on earth, and a “fast-forward” to a speculative future five millennia after all this.

In all this nitty-gritty detail, it’s easy to think that this is all about imagining the future with a clear slate, while … I couldn’t shake the feeling that this could just as well be about the past.

There is a strong tendency to think of history4 as essentially linear, and even, to some extent, “progressive”; that there is some end-goal5 towards which we are, and have been, progressing, slowly or quickly.

What Seveneves can be seen as, then, is an imagined “theory of cataclysm”: while the majority of the text is centered around “how do humans survive in space?”, the other question, reading between the lines, is “how do future generations of human beings, born on earth with none of the contextual cultural and scientific memory of the earlier survivors-in-space, make sense of these gods-and-demons, and their mysterious devices?”

Or, to put it bluntly, what if these “future generations of primitive savages”, who don’t understand the works of the “magic-wielding” space-humans, and have to come up with their own myths to explain them6, are basically … us?


  1. “Iolet: music from the world of anathem” ↩︎
  2. The first line reads: ‌The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. ↩︎
  3. Practically, this means resorting to the e-book format most of the time … ↩︎
  4. (in all its forms: cultural, political, biological, geological) ↩︎
  5. this of course, is what most disagreements are about … ↩︎
  6. (especially after these space-humans (perhaps) fight against and destroy each other) ↩︎

Back to Neal Stephenson ….

I think the first Neal Stephenson book I read was Snow Crash, though it was some sort of partial online copy and I didn’t finish it all the way through. This was sometime in the late 90s. I liked it, didn’t fully get it, and I forgot it.

Then I read Anathem, and it blew me away, and I still think it’s my favorite. Not so much for what happens in the story itself (in fact, I’m forgetting the ending as I write this (and I’m not sure he does a good job of endings in general, hmm …)), but more about the world in it, all the wonderful details, and how they’re revealed.

Then I read Snow Crash again, and I loved it this time, and … this “linguistic superpower meta-meme” went into my mind and embedded itself there, one of possibly only three or four others like it (the meta-meme of psychohistory being another old, deep idea, but more on that some other time).

Then I read the Baroque trilogy, and was thrilled to bits. This was on my Kindle (new at the time to me, I’m talking about a decade ago from today), and created a side-passion of etymology for me (I’d been lost in the endless link-following of Wikipedia earlier, this was the same but for word-origins …). (Also, I don’t think I would’ve been able to read them in their paper forms, which I realized when I saw a copy of The System of the World (my favorite of the three, I think) in a bookshop and realized there was no way I was going to lug that around with me.)

Anyway, I was aware of him continuing to write but hadn’t really read any fiction in many years, and while a colleague had recommended Seveneves to me last year, it had languished on my wish-list … until this week, when I started reading it again (in e-book form, if you must know).

Not much of a spoiler alert to share the very first line of the book: The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. So yes, a compelling reason to keep reading. And about 7% of the way through, I’m enjoying it (small observation though: this definitely belongs in the pre-2016-age-of-innocence era when it comes to describing human beings).

When I’m done I think I’ll revisit everything else he’s been up to lately (D.o.d.o and Reamde), which means I have several months of reading pipeline filled up …

Using “x-ray” in the Kindle

(Note: this piece had been lying around from about three years ago! I had just never posted it!)

I recently discovered the “x-ray” feature in the Kindle, partly because I only recently resumed reading something on it (“Moby Dick”, two-thirds of the way in).

I can imagine it being super-helpful when going through a really big book with lots of characters etc., but clearly, it has its share of amusing entries. See the one below for “Jove”.

Audio-bookery

I read books very rarely these days, or rather very slowly, sometimes just a page or two a day. One of the ways I do “read” regularly is orally rather than visually, by listening to 10-15 minutes daily. Audible.com’s $14.95 monthly membership happens to work out quite well for this, since I rarely finish listening to a book in less than a month. Yes, ten years ago this would’ve been a joke, but it’s totally worth it.1

Selecting audiobooks is very different from regular books or e-books. It’s impossible to “hoard” them2(!) A bigger difference is what I end up looking for. Instead of going by the author or the theme, I find myself giving a huge weight to the narrator. An average narrator ruins the experience3.

The reason I mention this is I found a two-year old article4 about the same, which has a list of “famous” narrators. One of my famous narrators didn’t make the list, so I’ll mention her here. Wanda McCaddon5 was the narrator of “The Birth of the Modern” by Paul Johnson, and ever since, I’ve been seeking her out everywhere (my favorite so far has been “The Guns of August”).

Anyway, depending on your point of view, available time and inclination to listening to someone talk, you’ll either find the idea of audiobooks a “fad” or something you’d enjoy6. If it’s the latter, go for the 30-day free trial and see how you like it.


  1. Think “price of a haircut”, or “four cups of coffee at Starbucks” 
  2. Well, ok, you can, but you have to try hard. Compare to e-books, where a whole mass of them piles up in a jiffy. Which is why I gave up on them. 
  3. I wish most authors who try to read their own stuff would take a hint (one notable exception being Prof. Michael Drout
  4. Wall Street Journal, “The New Explosion in Audio Books 
  5. Though she uses a stage name, and I encountered her as “Nadia May” 
  6. On the other hand, some of the add-ons, like the so-called “immersive reading” experience where you buy both the audiobook and the e-book are definitely not worth it.