Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson (read in 2016)

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Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This is another epic work[1] by Stephenson, spanning almost 900 pages and over 5000 years. He picks up some themes I’ve seen in other books and also includes a lot of his standard fascination for technological detail, weaponry in particular. This is the story of the eradication of life as we know it on the planet Earth. Something called The Agent enters the Moon from one side and exits from the other, shattering it into seven large pieces and innumerable smaller ones. The Agent is a deus ex machina—at least for this first novel[2]—and we cease thinking about its origins almost immediately to focus on the problems engendered by splitting the Moon.

After an initial, short period of thinking that everything’s going to be OK, Dr. Doob and other scientists around the world discover that the shards of the Moon will continue to slam into each other until they trigger a chain reaction of sorts that they call The Hard Rain. The White Sky will soon follow, ensuing from the Hard Rain setting the Earth’s entire atmosphere on fire. It’s time to scramble to save humanity, no questions asked. All issues of whether humanity is worth saving are left by the wayside without a single discussion. A pity.[3]

The people currently on the ISS, to which an asteroid named Amalthea has in the meantime become attached, are informed that they will never return home. Instead, they are to prepare for an influx of settlers and colonists and materials rocketed up from Earth over the course of the two years that it is predicted to take for the Hard Rain to begin in earnest. Ivy (commander) and Dinah (roboticist and asteroid-miner) are friends on said station. Dinah’s father, Rufus, is a miner and decides to bury himself and his family in the bowels of Alaska and wait out the 5,000–10,000 years of the Hard Rain there.[4]

The combined genius of Earth comes up with a plan to extend the ISS to accommodate more inhabitants: the Cloud Ark. The Cloud Ark is a distributed system of pods, each of which should be as self-sufficient as possible. Why that? Because the orbit of the ISS is now filled with the chunks of the moon—bolides—that will create the Hard Rain. They also cause major problems for Izzy, as the ISS is soon christened.

Though Earth can send centuries’ worth of supplies—”vitamins” in the parlance of space—that are small and difficult to re-create in orbit, where they have little to no industrial capacity, and Izzy has a lot of raw materials from Amalthea (the already-captured asteroid), they have nowhere near the amount of volatiles that they’ll need for decades worth of propulsion while they dodge and weave their way through the Hard Rain.

Cue lots of orbital mechanics here. Some people in government know this, but pretend that it’s not a problem in order to give people on the planet hope that humanity will survive the Hard Rain in orbit. At any rate, Sean Probst, the president of the mining company for which Dinah actually works and giver of zero fucks about diplomatically coddling humanity’s dying hopes[5], shoots himself into orbit to address this situation. He will (almost) single-handedly pilot a ship beyond Earth’s farthest LaGrange point in order to capture a comet, Ymir. This mission will take about two years, which coincides with the last contact with the surface of the Earth, give or take.

During these two years, Izzy must be expanded considerably and with a considerably narrower safety margin than previously allowed. The first wave of construction workers comprises only Russians, and includes Tekla, a former Olympian and all-around bad-ass, who’s saved from her malfunctioning self-contained habitat by Dinah and her robots. The architect for all of these habitats is
Rhys Aitken, a guy who’s fascinated by the power of chains, especially in space. This will factor in heavily 5000 years from now.

The remaining governments on Earth try to make it an orderly emigration by choosing the people who will go by lottery or other means. Eventually, the Hard Rain comes, the President of the U.S., Julia (JBH)—against all treaties that forbade premiers from saving themselves—arrives at Izzy and causes no end of her trouble with her endlessly flapping mouth, the power of which is consistently and nearly unbelievably underestimated by the technocrats and astronauts. Camila, a young Muslim girl in love with Julia’s charisma, gloms onto her immediately.

The leadership of Izzy passes from Ivy to Markus Leuker, a bad-ass and hugely pragmatic Swiss pilot who Dinah starts sleeping with right away. When Ymir comes back into range—and Dinah’s been communicating with him by Morse Code because his radio’s out—they realize that they have to make a mission to Ymir in order to bring it in and dock it—because everyone on Ymir died on the mission and Sean expired from cancer after he got it on its final approach.[6]

They take a MRV to Ymir with Dinah, Markus, a Japanese guy and a Russian, Slava aboard as crew. They bring Ymir to Izzy, but only Dinah survives the trip, but the others all die heroically and performing sensible and necessary duties. All the while, Julia is agitating among the Arkie Community (which she immediately christens the AC) and gets them to break off from Izzy with a bunch of supplies and Arks in a two-pronged effort: (1) send some of them to Mars and (2) move some of them away from the centralized power of Izzy, claiming that they want to increase safety by distribution. In order to do this, they fuck up the bolide-detection system, the Parambulator, so no-one can react when the biggest bolide they’ve yet seen smashes into Izzy, disabling a bunch of it and tearing out 97% of the Human Genetic Archive, which was total bullshit anyway, at least according to the chief geneticist, Moira.

The Arks leave, Izzy repairs itself with the remnants of Ymir and we never hear from the Mars mission again. We join Izzy three years later as she’s about to dock with the Cleft, one of the largest remaining bits of the Moon, having made the Big Ride out of Earth’s more dangerous and by-now ringed orbits. Most of the crew has died from cancer or suicide or accidents and there are only 30 people left aboard, among them Ivy, Dinah, Doc, Tekla, Moira, and Camila.

Though Izzy has been trading sporadically with the Ark Swarm, they haven’t heard from them in a while and have no idea in what shape they’re actually in. At the same time as they are about to match speed with the remains of Moon and head for Cleft, the Ark Swarm contacts them and asks for assistance. Insanely and stupidly—but importantly for the story—they agree to prepare for docking if the Swarm can get themselves to where Izzy is.

The captain of the Swarm Aïda tells them that she has only 11 survivors on board (of the nearly 1000 that left). They have resorted to cannibalism because they can’t grow food anymore. Julia survives but is no longer in power—we discover later that Aïda had a giant metal post put through her tongue, for which you can’t really blame her at all. Aïda is the most human of them all and just wants to survive at all costs—and also be in charge—so she plans a coup when the Swarm arrives.

The crew of Izzy, perhaps from exhaustion or the same naïveté that led them to not throw Julia out the airlock as soon as she arrived, only discovers this plot late in the game and suffers even more losses, but eventually defeats and captures Aïda. They reach the Cleft, Doc walks on the surface and then peacefully dies of cancer, leaving only 8 surviving women: Aïda, Julia, Camila, Moira, Ivy, Dinah, Tekla and the psychologist Luisa, who has passed menopause. They come to terms with one another and the “Seven Eves” re-found the human race.

Fast-forward 5000 years and humanity is, once again, 3 billion strong. All but a million or so are in a giant ring of habitats around the Earth: the Belt. Each of the Eves has spawned her own and genetically distinct race. The Julians and Aïdans are together known as “Red” and the Teklans, Ivyns, Dinans, Moirans and Camites have banded together to form “Blue”. The history of the last 5000 years is sketched in, but the book mostly concerns itself with the wonderful things they’ve invented.

We join Kath Two as she glides up from the newly habitable surface of the Earth, which the Spacers have rehabilitated by dropping comets on it after the Hard Rain was over. This trip is described in incredible detail—almost enough for you to be able to build your own self-propelled and space-capable glider. The Spacers have reintroduced species and the larger predators have just come back—all resurrected from the remains of the genetic imprints stored in Moira’s USB sticks.

Kath Two is soon embroiled in a secretive mission with six others—the members of a so-called “Seven”—one representative of each race. The Dinan is Tyuratam Lake, the proprietor of a fancy throwback of a bar in the Cradle, which is a gigantic habitat located on what’s left of Cleft. The Cradle sits at the end of a giant arm whose other end is counterweighted way out in space by a giant boulder. The Cradle can be let down anywhere on the equator to dock with the planet. The Ivyn is Doc, an ancient scientist, the Camite is Memmie, his assistant. The Teklan is Beled Tomov, the Aïdan is a Neander named Langobard and the Julian is named Ariane Casablancova.

We learn about the different races, their different alliances, predilections and history. The Seven descend to the planet and quickly run into the Diggers, the survivors of Rufus Wainwright’s bunker in Alaska (yes, they survived). They are represented by Sonar Taxlaw, a living encyclopedia named after the volume for which she is primarily responsible. This is what the Seven’s mission was (only Doc knew): to determine whether there were other survivors and to make contact.

The contact goes horribly awry, as Ariane—again, typically and not surprisingly—betrays everyone to bring the prize—a digger woman—home to the part of the belt controlled by Red. Blue, having botched the first contact with the Diggers, sets its sights on contacting the Pingers first. The Pingers are sub-oceanic survivors of humanity who lives in gigantic submerged habitats built in Earth’s deepest trenches.

These are the survivors of Cal Blankenship, Ivy’s former fiancé, who was commander of U.S. navy submarine and presumably survived the Hard Rain. They use one of his last pictures to communicate with the Pinger emissary, who’s physiognomy is considerably changed and whose sonic communication is considerably altered.

In the meantime, Red makes nice with the Diggers, who are overawed by Red’s fine grasp of public relations and marketing and managing of the story (all thanks to the Julians and the special subrace of Aïdans called Aretaics, who are well-versed in persuasion/bullshit). Red had already bungled their first contact with the Pingers by building their gigantic answer to the Cradle, called Gnomon, which is utterly gigantic and, unlike the Cradle, can swing north and south of the equator to the land-based locations available on the slice of the surface of the Earth to which Red has access.

And there we leave humanity: Izzy managed to save humanity and offer a wellspring from which to grow again, Earth is habitable again, the Diggers survived, as did the Pingers. No-one knows about the Mars expedition (or at least nothing was said). They are presumably dead, as 99% of the Ark Swarm was. At the very end, we discover that there are currents and powers in Humanity—both Red and Blue—very interested in finding out who sent the Agent.

Citations

The following section exhibits, for me, the classic Neal Stephenson style, in which a relatively long and well-written sentence sums up the three proposed solutions for escaping the worst of the Hard Rain in orbit—the “ocean liner”, the “blind ox” and the “football player pushing a wheelbarrow”. I left off the two preceding pages of detail for brevity, but just liked the way he expressed the chaotic and for-man nearly unpredictable complexity of picking the best solution.

“Which of these analogies was closer to the truth boiled down to a statistical argument in which were braided together assumptions about the range and distribution of bolide sizes, the amount of variation in their trajectories, how well the long-range radars worked, and how good the algorithms were at sorting out all the different bogeys and deciding which ones were dangerous. Somewhere in the middle, between the ocean liner and the blind ox, was the football player pushing the wheelbarrow. It didn’t matter”
Page 253

This next bit describes an uplifting moment during the begin of the Hard Rain, when people still survived, resigned to their fates. People of musical bent, members of orchestras organized themselves to be playing on the deck of the Titanic, as it were.

“After sampling all of them she locked her radio dial on Notre Dame, where they were holding the Vigil for the End of the World and would continue doing so until the cathedral fell down in ruins upon the performers’ heads and extinguished all life in the remains of the building. She couldn’t watch it, since video bandwidth was scarce, but she could imagine it well: the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, its ranks swollen by the most prestigious musicians of the Francophone world, all dressed in white tie and tails, ball gowns and tiaras, performing in shifts around the clock, playing a few secular classics but emphasizing the sacred repertoire: masses and requiems. The music was marred by the occasional thud, which she took to be the sonic booms of incoming bolides. In most cases the musicians played right through. Sometimes a singer would skip a beat. An especially big boom produced screams and howls of dismay from the audience, blended with the clank and clatter of shattered stained glass raining to the cathedral’s stone floor. But for the most part the music played sweetly, until it didn’t. Then there was nothing. Paris is gone, she texted.”
Page 311

The following is a Morse-code conversation between Dinah and Rufus (daughter and father) just as the Hard Rain was really picking up momentum. It would be their last conversation. It made me laugh—Stephenson is quite good at snappy, heroic dialogue.

Rufus: HOT ENOUGH TO BAKE TATERS ON HOOD OF THIS TRUCK
Dinah: GO INSIDE DAD
Rufus: NOT KIDDING ABOUT THERMAL EFFECTS. PAINT BUBBLING
Dinah: I AM NOT KIDDING EITHER YOU HAVE TO GET INSIDE
Rufus: GOT A SPACE BLANKET TO PROTECT ME WHEN I MAKE A RUN FOR IT
Dinah: THEN FOR GODS SAKE USE IT DAD
Rufus: AH BUT THEN I CAN’T CHEW THE RAG WITH YOU ANY LONGER DINAH
Dinah: WHAT IF YOUR GAS TANK EXPLODES
Rufus: HA HA WE DRAINED IT FOR GENERATOR FUEL. WAY AHEAD OF YOU KID
Dinah: GOD U R A SMARTASS

Page 322

This next bit was I thought a bit too wishy-washy of Stephenson, unfair to Dinah. I would have thought that Dinah would know exactly how to feel about Julia: that she should be pushed out of an airlock. The woman was clearly a dangerous purely political animal from the get-go. But alas, future plot twists rested on her survival, so everybody had to be stupid about her.

“Dinah had no precedents to tell her how she should feel toward the ex-president at a time like this. On the one hand, her behavior had been reprehensible. On the other, she had, within the last few hours, lost her husband, her daughter, her country, and her job.”
Page 346
“Markus pointed out, “so no more chatter from now on, please. Slava—” and he broke into a string of bad Russian meaning something like I trade places with you now. Vyacheslav responded in equally bad German. Both men were perfectly fluent in English. But they made a private joke of butchering each other’s languages, ostensibly as part of a project to preserve Old Earth’s linguistic heritage.”
Page 372

I just liked this idea that these guys would not just choose the easiest language to communicate in, not necessarily because they were bored, but because they just naturally squeeze as much challenge as possible out of everything.

The next long passage is what I found to be a lovely description of the trickiness of orbital calculation when atmosphere and irregular shapes and surfaces were thrown into the mix.

“As these things went, drag wasn’t that difficult to calculate. Its effect on their course could be estimated. But because the ice shard wasn’t a symmetrical body, coming in straight, it was also going to generate some lift. Not a lot of lift—nothing like an airplane wing—but some. If that lift got aimed in the wrong direction it would make Ymir veer downward, like a stricken airplane going into its death spiral. But if they aimed it up, it would ease their passage by pushing them away from the Earth into an altitude where air was thinner. They would lose the benefit of lift then and drift back downward, but as the air got thicker, the lift would resume and push them back up. They might skip off the atmosphere several times during the hectic half hour when they were slingshotting around the world. The results would have been difficult to predict even if Ymir had been a traditional vehicle with a fixed and regular shape. But the shard was irregular. They didn’t have time to measure it and to feed the data into an aerodynamics simulator, so they could only guess how much lift it was going to produce. And when its leading edge and its underside began to plow through the air—even though the air might be so thin as to be indistinguishable, for most purposes, from a vacuum—it was going to heat up. Steam would rise from it, producing some amount of upward thrust, and its shape would change. So even if they had been able to simulate the shard’s aerodynamics, its lift and its drag, those numbers would quickly have become wrong during its first encounter with the upper air. Compared with all of those complexities, the fact that Ymir would be flying backward while operating a damaged, experimental nuclear propulsion system at maximum power seemed like a mere detail.”
Page 412

The next discussion is about Julia (JBR), the former President of the former United States, who is causing no end of trouble with agitation and foment of revolution in order to agglomerate power to herself. As Luisa points out, trying to find method in the madness is most likely futile. Luisa’s statement (emphasized) is an apt description of the power-hungry of most political structures.

“Luisa just sat there in her listening shrink mode. “It would be easier,” Doob said, “if I could figure out what the hell she wanted.” “You’re assuming,” Luisa said, “that she has a plan. I doubt that she does. She is driven to seek power. She finds some way to do that and then backfills a rationalization for it afterward.” Doob pulled his tablet closer and started trying to find Tav’s blog. “To what extent do you imagine she really is reporting facts about the AC? As opposed to creating the reality she describes?” Doob asked. “What’s the difference?” Luisa asked.”
Page 424

Slava again, being a cool, hardcore, improvising Russian astronaut.

“A man in a space suit was visible on the outside of Ymir, “walking” toward the stern by using a pair of Grabbs as mobile anchor points. This had to be Vyacheslav. His feet had sprouted thick white whiskers. It took Dinah a few moments to make sense of the image: he had zip-tied each foot to the back of a Grabb, and the “whiskers” were the protruding ends of the zip ties. It was the kind of improvisation that would have made old-school NASA engineers turn over in their graves, had the Hard Rain not eliminated that possibility. But in the last two years, and particularly the last two weeks, this kind of hillbilly engineering had become routine.”
Page 447

Telka. Another cool, Russian astronaut. Also more background on the disease called Julia.

““Problem is solved,” Tekla said. She was fluent in English and was perfectly capable of saying “The problem is solved,” but sometimes dropped the article for effect. Anglophones found this mysterious and impressive. It was also an implicit statement of Russian pride. The language of the Cloud Ark, by default, was English. That was never going to change. But the dialect was going to evolve over time, and Russians could bend it in their direction by finding ways to inject their grammar and vocabulary into everyday speech. “Burn is complete,” she went on. “But the ship is still tumbling out of control!” said the American boy who so fancied his own intelligence. “Slow tumble,” Tekla said. “Not problem. Plenty of time to fix now that perigee is raised.” “Fix it how?! Markus demolished three of the external thruster packages by ramming them! Who does that? Anyway, there are only two of them left. It is a basic reality of physics that you can’t control a three-axis tumble using only two thrusters!” “Thank you for explaining basic reality,” Tekla said. “Tumble can be eliminated by making scarfed nozzle.” This silenced them for a few moments. One of Julia’s followers—Jianyu, a Chinese Arkie, very passionate about going to Mars—looked like he understood it. Tekla nodded in his direction. “This man will explain later. My time here is limited.” “Yes, Tekla, and we do appreciate that you’ve been able to make time for us at all,” Julia said. Tekla wanted to slap her so much that her hand actually twitched. The sentence Julia had just spoken, had it been delivered in a different tone, might have actually meant what it said. Instead of which, it meant I am being callously ignored and it’s about time someone important came out to talk to me. Tekla had an almost physical sense of how that mentality was radiating outward from Julia to infect the other Arkies.”
Page 455

Tekla, again being very bad-ass with an innovative out-of-the-box-thinking solution that wouldn’t have occurred to any of the others.

“All eyes were on Aïda. She would not look back at them. She was, at bottom, very shy. “Whatever,” she mumbled. “She needs to see your vote,” Ivy said. “Really? You mean that I could single-handedly destroy the entire human race, simply by not putting my thumb up in the next seven minutes?” Tekla pulled a folding knife from a pocket on her coverall and flicked the blade open. She kept it low, down in her lap, and pretended to clean a fingernail with it. “Either that,” Tekla said, “or population of human race suddenly goes from eight to seven, and we have unanimous decision.””
Page 563

And Dinah. Not Russian, but very cool…and offering an insight about soft, squishy, manipulative power.

“Really—she now understood—what had prompted her to slam the table and get up and storm out of the Banana a few minutes ago had not been Aïda at all. Aïda was provocative, yes. But more infuriating had been a slow burn that had started with Camila, and her remarks about aggression. Remarks that Dinah now saw as aimed not so much at Dinah as at Markus. She wished she could grab Camila by the scruff of the neck and sit her down in front of a display and make her watch the way Markus had spent the last minutes of his life. Markus was a hero. It seemed to Dinah that Camila wanted to strip humanity of its heroes. She’d couched what she’d said in terms of aggression. But by doing so, Camila was just being aggressive in a different way—a passive-aggressive way that Dinah, raised as she’d been raised, couldn’t help seeing as sneaky. More destructive, in the end, than the overt kind of aggression.”
Page 566

Stephenson once again describing what it’s like inside the mind of an enlightened scientist, the struggle between enjoying something viscerally and understanding how that feeling came about.

“She hesitated to lower the helmet over her face. This would be her last opportunity for a while to breathe the fresh air of New Earth. The scientist in her was at odds with a deeper layer, common to all human races, that wanted to see beauty and purpose in the “natural” world. She knew perfectly well what Doc—or just about any other Ivyn—would say to her, if he could read her mind. The water in that lake below you is there because we crashed comet cores into the dead Earth until it stayed wet. The air you’re breathing was manufactured by organisms we genetically engineered and sprayed all over the wet planet, then killed once they had accomplished their task. And the sharp scent you like so much comes from vegetation that, for many years, existed only as a string of binary digits stored on a thumb drive on a string around the neck of your Eve. None of which changed the fact that she liked it.”
Page 575

These next few citations are more passages that I found especially nicely written, mostly describing some facet of technology 5000 years in the future.

This one’s about a digital acoustic array.

“She could hear the wind. A phrase that didn’t really do justice to the soundscape now being rendered by the array of miniature speakers. “The canid smelled the forest” was a completely different sentence from “The man smelled the forest,” not because the words had different meanings, but because the canid’s olfactory apparatus was infinitely superior to that of the man. In a loosely analogous way, the real-time, three-dimensional sonic portrait of the wind generated by the glider’s onboard systems and rendered by the helmet’s speakers was as far beyond what she could sense with unaided ears as the canid’s scenting of the forest was beyond the man’s.”
Page 577

This one’s about the Eye.

“She was now “looking” at an enhanced view of the universe from their current location, which was just inside, but rapidly approaching, the habitat ring. The ring was spinning past them. It was a little like being on the inside of a carousel watching the horses wheel by, except that instead of horses, these were space habitats as much as thirty kilometers across, and they were moving at three thousand meters per second. The task was to shoot between two of them without getting hit. By the standards of orbital mechanics it was no great feat, but it looked shockingly dangerous, and as such it was great fun to watch. As Kath Two looked straight ahead, the habitats seemed to be whizzing across their path like the teeth of a buzz saw. But through an apparent miracle the flivver found a gap between two of them.”
Page 615

This one explains why some technology has lagged behind.

“The end result, for a young woman in a bookstall above a tube station on the Great Chain, was that she was dwelling in habitats, and being moved around by machines, far beyond the capabilities of Old Earth. She was being served and looked after by robots that were smarter and more robust than their ancestors—the Grabbs and so on that Eve Dinah had programmed on Izzy. And yet the information storage capacity of her tablet, and its ability to connect, were still limited enough that it made sense for her to download books over a cable while that was easy, and to make room for them in the tablet’s storage chips by deleting things she had already read.”
Page 642

Also, its not like humanity’s capabilities and knowledge of manufacturing is collected in a Wiki. Most of the high-tech stuff is private. There are patents, but they are missing several orders of magnitude of detail on exactly how to mass-produce this stuff. Not only did they make a cultural decision to keep certain abilities grounded in humanity or not as enhanced as much, but they wouldn’t have necessarily been able to easily reproduce everything that “old” humanity had discovered.

“After that it had all been oral history for about a thousand years, since there had been no paper to write on and no ink to write on it with. Memory devices were scarce and jury-rigged. Every single chip had been used for critical functions such as robots and life support.”
Page 643

Can’t waste precious non-reproducible tech on frippery.

“The carbon cables that held Cradle suspended above Earth’s atmosphere some thirty-six thousand kilometers below diverged here and ran taut through long sheltered passageways all the way to the other end of the Eye, where they came together again and emerged to connect with the Big Rock beyond.”
Page 644

The Eye is 160km across! More stuff about the Eye below.

“Inward of that were the sixteen orifices where the tether’s primary cables were routed into the frame of the Eye. Each of those cables, though it looked solid from a distance, was actually made of sixteen more cables, and so on and so forth down to a few fractal iterations. All of these ran parallel between the Eye and Cradle. Webbing them together was a network of smaller diagonal tendons, arranged so that if one cable broke, neighboring ones would take the force until a robot could be sent out to repair it. Cables broke all the time, because they’d been hit by bolides or simply because they had “aged out,” and so if you squinted your eyes and looked closely enough at the tether, you could see that it was alive with robots. Some of these were the size of buildings, and clambered up and down the largest cables simply to act as mother ships for swarms of smaller robots that would actually effect the repairs. This had been going on, to a greater or lesser extent, for many centuries.”
Page 645

On to the Cradle.

“At the time Kath Two and the other passengers arrived, Cradle was dangling two thousand meters above the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, being dragged due west toward where the equator cut across the reshaped coastline of South America. This movement reflected the fact that, thirty-six thousand kilometers above it, the Eye was traversing the habitat ring westward, or CASFON (Clockwise As Seen From Over the North pole). Being nothing more than a weight on the end of a long string, Cradle always followed the movements of the Eye. The city’s dome was open, with its baffles raised to reduce the windblast.”
Page 655
“Here and there one might stumble across a museum display in which a few dozen or even a few hundred types of ambots had been rendered inert and mounted to a wall with explanatory plaques beneath them explaining in what millennium they had been invented,”
Page 676

There is an emphasis on physicality that is at odds with today’s trends of digitalization. No reproduction if VR? In 5000 years?

“The Dinan looked to be about forty years old. The scars on his face had been there for a long time. “One of those,” she said, nodding at a nearby tap handle adorned with a handwritten label identifying it as cider.”
Page 677

Scars? Why? They can’t fix it? Why hand-written notes? On paper? Stephenson seems to be striving for a relatable physicality/relatability that is just not plausible.

“If history was any guide, those best at violence might end up ruling over everyone else. Aïda was not about to see her children dominated by the sons and daughters of Tekla.”
Page 684

OMG Who cares? Honestly: is the rest of the world so utterly unable to consider the philosophy of wondering why the fuck you should care? There are seven of you left to resurrect humanity. How could anyone possible still care about budging in line or care about whose kin would be left? Not even a single word of consideration that no-one would care? Only Dinah’s little stunt with the bomb deviated from this single-mindedness, but she too succumbed to wanting to beat Aïda, in the end.

Cradle docking…and how humdrum something so fantastic quickly becomes. Pretty much like we complain about how terrible air travel is when it’s just fucking amazing that you can shoot back and forth between continents in less than a day.

“A few politicians and generals, who had leaned back from their breakfasts to observe the docking and admire the profile of Cayambe Volcano, bent forward again, picked up their forks, and resumed their conversations. Cradle had just become the largest city on New Earth, and was scheduled to remain so for twenty-four hours.”
Page 695

Tyuratam is clearly going to be one of Stephenson’s favorites—the all-rounder.

“He had advanced, in other words, to higher levels of mental activity while always doing enough of the floor mopping and glass polishing to remain in physical contact with the business of the bar and in human contact with the staff.”
Page 696
“It didn’t really matter that these people were making all sorts of wrong assumptions about how his mind and his body were changing. What mattered to them, he had finally come to realize, was that they believed such things to be true. It was more important to them to believe it than it was for him to explain the facts of the situation, and so he had decided to let them think what they thought and to try to find constructive ways to use it.”
Page 713
“Airplanes were expensive, even more so than they had been on Old Earth. They were too large to manufacture in the ring and transport down to the surface and so they, and other large productions such as arks and ships, had to be built in factories on the surface. Typically these lay on the outskirts of Cradle sockets. In any case, planes had to be babied, given that high-capacity turbofan engines were extraordinarily difficult to make.”
Page 727

It’s nice to see Stephenson acknowledging how deep our production chain is in the 20th and 21 centuries—and how difficult it would be to reproduce it, even with thousands of years. The focus would have to be the same, and humans would be spending millennia in space, where requirements are different, not a lot of space, . much harsher safety requirements, less focus on pure science and leisure. When you spend the half the time trying to keep bags of meat compartmentalized to avoid large losses and the other half in providing the food, water and air that was otherwise available for free, you can see how it might take a lot longer to building giant airplanes.

“The habitats had been only a few kilometers away on Cleft. In fact, nearly all settlement had been confined to Cleft until early in the Second Millennium, when the industrial base had developed to the point where other rocks could be colonized. Many more such communities had been depicted in fictional entertainments than had actually existed. This didn’t matter, though. As the almost totally factitious and romanticized Old West had been to American culture of the twentieth century, so those yarns were to the people of the habitat ring. So in the rare cases when actual settlements of that type were constructed de novo, as here, they tended to be built so as to meet the expectations of people who their whole lives had been watching fiction serials about their Second Millennium precursors.”
Page 730
“After a minute of sizing them up, the older Digger stomped forward a couple of paces and spoke in the pre-Zero English that all Spacers knew from the Epic: “Cowards who ran away, you are trespassing on a world that is no longer yours to call home. Begone.””
Page 752

This is justifiable from the Digger’s point of view, right? He sees only that he and his tribe have, against all reasonable odds, survived 5000 years underground, more or less sane (i.e. able to continue a tool-using society) and didn’t “abandon” the soil. From the point of view of the Spacers, it’s an ungrateful stance, as it fails to acknowledge the Spacer’s efforts in terraforming Earth so that they can all be on the surface in the first place. The Diggers technically abandoned the surface as well, just as much as the Spacers. Neither abandoned Earth, as such. Arguably, the Spacers did much more to preserve humanity than the Diggers, which lost much more of history. The Hard Rain was over in 5000 years. Who know how many millions of years it would have taken to replicate the achievements of a couple centuries’ worth of dedicated terraforming. The Diggers weren’t capable to doing anything about their situation until the Spacers “saved” them. It’s unlikely that the Diggers will see it that way, though.

“In other words, the Diggers were, as a whole, reacting much as any other group of humans might have done. Which was interesting and important data in and of itself, since much might have changed during five thousand years in the mines.”
Page 754

Despite the debt that the Diggers obviously owe the Spacers for having freed them from the underground prison much earlier than would have naturally been possible, we wonder how forthright the Spacers will be in collecting on this debt. Will the Diggers be treated like the Native Americans were by the Europeans? I.e. eliminated as useless, backwoods dross? Or forced to integrate? Or be left to reservations on the surface?

Errata

No errata detected. No shit. Not a single one.


[1] I’ve read and enjoyed all of his previous tomes: all three books of The Baroque Cycle, The Cryptonomicon, Anathem, Reamde
[2] The ending came up so quickly, and after such a lush level of detail and building of the world 5000 years in the future, that it’s hard to imagine that Stephenson doesn’t have anything left to say. That said, an outline of a story arc (which he almost certainly has) is not a book and he still has to get up the steam to write it.
[3] After having also gotten in Hugh Howey’s Wool series, which, while an interesting read, also suffers from a dearth of deeper analysis about the end of humanity, I think maybe I’ve finally found a topic I can claim for my own book.
[4] I don’t mean by this that Rufus is stupid enough to believe he’ll live to 10,000 years old but that he wants his progeny to survive the Hard Rain. I assume he just expects to live out his remaining normal life span.
[5] Even if said coddling would prevent them all from tearing other apart in a final orgy of senseless destruction just before they are well and truly destroyed by the Hard Rain. Sean Probst gives zero fucks bout that, too. Sean Probst cares about not being stupid of facile in pretending that a solution will work when it will clearly not, especially when Sean Probst can make it work. He’s a fun character, actually.
[6] Utterly cementing his reputation as a giver-of-zero-fucks bad-ass whose only aim is to just get the damned mission done right, said mission being giving humans in space a fighting chance by first providing Amalthea for iron (through his company, prior to the Agent) and then by providing Ymir for volatiles. Humanity is now well and truly sorted. You’re welcome, humanity. Mic-drop. Probst out.