Apocalypse Moon

Neal Stephenson on his new novel, Seveneves, and the future of humanity.

U.S. novelist Neal Stephenson at Science Foo Camp 2008.
Neal Stephenson at Science Foo Camp 2008.

Photo by Bob Lee

Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Seveneves, begins: “The Moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” Scientists realize humanity has roughly two years to come up with a survival strategy before millions of lunar bits start hitting the Earth and ignite the atmosphere in a biblical rain of fire. The first half of the novel concerns our frantic efforts to launch as much stuff and personnel into space as possible, turning the International Space Station into a jury-rigged ark. But it’s not all heroics: The ensuing dickering, wasted effort, and celebrity cameos make it clear that this world is more or less our own.

The harrowing story of the early years leaves us with just seven survivors to propagate the species from the relative safety of orbit: seven eves who each make major decisions about what to keep and what to tweak in the human genome. From there the novel leaps 5,000 years into the future, when humanity’s descendants are just beginning to recolonize the battered surface of Earth.

Seveneves is a sweeping future history in the Stephenson tradition, tackling the politics and practicalities of space travel, genetics, and what it means to be human through the simple expedient of detonating the moon like an orbiting cherry bomb. I spoke with him about the novel, humanity’s resilience, and more. (Slightly complicated disclosure: Neal Stephenson is the founder of Project Hieroglyph, an effort to foster technically grounded, optimistic thinking about the future. Ed Finn helps run Hieroglyph at Arizona State and is the co-editor of an anthology featuring optimistic science fiction by Stephenson and others. ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.)

You begin the novel by blowing up the moon. Why?

Well, there is an established subgenre of science fiction, the premise of which is that something terrible happens. The Earth is going to become uninhabitable, but conveniently the people of Earth have a warning to prepare for it, because otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story.

When you start engineering a book like that, you need a premise toward disaster that can credibly kill everything on Earth and force people to build an ark. But there can’t be any loopholes, and it has to be kind of predictable enough and obvious enough that people can’t deny that it’s happening. A global climate change is an example of a slow, rolling disaster that people are able to argue about and find excuses not to take action about. There is a pretty stringent set of requirements to write an ark book. I had happened upon this idea a long time ago of an exponential increase in orbital debris—on a much smaller scale. It’s all the old, dead satellites and rocket boosters banging into each other in orbit. That’s actually a real problem that people worry about. And so I went, OK. If I put these things together, I might have the finely calibrated global disaster that is needed in order to write a space ark book.

What have you got against the moon?

When I was working on this, I discovered “The Fucking Moon” on the Awl. It’s basically a series of articles talking about how stupid the moon is, so I need to get in touch with them.

No, the moon’s been up there for a long time. I think we’re all a little tired of it, and it was time to make some changes.

How did you think through the nonmaterial resources—the psychological and genetic resources—that humanity would need to survive for millennia in space?

The thing I’m playing with here a little bit is the set of tropes that science fiction uses and has used for a long time. There’s lots of big science fiction worlds—Star Trek, Star Wars, and so on—where there’s a range of aliens. Some of them are really weird looking and very different from us, but a suspiciously high percentage of aliens in these universes are very humanlike.

In the case of Star Trek, they’re so humanlike that humans can have babies with Vulcans even though the Vulcans have copper-based blood and came from a different planet. But they speak English, and they’ve got a slightly different physical look, coloration, hair, facial features, whatever, and they’ve got particular behavior traits. There’s back-filling that had to be supplied in order to explain why that’s possible in that universe.

What I’m doing here is basically saying, OK, if that’s the game that we’re going to play, let’s play that game, and let’s play it by some legitimate scientific rules. If we’re going to have a bunch of alien races that aren’t really all that alien and that can interbreed and all speak the same language, then let’s have a decent backstory that explains how that came about and why these people have these different cultural personality traits. Then once that kind of scaffolding is in place, you can start talking about how a civilization comprising of these different races would go about organizing itself and trying to solve problems.

At one point in Seveneves, the characters decide not to attempt to reconstruct “root-stock humanity,” as you phrase it, but instead proceed to reinvent the species. That seemed like a profound decision about what humanity should be, as opposed to what it is now.

Well, we see this now. For example, among deaf people there’s a movement based on the idea that deaf people constitute a legitimate independent culture of their own. It might seem obvious to those of us who aren’t deaf, that we should “fix” deaf people if we can: use cochlear implants or whatever technology we can come up with in our very different mode of thinking, to “make them better.” Some intellectuals in that community are making a pretty interesting and not obvious point, which is that that amounts to devaluing and then sort of eradicating a culture as legitimate as any other.

To me it’s pretty clear that this is what would happen in the scenario I’ve described, when the population recovered to the point where they have the leisure to imagine restoring root-stock humanity.

The human race depends on seven women, the eves, to resurrect the species. How did you think through the gender politics of this future?

I didn’t.

So how did you end up with these seven women deciding what humanity’s most valuable traits are?

It’s a pretty straightforward setup. It’s just thinking through the mechanics of the genetics of it and how we all practically work, the basic idea of humanity being reduced to a very small number of people and having to restock from there was central. It’s based on historical precedence. There’s been at least one bottleneck in the history of the human race where the population was reduced to a few tens of thousands of humans. For storytelling purposes, it gets better if it’s a lot smaller than 10,000. You then get into questions of the inbreeding problem if the population is too small.

I talked to Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan, who have been working on de-extinction. There is a species called the black-footed ferret that was reduced to very small numbers and is being brought back, but they can’t really do it without finding ways to increase heterozygosity as a new gene pool artificially. It’s all there. It’s basically a simple and straightforward setup to our story of the world.

You launch the narrative from a universe that’s very similar to the world we live in now. There are a number of characters in that early section who are reminiscent of some of our current nerd celebrities—people like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Elon Musk. Do you think of the novel as a commentary on the world as it is?

Well, I think one of the essential features of an ark book or a big global disaster–type story is that you, the reader, are always asking yourself, What if this really happened? What if today the moon blew up or some kind of global disaster came upon us, what would I do? What would my friends do? What would the leaders of our society do? We’ve got certain types of people who would be conspicuous. It would be conspicuous if they failed to show up in this book. Your eminent scientists would have something to do, the science popularizers, politicians, the military, the billionaire nerds. If you didn’t put those people in to this book and show them reacting to the situation, it would feel weirdly empty.

Seveneves has all of the above. We’ve got the pope. It’s not that often that you just get to bring in the pope as a minor character in one scene. He’s part of the fun of writing this kind of book.

Did you find yourself struggling to decide what was most important about our planet to save?

In the book, they can’t send out Michelangelo’s David, but the Magna Carta can make it up. So a lot of that is just simply figuring out how much things weigh. In a way that that problem is simplified quite a bit, just by the scope of the disaster, so if they had had 10 years or 100 years to get ready, it might have been different, or if they had a super-duper new rocket or a space launch technology ready to go, and then it might have been different. But if we take the constraint that they’ve got two years and they’ve got the rockets we have today, a lot of decisions kind of get made automatically, and the focus becomes almost entirely on preserving the genome.

In contrast to an ark story written 50 years ago, we can send up nearly infinite amounts of data. The ark story when I was a kid, they probably would have been feverishly microfilming encyclopedias and phone books and stuff. Probably not phone books, but they would have had to worry about how to save the printed word, and in this case that problem just disappears.

You devote a lot of time in the novel to orbital mechanics and the logistics of space travel. Why did you settle on this particular scenario for how it might play out?

I wanted to use the kinds of launch technologies and options that really exist at this point in history, which is to say, a mix of government-built boosters and new private-industry spacecraft. I didn’t want to posit any sort of super technology that would be game-changing.

I wanted to make a lot of use of the idea of in situ resources, which is to say, asteroids, comets, material that’s already up there, which is, to me, the most exciting thing going right now in space exploration. I thought: Here’s a scenario in which people would have no real alternative but to make use of those kinds of resources as aggressively as they could.

The story is a meditation on existential threats to the species. Having not so long ago founded Hieroglyph, a project dedicated to optimism, what do you think we should be most worried about and how do you see our chances?

Well, aside from the threat of a big asteroid impact, the thing that we should be worried about is climate change, which is going to happen. There’s no way to make it not happen now. I think that dwarfs everything else.

Do you see yourself as essentially an optimist in the long-range survival of the species?

Yes, I think that we’ve got the prerequisites that we need in the way of technical know-how and resources. There’s a lot of energy. There’s a lot of stuff for us to work with. Solving problems has become a kind of routine operation, and so now it’s really a matter of organizing people in some way that doesn’t have terrible side effects.

The one thing that I was hoping for and that must now be addressed in the fan fiction instead is: How you raise babies in zero or almost zero gravity?

It will be messy.

There are not Ziplocs enough in the universe.

No, you learn that gravity is your friend when you have a baby.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.