Context changes everything. Reading Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve found that one disaster has added to my experience of another.
The Alienation of Disaster
First published in 2015, Seveneves is a massive novel set in the near future. Within the first few pages, the Moon explodes. As people reel from this staggering change, a greater disaster looms. The pieces of the Moon crash against each other, creating a cloud of debris that will, within a few years, fall upon the Earth and wipe out all life.
In the face of annihilation, humanity must decide what can be saved, and how. Frantic effort and incredible ingenuity are poured into getting people into orbit, with the resources they will need to survive in space and to rebuild civilisation. The book explores both the scientific challenges of this disaster and the human side of the equation – how people react under terrible pressure.
If you’re reading this now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I probably don’t need to tell you why that’s resonated so much with me. We’re facing an incredible crisis in which scientists are rushing to find solutions while society struggles with the combined strains of fear, grief, and isolation. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not life as we know it either.
There’s a sense of alienation to current circumstances that runs like a thread of barbed wire through Seveneves, tearing at the reader. The space-based survivors of the disaster are the lucky ones, but their lives are nothing like they knew or expected. They’re cut off from family and friends, confined in space, not knowing what the future holds. Living through our current crisis has made that feel much more real.
Loss of control is always difficult to cope with, and it’s another way in which my reading of Seveneves has been transformed by current conditions.
There’s very little I can do about COVID-19. I’m social distancing and washing my hands a lot, but that’s it. I’m not a medical professional or involved in supporting them. I can do nothing to treat or stop the disease.
Even among people on the front lines, many will be feeling a sense of powerlessness. Supplies are short and promises of delivery unreliable. Tracking and containing the spread of the disease has proved difficult at best. There is no cure yet. Medical staff can help individual patients and they’re saving countless lives that way, but the big picture is outside their control.
There’s a similar feeling of powerlessness at play in Seveneves. For all of humanity’s efforts, the wrong lump of rock could fatally undermine the survival effort. The ill-considered actions of a few people can undo the good work of others. The characters can influence events but no-one has control over their own life, and that’s a big part of the feeling we’re all experiencing right now.
The Human Side of Natural Disaster
All of that has given me emotional reference points with which to process Seveneves, adding to my experience of the book and the immediacy of its story, but one specific point has rung true in a way that Stephenson can’t possibly have predicted. That point has spoilers for midway through the book, so if you want to avoid them, skip to the next header.
All clear? Then let’s talk about the president.
Julia Bliss Flaherty, the President of the United States of America, is one of the most important characters in Seveneves. As humanity is dying, she breaks the rules for who gets to survive, effectively stealing a space flight to save her own skin. Traumatised, powerless, and desperate, she uses her demagogic gifts to stir up some of the survivors against their scientifically informed leaders. She fosters terrible and unnecessary division to make herself important. Her actions add to the disaster.
If your political views are anything like mine, then by this point you’ve drawn the obvious comparison. Julia is a Trump-like president created before we ever dreamed he would get the job, never mind react to this crisis the way he has done. A character who would have seemed extreme if I’d read this a few years ago now seems all too plausible.
But Julia represents something wider as well. She’s a reminder that natural disasters are never just about nature. The scale of loss in any famine, flood, or plague will always depend on the structures of society and the way people react. We have ways to minimise disasters, but our social, economic, and political structures often exacerbate them. Just look at the Irish potato famine to see how that works.
While none of us can individually control the spread of COVID-19, collective human action is affecting how deadly it is. Swift responses in South Korea and New Zealand have minimised the disease’s impact in those countries. Global inequalities will almost certainly lead to a devastating death toll in sub-Saharan Africa. In every country, we can see examples of how no disaster is purely a natural event.
This might make it sound like Seveneves is a terrible thing to read right now. Sure, it has greater emotional power, but it’s a bleak read in a time when the world already seems bleak enough.
Except that there’s more to it than that. The cover blurb itself states that this is also a story about recovery, about how humanity rebuilds thousands of years later. The final third of the book jumps forward to a very different society, in which the new humanity is resettling Earth.
This is the part that’s hard to see from the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic – recovery. Yes, this disaster is hideous, the loss of life unbearable, the emotional and social trauma immense. We’ll be recovering from this for years to come. But we will recover. We’ll rebuild. And while life will never be like it was before the crisis, it will become bright again.
For two-thirds of the book, current circumstances have shed light on Seveneves for me, adding depth to the emotional experience. But for the final third, it’s the book that’s shedding light on the current crisis, giving me a reminder of what is to come, a sense of hope in terrible times.
Context changes the way we read, but our reading can change the context too.