The People Who Survive, an interview with Neal Stephenson, author of Seveneves
There’s nothing pint-sized about Neal Stephenson. He’s famous not only for his supersized books (the last three clocking in between 850 and 1,050 pages); he’s also made a career of unpacking Big Ideas on everything from modernity and the nature of time to nanotechnology and our genetically-engineered future.
In his new science fiction book Seveneves, Stephenson lays out a scenario for how humanity could survive a catastrophic natural disaster. Strictly as an exercise in visionary technology, it’s a virtuoso performance. But this isn’t just a manual on how to carry on after the apocalypse. He also has plenty to say about human relationships aboard a spacecraft and what our future might look like thousands of years from now.
I talked with Stephenson about the world-building responsibility of science fiction writers, his dislike of dystopian fiction, and why we need new stories to help us create a better future. Our conversation aired on Public Radio International’s To the Best of Our Knowledge. You can subscribe to the TTBOOK podcast here.
Steve Paulson: Your book begins with the news that one day, without warning, the moon blows up and all kinds of catastrophic events follow. What happens?
Neal Stephenson: Scientists figure out that it’s going to lead to a meteor bombardment unlike anything the Earth has seen since the primordial times of the solar system. That sounds pretty poetic, but the bottom line is that humanity is toast, and the only survivors are going to go into space in an ark — a swarm of small vessels called the “cloud ark.”
SP: So once scientists realize there is very limited time left for humans to survive on Earth, they have to figure out how to put a whole bunch of people up into space fast, so they can survive for generations to come.
NS: And not only people, but a genetic record of all of the non-human species of plants and animals that now populate the Earth. You can’t keep sequoias and blue whales and giraffes alive in space for thousands of years, but you can send up their DNA records on a thumb drive and reconstitute them later.
SP: Why were you interested in this idea of imminent catastrophe on Earth, so that people have to figure out how to survive?
NS: You know, when I was a kid growing up in Ames, Iowa, I used to ride my bike down to the bookmobile every week and check out whatever new science fiction they had. On one of those trips, I picked up a space ark kind of book. It’s a whole little sub-genre onto itself, and I was fascinated by the general idea. I don’t remember the title or who wrote the book, but you know how it is when you’re a kid; if you reach the right book at the right time, it can make a huge impact on you. I think it’s been gestating for at least that long, but it took me a while to come up with the right catastrophe. It’s actually hard to come up with an end of the world scenario.
SP: So you picked blowing up the moon?
NS: I did it for really particular reasons. You’ve got to have enough advance warning to build an ark. If an asteroid comes out of nowhere tomorrow and destroys the Earth, you can’t make an ark book out of that. And if it happens slowly over hundreds of years, like climate change, then people either ignore it or they just solve the problem instead of flying into space.
SP: In your novel, this whole infrastructure has to be set up really fast. There’s the International Space Station, but you have to get scientists and lots of other people off the Earth. What else is launched into space?
NS: There’s not time to build new kinds of space vehicles. Basically, we take the rockets we already know how to make, and on top of each one, we put a new thing called an arklet, which is just a big tin can with some life support systems that are capable of supporting maybe half a dozen human beings. They go up into the same orbit as the International Space Station and fly as a kind of swarm. If you’ve ever seen BBC nature movies of swarming behavior in fish or birds, there’s a mesmerizing thing they do if a predator comes through; they can move apart to allow it to pass through and then they re-form into the swarm again.
SP: So there aren’t many people in each of these tiny space ships, but they are interconnected in some way.
NS: Yeah, they have a kind of mesh internet they use to stay in touch. They can dock with each other so that people and stuff can be passed back and forth between them. There are little ferries, little rockets that move back and forth.
SP: The scientists also hook up a big asteroid to the International Space Station to shield it from radiation.
NS: In my slightly futuristic version of the space station, there’s an asteroid mining company that has already gone out and lassoed a nickel iron asteroid called Amalthea. They brought it back to the space station and kind of bolted the two things together. So that just happens to be there at the time the catastrophe starts. And it ends up becoming a central element of the plot because they can use its mass as a shield not just from radiation, but also from meteorites and other bad stuff coming their way.
SP: What’s the energy source that’s powering all of these space ships?
NS: The main thing you now see when you look at the International Space Station is photovoltaic panels. Those are huge and they make a lot of power, but probably not enough for the cloud arks. There’s another kind of power generator the Soviets pioneered that we use as well — based around a little puck of really radioactive stuff. It’s literally hot and stays hot for decades. If you put one of those in a sealed container and turn that heat into electricity, then you’ve got an electrical generator that’s capable of running for a couple of decades. We avoid using those now unless the mission really calls for it because the technology is a little tricky and people are worried about what happens if the rocket crashes. But if the perception of risk changes — let’s say in this book — everyone drops their scruples about using these kinds of generators. So every arklet that goes up has one of these things mounted to its tail.
SP: So your whole scenario is based on plausible science. There’s no faster-than-light travel or anything like that in your story.
I’ve done some things that are very improbable, but…I try to do it all with known technology.
NS: There’s none of that. I’ve done some things that are very improbable, but I’ve tried to front-load that in the book and then once the basic scenario is set up, I try to do it all with known technology. Nothing against the Star Treks and Star Wars of the world with their hyperspace and teleporters, but I wanted to see what we could do in a hard science fiction book that doesn’t violate any laws of physics.
SP: Do you have a science background yourself?
NS: Yeah, I came from a science and engineering family. I studied physics in the university and have been a bit of an autodidact since then. I don’t have a lot of formal training, but between what I do know and the people I know, it’s possible for me to stick reasonably close to physical reality.
SP: Do you spend much time talking with scientists and engineers to figure out how we could go out into space and survive there?
I have a ridiculous amount of space lore stored up in my brain…
NS: In this case it was a two-part process. I have a ridiculous amount of space lore stored up in my brain, just from the fact that I have been a nerd about this my whole life. When I was three years old, I was sitting on the rug in front of the big black and white TV watching Gemini missions take off. When I was 10, I had all the rockets memorized and I knew way too much about this stuff. So I had enough to draw on to get pretty far into this book without having to reach out a lot. Once I got about halfway through, I did start reaching out to some people I know who actually do this for a living. There’s a company in Seattle called Planetary Resources that’s a real asteroid mining company, and another one called Tethers Unlimited that comes up with all kinds of innovative space technologies. I’ve known people at those companies and they were generous in helping me flesh out some of these scenarios.
SP: The other piece of this story is that back on Earth, billions of people will die, so there’s the question of who gets to survive. You have something called “the casting of lots,” which is your way of choosing the people who go up into space. How does this work?
NS: Well, some people clearly need to go up there, like astronauts and scientists, so they get chosen in a different way. In terms of populating the cloud ark with the people who will found the future of the human race, it’s important to do it in a way that strikes people as fair and that preserves the diversity of the human race. In this casting of lots, people from every country and every political unit are chosen to represent their area in the cloud ark.
SP: A man and a woman are chosen from each group. Like Noah’s Ark, they will populate the future.
NS: That’s controversial in some parts of the world, but most places are happy to supply a man and a woman. They’re all brought together in training centers where they are brought up to speed on the basics of how to live in space and how orbital mechanics work. Then there is a further selection process to decide who is going to be launched up.
SP: Did you try to imagine how you would respond to the news that the Earth would soon be destroyed and you only had two years left to live?
NS: Strangely enough, I wasn’t thinking that much about what my own reaction would be. The book I wanted to write was more about the people who survive. You have to make choices when writing a novel. There’s kind of a breakpoint fairly early in the book where the people who are already up there and know they will survive the disaster just basically say, “Look, we have to start living for ourselves and get ready for this.”
SP: I get the sense that you really enjoy mapping out this whole elaborate scenario. You go into a lot of detail about all the technology that’s needed to sustain humans in space. Is this an exercise in world building?
NS: It is. All science fiction and fantasy is to some extent an exercise in world building. In this case, the challenge was to strike a balance. If you get too deep into the weeds and talk too much about the technical stuff, it’s just not interesting. But if you don’t talk about it at all, then it gives you too much freedom as a writer to do whatever you want. So in this case, I’m looking for ways in which the physical constraints of life support and what rockets can and can’t do, can be developed into interesting plot points that tell stories about people.
SP: The basic premise of your story is that the Earth as a livable environment is destroyed and billions of people die. Is this a dystopian novel?
NS: No. For me a dystopian novel is one in which everybody doesn’t die. They are still around and living in bleak, meaningless circumstances. So on one level, my book is way sadder and more depressing than any dystopian book because of the total wipe out of the population. But it’s happening as a result of a disaster. It’s not because somebody is mean.
SP: You’ve been outspoken in your criticism of how too much science fiction has become dark and dystopian. In fact, you launched a project to encourage other science fiction writers to create more optimistic stories about the future. How does your novel fit into that larger vision?
NS: Well, it doesn’t have to. The project you mentioned, Project Hieroglyph, is a worthy thing to work on. This book isn’t directly part of that, but once we get past the disaster scenario that occupies the first section, we do see how the descendants of the people who went up in the cloud ark have created a new kind of civilization in the distant future. It’s in that part of the book where you start to see some of the themes that we were talking about with the Hieroglyph Project.
SP: What is the problem with all of the dystopian stories we have today?
NS: It’s just tired, and everyone knows that it’s tired. I mean, the term dystopia used to be rarely heard, only used by critics. Last year, I went onto Apple TV and was browsing the latest selections and they had a whole content category labeled “Dystopian Futures.” This has become the default way in which the future is depicted in basically all science fiction movies.
SP: The future almost always looks bad, doesn’t it?
NS: Yeah, they take the stuff that we now have — the buildings, cities, vehicles and so on — and they throw dirt on them and beat them up and break the windows and knock things over and then that’s the future in which all these things are set. I don’t think I’m the only person who’s bored with that.
SP: A few years ago, you wrote a fascinating article in the World Policy Journal where you said the US has lost the ability to do big projects. When you and I were growing up, we saw people land on the moon and now we don’t even have a manned space program. Have we forgotten how to create big projects that can make the world better?
NS: Yeah. Just the other week there was a terrible train crash in Philadelphia because we don’t have a system for checking to make sure that a train full of human beings isn’t going too fast. It’s just amazing the extent to which we’ve let our infrastructure fall behind the rest of our civilization.
SP: What happened? Why have we apparently lost this capacity to create visionary projects?
So for the last few decades, the kinds of really smart geeks who in the 50s and 60s would have been building rockets or something have been moving to Silicon Valley and creating startups to make little apps.
NS: I think it’s a number of things. For a while that was all we did, with NASA and the bomb program and the interstate highway system. Then when information technology came along, it kind of blindsided us. Suddenly there was this whole new branch of technical endeavor that came out of nowhere, which people hadn’t anticipated. Very lucrative, very attractive, very easy to get into. So for the last few decades, the kinds of really smart geeks who in the 50s and 60s would have been building rockets or something have been moving to Silicon Valley and creating startups to make little apps. That’s where a lot of our brain power has been going lately. But I do think it’s turning around and we’re now seeing people like Elon Musk, who made his fortune doing information technology. But he’s now turning back to the question, What can we now do in the physical world? Can we make a high-speed hyperloop that connects Los Angeles to San Francisco? Can we go to Mars?
SP: Is this something entrepreneurs need to do, if the government isn’t doing it?
NS: That’s an important question because a lot of these things can’t be done without a productive interaction with governments. It’s cool to think of creating high-speed rail links. But in order to get the right of way and all the stuff you need, you’ve gotta have a relationship with governments. Traditionally, the libertarian ethos of the tech industry has been at odds with that.
SP: Do science fiction writers have a responsibility to help us dream about what the future could be — imagining these kinds of big projects that we’ve forgotten how to do?
NS: I would turn it around and say that is all science fiction writers can do. At the end of the day, we think up things and write them down in what we hope is a reasonably compelling fashion. Every so often we hear of some young scientist or engineer or even a whole company that will seize on one of these stories and become inspired by it and decide they want to make it a reality. So if science fiction writers have any usefulness at all, other than as entertainers, then it inheres in that.
SP: If we go back in history and look at the development of robotics or the space program, did some of those ideas come out of science fiction?
NS: There’s clearly some interplay between science fiction and actual development projects. If you’re a science fiction writer, it’s tempting to overplay that hand and overestimate the importance of our profession, which I would avoid. But I wouldn’t underestimate it. There is some connection there.
SP: You’re also suggesting that we need better stories. If we’re going to have a more positive future, we need stories to help us envision that future.
NS: That was the basic insight of the Hieroglyph Project and the related Center for Science and the Imagination that we set up at Arizona State University — to develop these stories in a mindful and deliberate way. And the jury’s still out, I think, on what the result is going to be. It can’t hurt to try the experiment of encouraging people to tell such stories and see what happens.
SP: There are a few obvious things we need to figure out how to do. For example, coming up with better energy sources that don’t just dabble around the edges but can really power our economy. Fossil fuels just won’t cut it much longer.
NS: I think it’s worse than that. My fear is that fossil fuels could actually cut it for a really long time. Fossil fuels have come back big in North America because of fracking and natural gas. So economically, we could be riding that pony for a lot longer. But we can’t afford to do that in terms of its effects on climate and the oceans and so on.
SP: Climate change might lead to catastrophe in the next century or two. Does that keep you awake at night?
So big climate change is coming and that’s just a basic reality of the next few centuries.
NS: I think we are definitely headed towards catastrophe. If you look at the numbers on the amount of carbon that we’ve put into the air, it’s almost unbelievable. There are a lot of well-intentioned ideas that people have put forth to try to reduce the rate at which we put more carbon into the air, or even to reverse the trend by pulling carbon out of the air, but not much is actually happening. What is happening doesn’t even scratch the surface. So big climate change is coming and that’s just a basic reality of the next few centuries.
SP: Two-thirds of the way into your novel, Seveneves — in fact, on page 569 — you do something kind of crazy. The story suddenly skips ahead 5,000 years. What’s the idea here?
NS: Well, right before that moment, there’s a conversation among the survivors that’s foundational to everything that happens next. It’s a conversation about human nature and the history of the human race up to that point — whether it’s worth saving, what’s wrong with humans, what’s good about them, and how the human race ought to go forward from that point. Some things are said that can’t be unsaid and some decisions are made that cast very long shadows into the future. So I felt the best way to highlight the outcome of that conversation was just to jump directly to a point in the distant future, rather than trying to tell the story year by year over a long span of time.
SP: If we manage to survive another 5,000 years, do you think humans will be fundamentally different in the future?
NS: Well, the premise of this book is that we make a decision to be fundamentally different. But there’s no unanimity, which is a very typical human thing. So you have people who are fundamentally different, but in different ways. The decisions that these people make get translated into action through genetic engineering.
SP: Do you consider yourself an optimist about the future?
NS: By any kind of empirical measure, things are getting better for most people. The total amount of violence in the world is going down. The total amount of money is going up. Measures of human health are generally on an upward trend. There are plenty more benefits that we can reap from education and improvements in technologies. So there are all kinds of reasons to be optimistic. There’s also an on-going struggle with certain aspects of human nature that are unattractive.
SP: Like what?
NS: Well, certain emotional reactions just seem hard-wired into our systems — for example, scapegoating and instincts toward mob violence. We’ve seen them over and over throughout history. And it’s not hard to make that happen. That’s what demagogues do. That’s what a certain kind of dictator does — to stir up people’s passions in ways that speak to the most base parts of their natures. So that tendency is always there. The only way to fight it is to put these really complicated and finicky institutions into place, to erect barriers and firewalls that prevent those things from running out of control. That’s a war that each generation has to fight all over again.