Seveneves, Vox Day, and Blowing Up the Moon

This is an essay from my forthcoming collection Guided by the Beauty of Their WeaponsNotes on Science Fiction and Culture in the Year of Angry Dogs, out on December 27th, and available for preorder on Amazon(Print will be available when the book comes out on December 26th.) 

There are two obvious angles to take on Seveneves given the discussions that make up the rest of this book. The first is to attempt to decipher Vox Day’s hatred of the book, an effort that involves getting deep into the weeds of scientific racism. The second is to try to figure out what it is with blowing up the moon these days. In the spirit of Seveneves itself, then, we’ll try to do both without any regard for whether they actually fit together.

First the moon. As with the other obvious touchstone here, Kill the Moon, its destruction is part of a larger story that wrestles with the changing status of space travel as a signifier in science fiction. In this regard, on a basic level, it serves as a symbolic breaking of a barrier. In 2015, it appears entirely likely that the moon will prove to be the furthest point humanity reaches prior to its extinction. And in both Kill the Moon and Seveneves its destruction is the impetus for rejecting that in favor of a different sort of future.

In Kill the Moon at least this is a reasonably complex event rooted in the long history of Doctor Who, which stretches back through the new frontier liberalism view of space travel, and serves to reconcile that utopian vision with the present day. And ultimately, Doctor Who taking place in a universe where the only thing that decisively isn’t canon is the Fermi Paradox, which means that this reconciliation ultimately has to be a restoration of a very classic mode of science fiction, which it is, with the shattered moon ultimately restored so that the future we long dreamed of can arrive.

Seveneves, on the other hand, is a Neal Stephenson novel, and thus focused first and foremost on the technical and material realities of the world. Where Kill the Moon is firmly about space as a symbolic concept, Seveneves is about the ways in which space travel is a massively difficult science and engineering problem. Or, to put it another way, it’s about why the classic sci-fi fantasy of space travel is not plausible in the first place. It’s a novel of radiation sickness, tiny and fatal punctures, and fuel conservation. Being Neal Stephenson, all of these technical bits are brilliant and gripping, of course, but they are very much the focus of the exercise.

And so in Seveneves the moon’s destruction exists to create a much harder problem that will require humanity to solve the hard problems of space. But this puts the book in something of an odd position. Stephenson has to advance the current state of space technology just a little bit past the present day in order to come up with a plausible way for humanity to survive (most obviously in the form of plausible asteroid mining), and has to create an entirely artificial and ostentatiously unexplained planetary crisis in the form of the moon exploding in order to justify it. This isn’t a problem as such, but it makes the book somewhat aggressively unrelated to the present-day concerns of its readership, for whom the looming planetary crisis is climate change and space travel is a self-evidently useless solution.

The result is a book that, in its own way, is even more exclusively focused on the larger context of science fiction than Kill the Moon. Given the timing one suspects that Stephenson read Andy Weir’s The Martian and decided that he wanted to do something like that. The point of the exercise seems very much to be “what should space fiction be like given the technology” as opposed to any attempt to answer the question “why does space fiction still matter” on a level beyond “because I’m Neal Stephenson and I can make technical explanations fun,” which is, in fairness, a perfectly good answer.

But what’s strange about this is that so far we’ve only described two thirds of the book. The first two sections are indeed a heavily technical bit of space fiction, but in its final act the book takes a disorienting leap five thousand years into the future and picks up with an entirely new set of characters for a coda about repopulating the Earth once the planetary disaster has cleared up. Many reviews of the book fixate on this decision, calling it, in various ways, disjointed, which is not entirely fair. Yes, it’s a sharp transition, but no worse than, for instance, the transitions among the three sections of Walter Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz. As a whole, Seveneves is about a planetary catastrophe and humanity’s survival of it. The end of that action is very much the restoration of life on Earth, and the five thousand year jump works within the story.

What is odd, though, is that the basic scientific subject matter changes dramatically. Where the first two sections were about how space works, the denouement is very much about biology. The second part ends with the human population having been reduced to eight women, only seven of which are of childrearing age, and a decision to continue the species via parthenogenesis with a measure of deliberate genetic manipulation to boot. The third follows a world in which seven subraces of humanity living in a fragile peace try to return to Earth from their orbital platforms.

It is this, one suspects, that really enraged Vox Day. Stephenson bases the biology in the latter portion of the book on epigenetics, which looks at the way in which environmental circumstances cause major differences in a species not by changing their genes, but by changing how their genes are read and express themselves, including across generations. This is both how humanity attempts to reseed the planet with new life, creating general categories of species and then allowing them to epigenetically evolve into specific niches within the forming ecosystem, but also affects one of the specific subraces, which has the ability to periodically undergo massive epigenetic change in response to extreme circumstances, to the point of essentially developing a new identity at various points in their lives, denoted by numbers. (The main character of the section is Kath Two, for instance, although she becomes Kath Three by the end of the book.)

To a scientific racist who believes that black people are inherently less intelligent than white people because of their lack of magic neanderthal genes, epigenetics represents an existential threat, providing a compelling scientific explanation for how generational cycles of poverty sustain themselves. Under epigenetics, even racial disparities like incidences of heart disease can be explained entirely through environmental factors, and the solution to almost all of them is to end the structures of oppression creating those environmental factors. This is not to say that the field is some sort of magic bullet for progressive worldviews, nor even that it’s the only alternative to Vox Day’s pseudo-scientific bullshit. But it’s not hard to see why this line of thought doesn’t appeal.

And, of course, come to think of it, one imagines the human race being preserved by seven women via parthenogenesis is probably not exactly his cup of tea as science fiction images go either. Though one imagines the bit that really incensed him actually comes just before that, when Stephenson talks about the way in which men began rapidly dying off because “men simply were not as well suited to life in space,” and moreover because men displayed a propensity to sacrifice themselves in favor of preserving the “scarce resource” of “healthy, functional wombs.”

This in turn brings up an aspect of Vox’s ideology that actually got relatively short shrift in “Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons” but is of reasonable interest, not least because Vox’s involvement in the MRA and Gamergate crowds has mostly been something I’ve not dealt with. In one of his blog posts about Seveneves he refers obliquely to “Stephenson’s past gamma markers,” a reference to his idea of the gamma male.

For the most part the gamma male is best understood as an attempt to create a pseudoscientific justification for the cliche that women prefer assholes to “nice guys” based on little more than a half-remembered understanding of canine pack dynamics and a list of letters in the greek alphabet. Basically, he creates an extended “socio-sexual hierarchy” topped, of course, by alpha males (exactly what you expect) and his hilarious concept of sigma males (his inevitable category invented purely to make himself more special). But in many ways the most important category is the gamma male, which Vox describes on his side blog devoted to how to use pick-up artistry to save western civilization:

The introspective, the unusual, the unattractive, and all too often the bitter. Gammas are often intelligent, usually unsuccessful with women, and not uncommonly all but invisible to them, the gamma alternates between placing women on pedestals and hating the entire sex. This mostly depends upon whether an attractive woman happened to notice his existence or not that day. Too introspective for their own good, gammas are the men who obsess over individual women for extended periods of time and supply the ranks of stalkers, psycho-jealous ex-boyfriends, and the authors of excruciatingly romantic rhyming doggerel. In the unlikely event they are at the party, they are probably in the corner muttering darkly about the behavior of everyone else there… sometimes to themselves. Gammas tend to have have a worship/hate relationship with women, the current direction of which is directly tied to their present situation. However, they are sexual rejects, not social rejects.

But this is in practice only a first draft of a subject he returns to obsessively. Gammas are, in practice, an ever-shifting oppositional concept that exists only for Vox’s paranoias to be projected onto. They are objects of utter contempt for him, but in that classic fascist way in which they are simultaneously weak and powerful, endlessly infiltrating into positions of power and needing to be shown up. Tellingly, most of his efforts in this regard amount to attempts to unsettle supposed gamma males, suggesting that most of them think they’re sigma males (as opposed to thinking Vox Day is a gibbering nutcase) or, when declaring how many lifetime sex partners gamma males have on average, specifying “consensual” in a way he doesn’t for any other group. He blatantly seeks to undermine them, as opposed to confront them.

No doubt this is just part of some complicated game the rules of which he’ll reveal just as soon as he finds a way to define them so that he wins. But for those of us inclined towards reality it’s clear what’s actually going on. The problem with gammas is simple – they are simply the people who are not particularly obsessed with rating women based purely on their attractiveness and then seeking to have sex with as many highly-rated women as possible, nor with the bullying dominance of people who aspire to being “alpha males” as though they are literally wolves. They are instead people who want to get on with their lives, have sex with people they’re mutually attracted to whomever those may be, and maybe try to listen to things other than their own egos every once in a while just to see what it’s like. These are not people who fit into Vox Day’s paranoid fantasy world of saving western civilization from people who don’t poop like he does.

And what Seveneves does demonstrate is that they’re also not particularly useful in a global crisis involving an existential threat to humanity. And it’s here that the exceedingly artificial nature of the global catastrophe makes sense. Seveneves is a novel about the sorts of people who are useful if you need to solve genuinely massive engineering problems in the face of a profoundly hostile world. And the answer is not square-jawed masculine saviors from 1940s pulps. In Seveneves, alpha male tendencies, whoever they’re expressed by, just get people killed.

And that, in the end, is what the book is about. It’s not about wargaming out how humanity will survive its current crises. It’s about engaging with the scientific reality that felled humanity’s most recent utopian dream in order to demonstrate what sorts of people are needed to solve really hard problems. The answer is not always one I am completely enamored with; Stephenson’s fondness for contemptuous parodies of the humanities and social sciences rears up hard in places, along with an anti-social media streak that is decidedly cross about the damn kids on its lawn. But it’s one that’s self-evidently based on a careful consideration of real and material science, and one that, as with more or less everything to come from the pen of Neal Stephenson, one that absolutely demands to be taken seriously.