Notes for Stephenson’s ‘SevenEves’

Stephenson, N. (2015) SevenEves. New York: Harper Collins.


“It is a statistical problem,” Doob said. “On about A+0.7 it stopped being a Newtonian mechanics problem and turned into statistics. It has been statistics ever since. And it all boils down to the distribution of bolide sizes, and of the orbits in which they are moving, and how those distributions are changing over time—which we can only know from observation and extrapolation. And you know what, Julia? Even if we had perfect knowledge of every single one of those statistical parameters, we still wouldn’t be able to predict the future. Because we have an n of 1. Only one Cloud Ark, only one Izzy to work with. We can’t run this experiment a thousand times to see the range of different outcomes. We can only run it once. The human mind has trouble with situations like that. We see patterns where they don’t exist, we find meaning in randomness.

A minute ago you were casting doubt on whether dirty space was really that dirty at all—obviously arguing in favor of Dump and Run. Then I told you about what just happened to Arklet 52 and now you’re swinging around to the other point of view. You are not helping, Julia. You are not helping.”

Julia did not look to be accepting Doob’s remarks in the spirit intended. Instead she squinted through the screen at him and shook her head slightly. “I don’t understand the intensity of your reaction, Dr. Harris.”

“This conversation is over,” Doob said, and hung up on her. He then fought off a temptation to slam the tablet down on the table. Instead he sat back in his chair and looked Luisa in the eye for the first time in a while. On one level he’d wanted to watch her face the whole time. But Julia would have noticed that, would have figured out that someone else was in the room, silently listening.

Just as someone had probably been doing at Julia’s end.

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. (Stephenson, 2015, p129)

They all watch video of each other – this becomes the archive of each other for the generations to come :

The pretension of authority in GS ships: the White Arklet for Julia’s White House:

“IT WOULD READ ALMOST AS SLAPSTICK COMEDY IF IT WERE NOT SO tragic—the consequences so dire,” Julia said. She was mesmerized by a video loop, the final transmission from New Caird before radio contact had been lost. The people hovering around her in the White Arklet—as Julia’s unofficial base of operations had come to be known—all nodded, or made agreeable-sounding murmurs. They were all reading Tav’s blog post about the Ymir catastrophe, which had been posted only seconds ago. (Stephenson, 2015, p170)

Gradual attrition:

This didn’t even take into account another piece of good mathematical news, which was that Endurance grew a little bit lighter with each one of those burns. She had less mass with which to resist the force of the thrusters, and so it gradually became possible to produce more than a piddling four meters per second of delta vee on each turn around the planet.

So everything was going to get better, if they could stay alive and keep Endurance working. But these gains accrued painfully slowly at the beginning.


They had planned for one. It took longer because things kept breaking and needed to be fixed. The tools and supplies needed to fix them weren’t always available. Sometimes they had to be improvised. Elaborate workarounds had to be devised through the force of human ingenuity, hard work, and, when all else failed, the risking and the sacrifice of lives.

The human capital of Endurance dwindled.

They were always short on food. Arklets were designed to grow their own food supplies in their translucent outer hulls. But Endurance’s arklets were buried in ice to protect them from the Hard Rain. The ones near the outside got enough sunlight to produce some food, but not enough compared to the mouths that had to be fed. She began her journey well stocked with emergency provisions, which were rationed out on a schedule that assumed a mission length of one year. As it became clear that the journey would go on much longer, the rations were cut back. Endurance also had abundant stockpiles of vitamins, most of which had survived the Break. These were sought after by the people of the Swarm, who had flown the coop without stockpiling enough of them. Trade began to happen between Endurance and the Swarm, but it wasn’t the free market that the Swarmamentalists had once envisioned. Deals were negotiated over the radio and consummated by exchanges between MIVs and arklets, difficult to arrange because of the need to match orbits that had now become very different. (Stephenson, 2015, p189)


Madness and social media:

“Aïda,” the woman said, by way of selfintroduction. “I see you, Dr. Harris.” She began to smile, offering a glimpse of bad teeth, then thought better of it. Her eyes changed direction momentarily to someone or something off-camera, then came back to them. She raised her tablet up closer to the camera so that she could look at the feed from Endurance. Her hand passed briefly in front of the lens and they caught a glimpse of dirty, ragged fingernails, the frayed and shiny cuff of a sleeve. Faint murmurs in the background suggested that other people were in the same arklet with her, off-camera. She was in zero gee, therefore, not part of a bolo. Her eyes were exploring the feed on her tablet, trying to make sense of what she was seeing. The Hammerhead had not existed at the time of the Break, so it was a new thing to her. “Steve Lake,” she muttered, as she recognized him.

“Bo,” Bo said.

“Michael,” Michael said.

“Who is in charge?” Aïda asked. “Is Ivy …”

“Ivy’s still alive and she is still the commander as per CAC,” Doob said. “She’s off shift. We can wake her up if you need to speak to her urgently.” “No. Not necessary,” Aïda said, recoiling slightly and narrowing the eyes just a bit. The distance between her and Endurance introduced a time lag in the video, which made conversation halting and awkward.

“How many do you have?” Doob asked.


Doob, accustomed to working professionally with extremely large numbers, couldn’t quite process one so small. Eleven. One plus ten.

A thought came to him. “Do you mean eleven arklets?” That would imply scores, maybe a hundred people.

Aïda looked amused. “Oh no, of arklets we have many more. We have twenty-six.” “Ah. So what is it you have eleven of?” “People,” Aïda said.

“Aïda,” Bo said, “just to be clear. So there is no misunderstanding. You are speaking for the entire Swarm. And you are saying that, of the entire

Swarm, there are eleven survivors.”

“Yes. Plus one …”

“One what?”

A look of amusement came over Aïda’s face. She broke eye contact. It almost seemed that she rolled her eyes a little. Doob was reminded, hardly for the first time, that the Arkies had been sent up as teenagers. “It is complicated. Let’s just say there is one more who might as well be dead.”

Those in the Hammerhead still could not quite process it. Something occurred to Michael: “We know that the Swarm broke up into two factions. One led by J.B.F. You were part of the opposing group?”

“Yes.” Aïda laughed. Again she reminded Doob of a teenager going through the pretense of talking to a clueless parent about something they would never understand.

Michael, a little wrong-footed, went on haltingly: “And so when you say that there are eleven … plus one who is, I take it, in a bad way … anyhow, are you referring just to the anti-J.B.F. faction?”

“They were defeated a long time ago. Months.”

“When you say that, do you mean that there was some kind of a conflict? A war?” Doob asked.

Aïda shrugged. “There was some fighting.” She didn’t see it as important. “Call it a war if you wish. More like some brawls. The real battle was, you know, on the Internet. Social media.” (Stephenson, 2015, p194)


Doob’s final spacewalk:

Dinah managed to get Doob out for one last space walk. He had been failing for days. Once they got him into the suit, though, his energy flooded back. Dinah took him out on the floor of the crevasse where he could walk, light-footed, with magnetized Grabbs latched onto his boots to keep him from floating away with every step. They rambled for about a kilometer, turning around every so often to look back at humanity’s new home. Above the spinning torus, where Moira was even now unpacking her genetics lab, Tekla was inspecting the arklets on the top level, learning which were whole, which were beyond repair, and which could be patched up for future occupancy. On the floor of the crevasse, Grabbs and Siwis were at work, rooting Endurance to her final resting place with spreading cables and struts.

Where they walked, it was dark most of the time. That was the price of being sheltered from cosmic rays and coronal mass ejections. Looking up, however, they could see sunlight gilding the edges of the crevasse above them. They talked about how to set up mirrors that would bounce sunlight downward onto the arklets, which could grow food and scrub air in their translucent outer hulls. Doob spoke of Endomement, the idea that, in time, a ceiling could be thrown over the top of the crevasse and walls built to keep in the air, whereupon a whole section of the valley could be given an atmosphere and turned into a place where children could go “outside” without the need for space suits.

Then he walked home and died. (Stephenson, 2015, p204)


Inevitable dissent, even amongst women!:

Dinah?” Ivy said.

“I’m going to breed a race of heroes,” Dinah said. “Fuck Camila.”

“It’s going to be … interesting … sharing confined spaces with a race of heroes for hundreds of years.”

“Markus knew how to do it,” Dinah said. “He was a jerk, but he had a code. It’s called chivalry.”

She gave the demolition charge a toss straight up.

“Did you just vote yes?”

“Oh yeah,” she said, watching it dwindle against the stars. The red lights of the LED timer glittered like rubies.

“We’re unanimous,” Ivy said. Dinah understood that Ivy was announcing it to the other women in the Banana.

For the first and last time, Dinah thought.

The red light had shrunk to a pinprick. Like the planet Mars, she thought, except sharper and more brilliant. Then, silently, it turned into a ball of yellow light that darkened as it spread. (Stephenson, 2015, p213)


Genetic colour coding scheme:

Blue: Dinah

Yellow: Camila

Red: Aïda

Orange: Julia

Cyan: Tekla

Purple: Moira herself

Green: Ivy

White: no particular race (Stephenson, 2015, p221)


The Epic, the video footage and all the retrievable documents from the first two sections:

To the extent that Blue had a definable culture, it tended to view technological aids with some ambivalence, a state of mind boiled down into the aphorism “Each enhancement is an amputation.” This was not so much a definable idea or philosophy as it was a prejudice, operant at a nearly subliminal level. It was traceable to certain parts of the Epic. In many of these, Tavistock Prowse played a role; he was seen as its literal embodiment in the sense that he had actually undergone a series of amputations, and been consumed as food, after throwing in his lot with the Swarm. Blue saw itself—according to cultural critics, defined itself—as the inheritors of the traditions of Endurance. By process of elimination, then, Red was the culture of the Swarm. A century and a half ago, Red had sealed itself off behind barriers both physical and cryptographic, so not much was known of its culture, but plenty of circumstantial evidence suggested that it had different Amistics from Blue. Specifically, the Reds were enthusiastic about personal technological enhancement. (Stephenson, 2015, p268)





After 560 pages, the narrative takes a dramatic turn, with a long epilogue set 5000 years in the future. This necessitates some rapid history backfilling, but it does enable Stephenson’s scientific imagination to run wild and especially to extrapolate genetically from the original “seven eves”. (Steele, 2015)


“The Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in.” (Robert A. Heinlein. Find where?), from Di Fillipo (2015).

Terraforming Earth by Jack Williamson, issued by this amazing Grand Master when he was ninety-three years old. Rendered uninhabitable, Terra sends her sons and daughters off on a long, transformative exodus that spans millions of years before the home world can be reclaimed.

The global population goes into overdrive to select a handful of refugees and shoot them into space, where the ISS forms the nucleus of a hastily assembled Cloud Ark. These people must perpetuate the human race for millennia, until the planet is again habitable. (Di Filippo, 2015)

The next 200 or so pages, post–Hard Rain, follows the incredible and excruciating struggles during the subsequent five years to get a stable setup in place for the long haul. Not to commit spoilers, I will merely say that not all the humans — some 1,500, the entire remaining species — are on the same page. (Di Filippo, 2015)


One perennial attraction of this type of tale is the notion of  “getting back to basics”: the author has a chance to reexamine the necessary constituents of a society, the prerequisites for civilization, the new ethics and morals of a culture dominated by a challenge to its very survival. We sweep away all the trivial and tedious clutter and distractions of vain and hedonistic modern life and plunge into the heady, brutal ocean of do-or-die demands. (Di Filippo, 2015)

Humanity is now several billion strong, living in high-tech orbital O’Neill (Find out more here?) colonies while the planetary surface is most of the way through its restoration, with some early-adopter humans nonetheless taking up residence there.

As for the adventure aspect of this section, it involves an almost Tolkienesque gathering of a delegate from each of the races into a “Seven,” a kind of Sturgeonesque gestalt that will go down to the planet’s surface and investigate some strange new phenomena that, again not to ruin any Big Reveals, tie back into the early moments of the tale. (Di Filippo, 2015)

Not that he expects his exact scenario to happen, but rather by spotlighting the heroism and brains necessary to deal with this imaginary apocalypse, he can inspire his readers to face any similar crises with similar bravery and ingenuity.(Di Filippo, 2015)

Some of the writing, though praised as transparent and helpfully depicted by Di Filippo, is just muddy for this reader. The action sequences work well, particularly in the later stages back down on New Earth, but a great deal of the rather grandiose action is missed or off-stage, which is just as well in one sense. (Sisley, 2015)

SevenEves (2015) is certainly a GS (Generation Ship) novel as a small and slowly breeding group of humans are orbiting Earth in the Cleft, a large and neatly chunked piece of Moon core with a handy amount of nickel and iron. They build first a covered site called later The Cradle and then a series of extraordinary space habitats whilst Terraforming the Earth. Five thousand years or so pass in the Cleft and then into chain-based orbiting environs and these are certainly seen in some GS novels, though in this one there is no loss of purpose and if anything, the various descendents of the original, supposed seven last women of Earth are all clearly differentiated, perhaps except for one, who can change genetic characteristics through a direct response to circumstances and location, in a such twist of leaping evolution that would boggle Darwin and Lamarck. (Sisley, 2015)

The essentials of SevenEves (Stephenson, 2015) are similar to many GS stories in the essentially disparate nature of different tribes or families of descendents from The Cradle and onwards, with the actual savagery seen in the cannibalism of some of the Space Ark descendents cannibalising each other or even eating their own appendages as they are useless in space, as well as prepared to kill simply to prolobng existebnce or seize scant food and water. As it turns out, these cowards who left the Earth, are matched by equally rigid and severe Earth descendents who seem as rough and lost (save for the Encyclopedia Britannica with Cyc memorising the S section) as those facing severe attrition and deprivation in space, led by those who have no technological skills save for the use of Spacebook, a Facebook in Space, and the ability to stare and argue for ancient irrationalities lost on the technorati of the surviving Issi and the eventual Endurance that is parked nose first into The Cradle in the Cleft (Sisley, 2015).



Bennett, R. (Director) The Ark in Space. Dr Who TV Series, Season 12, Number 2, Parts 1-4. Written by Holmes, R. UK: BBC One.


Di Filippo, P. (2015) SevenEves: by Neal Stephenson. Book review, Barnes and Noble. Published May 19, 2015. Accessed 15 July, 2015 from


Heinlein, R. (1963) Orphans of the Sky. New York: Gollancz.


Robinson, K.S. (2015) Aurora. Orbit. London, UK: Little, Brown Book Group


Sisley, M. (2015) Generation Ships podcast.


Steele, C. (2015) SevenEves: by Neal Stephenson. Review in Books section of Sydney Morning Herald online. Accessed 16 July, 2015 from


Stephenson, N. (2015) SevenEves. New York: Harper Collins.