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Seveneves by Neal Stephenson is published by The Borough Press.

Rebecca Nelson is the winner of May’s flash fiction and reviews competition. Her review of Seveneves inspired us to consider human impact on the Earth. She has received the Principia prize pack. Well done!

In this year’s Reith Lecture, Stephen Hawking suggested that mankind should ‘spread out into space’ to avoid being destroyed should a catastrophic meteor impact trigger a mass extinction on Earth.

Coincidentally, when I was listening to the lecture I had just started reading Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, which tackles the same topic. In the book, although people haven’t yet colonized anywhere further from Earth than the ISS, the space station has been expanded, attached to an Arjuna asteroid called Amalthea and is affectionately known as Izzy.

About a chapter in, an unknown and unspecified force impacts the moon with sufficient force to break it up into 7 or 8 huge chunks of rock (we never get to find out what caused this). The chunks initially circulate round a common centre of mass, but when they start to collide and smash up into smaller and smaller parts, the stronger pull of the Earth’s gravity means that the planet is subjected to a bombardment of meteors, which eventually makes the surface of the planet uninhabitable. It’s about as bad as it could possibly get.

The first section of the book deals with the human race’s efforts to salvage whatever they can of the gene pool of life on earth to preserve it for the period – 5000 years later –when the planet will have calmed down enough to be recolonised. The final third of the book deals with the future. Thankfully, sufficient humans do survive the meteor impacts, political infighting, cosmic rays, lack of food and related issues to be in a position to repopulate the planet 5000 years later.

Stephenson always does a huge amount of research and packs his books with it – Anathem contains tutorials on orbital mechanics and geometry, Cryptonomicon has chunks of maths stuck in, about things like Alan Turing’s broken bike chain and how frequently the broken link will cause it to fall off. I felt that I really got to know Isaac Newton and his contemporary Natural Philosophers through reading the three novels of ‘The Baroque Cycle’. I know some people find the info dumps a bit of a drag, but to me it’s a bonus: I’m escaping to another reality by reading a riveting story, and learning new stuff at the same time!

I wonder if the way that the characters behave on the ISS following the end of life on earth may have been partly informed by the outcomes of the two-year Biosphere-2 experiment, which sounded tough enough. The situation in Seveneves is further complicated by not having the protective blanket of the Earth’s atmosphere, having to work in microgravity, issues caused by limited water and minerals, and there being no way back if things go wrong. I don’t know enough about biology to have any idea about whether the stuff about genetics is accurate or possible but it raises a lot of interesting ideas. And maybe this is all stuff we should be thinking about.