Fewer Things in Heaven and Earth

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

—Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, sc. 5

stephenson-sevenevesNeal Stephenson’s monster bestseller, Seveneves, is a wonderfully ambitious book.

In fact, if you’re a “hard sci-fi” fan, especially one who thinks all forms of religion are in some sense delusional, this might be just the book for you. Like a Tom Clancy technothriller, Seveneves is lush with technical and scientific detail, much of which I found fascinating, even when it made me lose track of the characters.

Atheists and Foxholes…[SPOILER ALERT]

Speaking of the characters (and of religion for that matter), if it is true that all fictional characters are in some sense reflections of their author, then Neal Stephenson, however terrific a worldbuilder in a technical sense, is peculiarly lacking in imagination when it comes to characters who exhibit some form of what William James described as The Varieties of Religious Experience. So lacking, in fact, that in this epic tale of human survival spanning five thousand years, Stephenson blithely dismisses even the existence of such people. And he does so pretty much with one sentence about how God died the day the Hard Rain began because people were too busy surviving. Something like that.

Thing is, from Stonehenge and Gobekli Tepi to the present, religion has never been a luxury indulged in only by those with time on their hands, but a facet of human nature so universally represented in material culture, whatever the challenges of survival in any given age, that to dismiss it so quickly seems downright impertinent, and certainly shortsighted. The worldview of the vast majority of people on planet earth has always been and is still bound up in some way, for good or ill, by what we have all agreed to call “religion.” Even if the percentage is less (is it?) among the scientific types who populate most (not all) of Stephenson’s pages, this still suggests that at least a percentage of these people would be “religious” in some fashion and pass those beliefs down to their children. (The book, after all, is not only populated by scientists, but also by politicians, miners, social activists, submariners, and characters who are just plain narcissists and crazies.)

Yes, yes, the human population in this apocalyptic story is reduced to 8 women in space, a handful of people in deep mines, and another handful in a nuclear sub, and Yes they were all no doubt very busy for a long time “just surviving.” But so are soldiers in foxholes, and we all know the saying about atheists and foxholes. But if Stephenson is to be taken for a reliable narrator, not one of these people had a moment’s thought for prayer or any other form of religious thought, nor did they pass down any to their descendants, nor did any develop even after five thousand years. It’s as if the Seveneves, in the course of the genetic manipulations they undertook to advance the survival of their offspring, somehow pinpointed the exact location in the human genome where Religion resides and (for once uniting in singleness of purpose), silentely agree to turn off the switch. But if so, I would have like to have read about it in the book.

[I could similarly complain that while Stephenson aims for ethnic diversity among his cast of characters, there is a disproportionate number of Americans among the survivors and their descendants—a quibble and a digression, perhaps, but not unrelated to my main point that the book suffers from an overall narrowness in authorial perspective.]

How does one account for this weird unformity? Was this laziness on the author’s part, or ideology, or a wholesale lapse in imagination? Whatever it was, it made the “world” we  live in feel smaller and narrower, and the wild and woolly human species that inhabits it far less interesting.  It would appear that in Neal Stephenson’s universe, there are fewer things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies.

Missed opportunities

Even from a writerly point-of-view, I can’t help but feel that Stephenson missed a hell of an opportunity. The walloping Stephenson’s “Agent” gives the earth is nothing if not a fiery cataclysm, as is so often depicted in sundry apocalyptic literature, legends, and innumerable worldwide “prophecies” from many diverse tradition about the End of the World, or at least of the Age.

Like the old gospel song goes,

God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water…the fire next time.

Whether or no one ascribes to the religious traditions that brought forth these myths and legends, the fact that so many cultures have imagined the world ending in fire would, one would think,  give someone writing such a scenario reason to pause and reflect. (Stephenson, for example, uses the myth of Thor’s Hammer to terrific effect to describe a future technological advancement in space travel, yet never once thinks to mention Ragnarok?) The writer in me winces that these juicy themes were left unsavored.

Whatever the cause of this whopping lacuna, it detracted from my enjoyment of this otherwise absorbing book.

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Categories: Books and Publishing.


  1. Daniel

    This is really insightful.

    It does seem like a glaring dismissal–as though generations upon generations of thoughtful people haven’t embraced a spiritual worldview and religious practice!

    Good to give the author credit for his ingenious world-building, etc., while pointing out this serious “sin of omission.”


  2. Kevin

    I’ve heard Stephenson spoken of in the same breath as Asimov. Sounds like an intriguing read, but the kind of novel that that leaves one feeling “cool” by the end of it. Thanks for the thoughtful review!

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