Reading Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves is a strange experience, both physically and mentally.
When it turned out that Kindle’s conversion mechanism didn’t take kindly to the pdf file provided in the Hugo voter’s packet, I had to procure a paper copy from my local (and fortunately well-stocked) library.
Because I’m heading to my parents for the better part of a month after the weekend, I really don’t want to have to schlep a kilo’s worth of (literally) dead wood with me. So I decided to try and finish the thing, all 862 pages of it, before leaving. Had I known the crick I’d develop near my right shoulder blade for holding this cursed behemoth for hours on end would hurt this much, I would have just spent the 13 dollars on the dang ebook. Unless that crick turns into a chronic malady, I’m still sort of glad I didn’t, though.
See, the bulk of Seveneves is set in and around a fictionalised version of the International Space Station, and the endpapers of Harper Collins’ hardcover features some very helpful illustrations of said installation. I’m not saying I was going to be hopelessly lost without them, but given the considerable demands made on my imagination by Stephenson’s scientific explanations and scene setting, I’m grateful for any visual aids I can get. Yes, I know pictures of the ISS (or “Izzy”, as Seveneves‘ astronauts call it) are readily available online, but “fictionalised” in this case means “significantly different-looking from the real thing”. This might seem strange coming from a lifelong reader of comics, but I normally find illustrations in novels to be distracting, even useless (this goes double for front covers depicting the characters within). In this case, though, I would have given a non-zero sum of money for a few more like the ones on those endpapers.
Which brings us to the “mentally” part of my lede. My recent confessional about my troubled relationship with reading science fiction seems to have quieted some of those demons, but I still really have to set my mind to reading this thing. It’s another case where that pre-vacation deadline has had some unexpectedly positive side effects. The relative complexity of the aforementioned science-y bits, and my propensity for zoning out when confronted with difficult reading, has me spending well over my regular average speed of 50 pages an hour. I’ve settled at around 70 minutes for 50 pages, which means the whole thing will probably end up taking me in the neighbourhood of twenty hours.
Given how much I have to work both to understand much of it, and to stop my attention from drifting, deciding — and having the luxury — to finish Seveneves in a short span of time is ideal. Stephenson keeps piling concept upon concept, and having the previous concept fresh in mind when he does is a huge boon.
Even in the very trivial field of online book discussions, I realise ruminations about the experiential side of reading seems even more trivial than more text-oriented analysis. I do think we readers should make more space in our discussions for this kind of thing, though. To me, awareness of what we ourselves bring to the text, and of how environmental and situational conditions colour our experience, is a crucial part of the act of criticism, whether you’re an amateur or a professional. I’m not saying that such self-awareness should be front and center of everyone’s style. But if honesty of opinion is admirable, doesn’t it follow that being honest with ourselves and others about where that opinion comes from, should be as well?