Why Neal Stephenson's Seveneves is an RPG novel

I read Seveneves almost completely spoiler free. I knew the basic premise (everything on Earth dies) and structure (part 3 time skips ahead 5000 years). I liked part 1, nearly put the book down after part 2 and loved part 3. Oddly all the reviews disagreed with me saying essentially “The first 2 parts are great but part 3 doesn’t feel the same and isn’t as good.”

After thinking about it for a while I realized the difference was that I have read an inordinate of RPG fluff and RPG novels. Seveneves reads like two different RPG novels put together. Parts 1 and 2 read like the backstory to an RPG (in universe they are even referred to as the Epic). Everyone vaguely knows the backstory but the details have never been spelled out. It’s like the Horus Heresy in Warhammer 40k, or Goblinization in Shadowrun. It’s a pivotal event that sets up the universe but you can pick up most of it from context and the details are not that important.

Part 3 on the other hand reads like a typical-adventure-in-the-universe-that-also-advances-the-metaplot novel. Like the Battletech novels where the Clans are introduced or the Drizzt Novels in D&D, or the Dragonheart Trilogy in Shadowrun. Important if you care about the flavor and metaplot but you can ignore them if you want.

Reading the novel as backstory and then as a typical adventure for an RPG makes the seemingly arbitrary ending of part 2 and the oddities of part 3 make sense. I wouldn’t be surprised if part 3 of the novel is actually a serialization of a homebrew RPG adventure.

Warning Spoilers

Part 1

The premise is that “something” called the agent hits the moon. This breaks the moon into seven smaller parts that will keep knocking into each other and making comets that will rain down on earth killing everyone in ~2 years. We are introduced to the main characters of not-Neil-Degrasse-Tyson, Ivy who’s commander of the ISS and Dinah a roboticist sent to the ISS to work on astromining.

Humanity decides to send up 2 people from each ethnic group and that they will live in hundreds of tiny spaceships called arklets. Many pages are used to describe how the arklets will work, how humanity will survive in them and how they get into space, mainly from not-Neil-Degrasse-Tyson’s point of view

Part 2

Everybody on Earth dies. It’s ok though because not-Neil-Degrasse-Tyson, and not-Elon-Musk are up in space helping the 3000 survivors. Over the next 200 pages the fleet of tiny spaceships and ISS try to survive the first few years without Earth.

All you really need to know is that the President uses FaceBook to convince most of the survivors leave ISS and to try to colonize Mars instead of not-Neil-Degrasse-Tyson’s plan to colonize the largest shard of the Moon. Of this group everybody dies except for the president and an Italian girl who survive by cannibalism. Of the people who stay on ISS only 6 survive (but no cannibalism).

When I finished Part 2 I thought it was the longest most elaborate shaggy dog story that I had ever read. Everybody except for 8 women die (although not-Neil-Degrasse-Tyson makes it almost to the end). The entire idea of people living in tiny independent space ships is dropped and most of the last 600 pages is irrelevant.

If instead you view parts 1 and 2 as the elaborate backstory to a RPG universe that everyone knows was repopulated by just those seven women (the seven eves of the title) it reads differently. Knowing how it will end means all the plans and machinations to save people are bittersweet. On the other hand there would be plenty of call forwards e.g. “No wonder Julians are so paranoid” or “That’s why Dinans know Morse code”. Most importantly you read it wanting to find out how everything went so wrong.

Part 2 ends with them deciding to repopulate humanity using genetic engineering. Each woman thinks that they know why what humanity needs to survive in space so they each genetically tweak their offspring to emphasize certain traits.

Part 3

Jump forward 5000 years. This is the setting of the RPG, in fact I’m convinced this part is actually notes from a campaign Neal Stephenson GMed. Humanity has repopulated into space habitats and as seven intermingled races from the seven women who survived. Those seven races have broken into 2 sides. The Reds (Aida,Julia, some Camilla) versus everyone else. Each race has a bonus based off of what their Eve thought was most important. They seven Eves were:

  • Ivy: The brainy commander of ISS, raised by a tiger mom, engaged to a submarine captain. Decides that brains is the most important. In D&D parlance all her progeny gets an INT bonus.

  • Dinah: Roboticist, miner’s daughter and heroic POV character along with Ivy. Decides that being heroic is most important. In mixed groups her character is normally the leader. Get a bonus to CHARISMA and FATE/Edge

  • Tekla: The Russian cosmonaut who was previously saved by Dinah. Decides that discipline is the most important. Bonus to WILLPOWER and CONSTITUTION

  • Moira: The geneticist. Plays with epigenetics so that her children are superbly adaptable to the different environments. Her racial bonus is that any time a traumatic life event occurs the character gets to shuffle their stats. A character’s last name is how many of these changes they’ve gone through.

  • Julia: The manic-depressive president who got most of the survivors killed in her scheme to colonize Mars. Since she can only have 1 child she chooses to give them foresight. Her race gets a bonus to INT and WISDOM and are often clerics.

  • Camilla: The middle eastern girl who was scarred by militants. Thinks that not being aggressive is most important trait. Her race works with both Red and Blue and gets a bonus to CHAR but will normally be NPC only

  • Aida: The Italian cannibal. Realizing Tekla, Moira, Dinah and Ivy’s race will shun hers she modifies her children as counters to them. Like Camilla her race would normally be NPC since they’re portrayed as the bad guys.

A lot of reviews have commented on the different tone of part 3. Reading it as an RPG session though it makes perfect sense. In D&D terms it goes as follows.

A Moiran ranger is exploring the newly terraformed Earth. While taking her glider to LEO she sees a not-of-the-seven-races human. She later mentions this to the chaste Teklan paladin who was also scouting the planet and they are both interrogated by a Julian secret agent about what they saw. Eventually a Ivy geomancer summons all of them to Chainhattan, the Blue capital which orbits the equator and sets down every few hundred miles (it’s a flying city)

They all meet at an inn owned by a secret society called the Purpose. They meet the Dinan rogue barkeep, the Aidan barbarian wine merchant and the geomancer’s Camite healer. The geomancer explains the mission, that he thinks some humans survived the comet strikes that was supposed to kill everyone. They fly down to Hawaii and then up to Alaska where hijinks ensue.

They end up meeting the cave dwelling descendants of Dinah’s family who tunnelled to survive. Due to a botched charisma roll by the geomancer the dwarves attack the party. The Julian spy turns out to be a traitor for the Reds, kidnaps a dwarf woman, while the party fights the dwarves off. The NPC geomancer and healer get killed. This causes the Moiran to level up and become a berserker while the rest of the party makes friend with a dwarf girl. The dwarf girl is a scribe who tells them of a race of fish people that also survived the comet strikes.

The next day the Aidans bring the dwarf woman back and make a deal with natives for all of the land on Earth. The Aidans then chase the party to the sea, where the party then holds them off until the Dinan uses his racial ability of knowing Morse code to summon the fish people that evolved from the descendent of Ivy’s submariner fiancee. The adventure ends in a stalemate with the Reds having all the land and the Blues having the sea.

This wasn’t meant to be a review of Seveneves but if you liked, or even understood the previous four paragraphs I think you should try it. Seveneves is really a book about world building which makes you want to have your own adventures in it. Which is what a good RPG novel should do.