The Capitalist Realism of ‘Seveneves’

July 6, 2018

Frederick Jameson has pointed out that nowadays it seems easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.[1] Apocalyptic stories have become increasingly popular. In its original Christian meaning, however, apocalypse is laden with hope about a better world emerging. Neal Stephenson’s science fiction novel Seveneves (2015) is a work of capitalist realism, providing only a glimpse of hope – one of a reoccurrence of the US-style late 20th century capitalism in 7,000 ACE, on the New Earth. And even this glimpse of hope remains under threat. The reds are still out there trying to undermine the social system to which there is no real alternative.

Stephenson made a breakthrough with his book Snow Crash (1992). This work, often categorised as post-cyberpunk, has apparently made an impact on the way in which computer games and virtual realities have been constructed during the past 25 years. Also through his other works and projects, Stephenson has been involved in technological developments. Meanwhile, he has published a large number of books and essays, many of them well-known, some award-winning. Seveneves is the first I have read. It took me more than a year.

The book was given to me as a gift. At first I was quite curious about how the story may evolve – “the moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason” – but soon I found it incredibly boring. Several other books on my bedside table started to look much more attractive. Stephenson spends hundreds of pages on the mechanics of orbiting and individual fragments of the moon. He also describes senseless intrigues and accidents resulting in the death of almost all of those who had escaped the “Hard Rain” to the space. Bill Gates has published a commending review of the book, explaining Stephenson’s choice of focus as follows:

Seveneves belongs in the subgenre of hard science fiction, which means it emphasizes scientific accuracy. […] Stephenson tells you not just what happens, but how it happens. You’ll learn all about how orbits work and what it takes to connect two spacecraft in different orbits. You’ll learn the difference between fuel and propellant. There’s a long but clever passage about a woman who flies from Earth into orbit in a glider while wearing a suit made of intelligent fabric. Personally I loved all that stuff. But if you’re the sort of reader who doesn’t care how such a thing might work, you will find yourself skimming parts of Seveneves.[2]

That is what I eventually decided to do: skim through large sections of the 900-pages long book. The main motivation to finally complete the reading-project was to find out what the ultimate storyline is. Why did the moon disintegrate? What is the post-apocalyptic future of humanity? Stephenson never provides an answer to the first question. The basic premise of the book is thus arbitrary. His answer to the second question is more interesting, at least from the point of view of understanding the mindset of the technical stratum of contemporary capitalism.

What is the post-apocalyptic future of humanity? Some 5,000 years after the “Hard Rain” had destroyed the biosphere, some of the genetically modified “spacers” are returning to the terraformed New Earth. Only little seems to have changed in terms of language, social practices and economic and political institutions. On the blue zone of the New Earth, American English (mixed with some Russian) is the universal language; business enterprises, the stock exchange, the army and intelligence service still form the dominant institutions; and a key scene happens at a strip club. Only hardware such as weaponry has been modified to fit with the new conditions.

Not only the U.S.A., but also the Cold War is back. The Reds are as conspiring, secretive, and propagandistic as ever. Capitalist realism seems to mean two things simultaneously: there is no alternative; and the red alternative is evil. Real capitalism may sometimes be bad and wicked too, but given the human nature (however genetically modified), neoliberal capitalism is the best of all possible worlds.

Apart from the “blue vs. red” Manicheanism, Stephenson’s story makes various implicit and curiously mixed references to the Bible. The seven Eves give a new beginning to humanity, but without any Adams. The moon and oceans disappear, though the latter only mostly, not entirely. New oceans and new life come down from the heavens as part of the terraforming project of the spacers. From the Book of Revelation:

Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth’, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea…[3]

Seveneves is an exercise in the politics of cynicism, combining capitalist realism (narrative, aesthetics, ideology) with an ambiguous embrace of religion and mysticism.[4] The embrace of religion and mysticism is ambiguous, for Stephenson is clearly animated by secular scientism, focussing on technical details and admiring technocratic systems. The basic premise of the story – the sudden destruction of the moon – is odd from the mystical and religious perspective. The moon is exceptionally large compared to its planet, which has (together with the location of Jupiter) provided protection against bombardment from space and conferred stability to the axis of rotation of the Earth. Both have been pivotally important for the sustainability and development of life on Earth.[5] The only “logical” religious interpretation would be to see the destruction of the moon as a deed of Satan (or evil aliens, amounting to the same thing). An uncaused destruction of the moon seems equally strange from a scientific realist perspective. Causation must hold everywhere. Moons and planets do not suddenly blow up into pieces.

I am no expert on these matters, but I wonder whether Stephenson’s story is really coherent. Without the moon (even if some of its mass remained close to its previous orbit), would not Earth’s climate be much more unstable and less suitable for life, as the Earth would be subject to chaotic shifts in obliquity? Also the process of terraformation appears somewhat naïve and crude. Ecological systems form complex wholes and require a huge infrastructure, also at the microscopic level. Last but not least, at the end of the book there are some allusions to the possibility of some sort of cosmic Purpose; while the unexplained destruction of the moon indicates plainly that the cosmos is either indifferent or hostile to the existence of humanity.

From a social scientific perspective, the most remarkable thing about Seveneves is the assumed relationship between biological and cultural evolution. Biological evolution is very slow. In the Darwinian scheme, it can take thousands of generations to spread a single random mutation across the population. Stephenson has an explanation why genetic change in his story is more rapid: genetic engineering is possible and the seven surviving women can choose some of the characteristics of their offspring.

The molecular structure of DNA was first identified by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953 and now we are already manipulating our own genes. It is our culture, including science, which is speeding up biological change. And yet Stephenson does not consider the implications of cultural evolution. Changes through learning and cultural transmission are much more rapid than natural biological changes. Consider language. The English language emerged during the Middle Age as a fusion of several existing languages. Texts from Shakespeare to Hobbes and Locke may be constitutive of modern English, but they are also difficult to read because of their old-fashioned spelling and style. Modern 20th century English has become the global lingua franca only after WWII. While this process is self-reinforcing (the more people speak English, the more useful it is to learn English), it may be reversed and other evolving languages may assume the central place in worldwide communication.

Social practices and institutions are even more liable to change. For instance: hereditary monarchy was questioned in the 18th century. By now it has become a mere anachronism, something that can still fill the pages of tabloids and glossy magazines, although the remnants of the institution have little political significance. To give another example of a recent change: most women could not own property, vote or make independent decisions a mere good century ago. Now women are running corporations, countries and international organizations. The idea of social insurance and security – the basis of welfare state – emerged at around same time as the women’s movement. In a corporate-driven world, insurance and security are now being privatized. The EU has existed for 25 years and seems to be facing a choice between further transformations or disintegration. The world-wide-web was invented only twenty years ago and it has already changed drastically social patterns of communication and learning.

Given the pace of social and political changes, we have no adequate basis to anticipate the way society will be organized in 7,000 ACE. Humanity is seeking new ethical and strategic responses to the problems that have emerged because of the acceleration of cultural evolution. How will the future turn out? Will there be a world state; or, perhaps later, no states at all? Does money or property continue to exist? Will production be robotized and automatized entirely; or will production be based on free voluntary association of citizens, perhaps serving purposes we cannot anticipate now? How will increasing longevity and our moral learning shape intimate relations? What about politics? Will the idea that human society is imagined and made form the basis of future radical-democratic aspirations; or will the ever-more sophisticated technologies be put in the service of some dystopian purposes? What about the future of war and violence? If the current trends continue, war and violence will have become virtually absent already in the 2200s, if not sooner. Will there be any need for people specializing in violence?

Stephenson’s scenario is an ethnocentric illusion, grounded on the assumption that particular historical institutional arrangements are the necessary outcomes of some unspecified organizational, economic, or psychological constraints. In his story these constraints seem to be running deeper than even the genetic basis of homo sapiens. Stephenson’s capitalist realism is thus premised on the idea that although our genes can be shaped artificially, our language and society must remain unchangeable (except perhaps through alteration of some sorts of “codes of language” analogical to computer viruses, or by mixing up a bit of Russian with American English).

I take Seveneves as indicative of the mindset of the technical stratum of the contemporary capitalist world economy. This mindset is based on a nearly complete lack of sociological and political imagination. In combination with ethnocentrism and politics of cynicism, it provides potential for many dystopian possibilities.

Heikki Patomäki

PS. Skydance Media has hired screenwriter William Broyles Jr., director Ron Howard, and producer Brian Grazer to adapt Seveneves to a film.



[1] Jameson, Fredrik (2005) Archaeologies of the Future. The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso, p.199.

[2] Gates, Bill (2016) “The Day the Moon Blew Up”, gatesnotes (the blog of Bill Gates), 17 May 2016, available at

[3] Revelation 21:1. The story continues in 21:4: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away”.

[4] Cf. Hassler-Forest, Dan (2016) Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Politics. Transmedia World-Building Beyond Capitalism. London: Rowman & Littlefield, p.19.

[5] See e.g. Morris, S. (2003) Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in the Lonely Universe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.87-92.