Neal Stephenson’s Latest Novel Tackles Social Media (Hint: Future Humans are Not Impressed)


Stellar Social Media

In the first line of Neal Stephenson’s epic sci fi tome, Seveneves, the moon shatters into seven pieces. Two years later, all life on earth is destroyed by the resulting rain of moon rocks from above.

Fortunately, before this cataclysm begins, humanity manages to send a small representative group of the species into space to live in a floating swarm of space station modules. These modules, naturally enough, are connected by social media applications running over a mesh network.

Given the projected importance of this network for maintaining a community, a social media celebrity named Tavistock Prowse is selected as one of the lucky survivors to join the new space colony. I’m not giving away anything not already stated on the book’s back cover when I note that things do not go well. (Especially for Tavistock Prowse.)

Enough people survive, however, for humanity to continue. As the book jumps 5000 years ahead, we learn that future humans have studied the life of Tavistock, and more specifically his interaction with social media.

They’re not impressed…

Tav’s Mistake

Here’s some exposition starting on page 641:

Anyone who bothered to learn the history of the developed world in the years just before [life on earth ended] understood perfectly well that Tavistock Prowse had been squarely in the middle of the normal range as far as his social media habits and attention span had been concerned. But nevertheless, [a large segment of the future human population] called it Tav’s Mistake. They didn’t want to make it again.

This aversion is expressed in the future humans’ technology. Though they live in massive floating space stations, their personal electronics, as Stephenson explains, are less capable than the average smartphones from the time of earth’s destruction.

This is no accident:

Any efforts made by modern consumer-goods manufacturers to produce the kinds of devices and apps that had disordered the brain of Tav were met with the same instinct pushback as Victorian clergy might have directed against the inventor of a masturbation machine.

Have I mentioned recently how much I like Neal Stephenson?


On an unrelated book note, my friend Ryan Holiday just published his new book: Ego is the Enemy. I read it and it’s good. In the world of practical non-fiction, Holiday has carved out a effective niche that crosses erudition with the drive for better self-performance. His last book became a surprise hit among professional athletes. I predict this one will have similar resonance among the high achieving class.

16 thoughts on “Neal Stephenson’s Latest Novel Tackles Social Media (Hint: Future Humans are Not Impressed)”

  1. Tavistock Prowse; clearly an allusion, and I dare say, and indictment of, the Tavistock Institute. An organization engaged in the ephemeral “business” of public relations and opinion shaping. Neal must have giggled a bit when penning that one.

  2. Am I getting it right? Rather than face this storm of lunar meteors sheltered in a cave buried 1,000 feet underground, these people decide to live in a “swarm of station modules,” where they’ll be protected by, at most, a quarter of an inch of aluminum, with death following in seconds when that’s penetrated. And don’t forget that in space they’d be subject to every meteor flying about, however small. On earth, their only danger is from those large enough to make it through the atmosphere..

    For the sheer stupidity, this novel rivals On the Beach (1957). In the latter, a shelter mere yards underground would provide sufficient protection from the radiation. Indeed, in the plot a submarine travels north safely protected by a few yards of sea water.

    On the Beach got gushing praise from a clueless media. I guess we can expect no better to this bit of silliness. I really can’t understand how anyone can fall for plots so ridiculous.

    • To say more would be unconscionable spoilage of the plot, but no– you’re not quite getting it right 😉

      Cal, I thought of you when reading this section! I move that Study Hacks devotees adopt Stephenson’s term “amistics” to describe this particular field of study.

    • Aren’t we getting a little prejudgmental?

      Without having read the book, it is clear that there are a ton more degrees of freedom in space than when being stuck in a rat hole. One could be on an orbit outside the orbit of the moon (moon debris falls inwards, you know, the initial velocity you need to escape the gravitational potential of Earth is quite high) – you might want to look up Lagrange points for some ideas on stable orbits – or the modules could be on a totally different inclination plane. Furthermore, space stations, unlike bunkers, have engines, or do you really think that the ISS let any incoming meteorite destroy some billion dollar investment ? A small burst, calculated by the computer, generally suffices to adjust the orbit a little bit and let the meteorite pass sideways.

      Anyhow, I don’t know how N. Stephenson deals with it in this particular novel (I’m eager to find out), but I’m sure that he will, given his general focus and thoroughness, have done it diligently.

    • Wow, thanks for your (unsolicited and irrelevant) opinion on the story plot. Try reading the book. I have. Personally, I read and disliked the book, but at least I did the courtesy of reading it and understanding the plot accurately.

    • Isn’t this similar to the asteroid strike which wiped out dinosaurs millios of years ago ? cause is the dust particles in air which prevented sun rays reaching earth which in turn caused all plants – source of food on earth to die off… what will you do when your underground bunker supplies dry off, use artificial light to grow food ?

  3. Do we really need someone to write a book to tell us this? Something that we already know. Also do we need you to plug your friend’s book too?


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