I recently read a novel I really liked and I thought I’d share it with you. It’s not a Zen book. It’s science fiction, which is way more fun to read than books about Zen.
The book is called Seveneves and it was written by Neal Stephenson. It came out in May, 2015. That’s almost a year ago. So by now there are lots and lots of spoilers all over the Interwebs, but I will try not to spoil any of the bigger surprises in this review anyhow.
In the first sentence of the novel the moon blows up. That hooked me in right there. A character obviously patterned on famed TV science guy Neil DeGrasse Tyson does some calculations and realizes that the seven large chunks the moon initially breaks up into will continue slamming into each other until there are millions of moon chunks in orbit. His calculations indicate that in about two years these chunks will start raining down on Earth in a continuous hail of debris that will last at least 5000 years. The heat caused by these rocks as they hurtle through the atmosphere alone will be enough to destroy all life on Earth, not to mention there’ll be boulders the size of Boulder crashing down on everything.
The novel is set in the very near future. So there’s no super space technology or warp speed engines or any of that to save us. The only hope for mankind seems to be an orbiting space station only a couple years more advanced than the current International Space Station (the main difference is there’s a captured asteroid attached, a real idea that’s already being considered). A plan evolves to convert this into a kind of ark in space which, with lots and lots of jury-rigging, might be able to support a couple thousand people. Though the whole thing also might break down comletely. It’s a very long shot but it’s all humanity has.
I’ve always liked end-of-the-world science fiction. One of my all time favorite films is The Quiet Earth, about a guy who awakens one morning to find that he may be the last person alive. I really enjoyed Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Even Godzilla was an end-of-the-world story.
One day our planet really will lose its ability to support life. It may happen quickly because someone does something stupid with our current arsenal of nukes. Or it may happen in the far distant future when either some future technology wipes everything out or just when nature decides it’s time.
I’m not sure exactly why, but reading Seveneves really affected me. It’s actually altered how I look at life. Which is odd because I don’t think that, for most people, Seveneves would be a life-altering book. I think the average reader would find it to be a very well-constructed sci-fi adventure novel, but I doubt it would be as a big of a deal as it was for me.
This book got me thinking about what happens if there really is no tomorrow. This is something I’ve thought about for as long as I can remember. It’s been the basis of a lot of what I’ve done in life. Somehow, though, the book has altered the way I think of that stuff.
I don’t believe in Heaven. I don’t believe in life after death. The notion that you should do things to prepare for an afterlife seems ridiculous to me. Even if reincarnation is real, you clearly don’t remember your past lives which would make the whole notion of continuity in the form we usually conceive of it absurd. So whether this is our only life or not, it makes the most sense to live as if it is.
But what does that mean? Does it mean you should be a total nihilist like Donald Trump and just gobble up everything you can, everyone else be damned?
On the one hand, that sounds like a reasonable response. If this is all I get, if I just die and disappear at the end, then why not have a total blast? Why worry about anyone else? Why worry about being good? What good does being good do?
Yet somehow I ended up getting drawn in another direction. First it was the highly ethically based version of the punk scene that attracted me. Those guys also didn’t believe in Heaven or an afterlife either. Yet they were still committed to being decent people. But they were also committed to doing that in their own way and having as good a time as possible while staying true to their ethical commitment.
This seemed like the best course of action to me then, and it still does now. When I started to feel like the punk scene was losing that sense of direction, I left and I found Zen. But I have to tell you, I’m probably still more committed to punk than to Zen. And if that hasn’t changed by now, I doubt it ever will.
I don’t mean punk as a musical and fashion style. I mean the idea that you can behave ethically while having a good time, and that this is the best way to live. In many ways I feel that Zen could be improved by adopting that outlook. Although I think lots of people in the world of Zen would disagree.
Anyhow, maybe I should get back to the book Seveneves and how it affected me.
We all know that we’re going to die some day. But even with that in mind, we know that we can leave some kind of legacy. It’s reasonable for me to believe that my books will still be read at least by a few people after I die. If you have children, they will be your living legacy. All of us will have some sort of effect upon the world even after we’re gone.
But what if that weren’t the case? It’s interesting to think about because it could really go that way. The moon probably won’t blow up. But there are thousands of completely plausible scenarios in which there really would be no tomorrow for any of us and no way for what we’ve done to ever be transmitted to the future. Someday, no matter what happens, every recognizable trace of every single thing humanity has accomplished will be gone. At least in any form we could currently understand.
What would it mean if this was really it? If this was really all there was or would ever be? Because maybe that’s actually how it is.
I don’t have any answers to these questions. But I’ve been dwelling on them a lot lately.
There are standard Buddhist doctrinal answers. There’s the belief in rebirth, which says life is an endless cycle and that everything you do is preserved eternally. My teacher said, “Our actions are carved into the universe.” I tend to believe that.
And yet, reading this book got me thinking, what if they’re not? And even if they are, what if it’s not in a way that I can really understand? What if Nishijima was right but the ways in which my actions are carved into the universe are vastly different from anything I can conceive of?
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Oooooh Neil Stephenson is great! Read “Snow Crash” and “Cryptonomicon” as well.
Neil Stephenson has written some really good books. I’d add “Diamond Age” to Shodo’s short list.
I picked up “Seveneves” with anticipation. At the half way point of the book I realized that I didn’t care one bit about any of the characters or what happened to them so I stopped.
Mr. Stephenson reportedly spent a lot of time making sure that what he wrote was technically correct. The characters seem to have lost out on the process.
Finding a friend for the end of the world. I loved it, too.
I fully believe every action is carved into the universe, every flap of butterfly wing, every tap of the fingertip onto the keyboard.
Keep on tappin’ Brad.
We all shine on, like the moon and the stars, and the sun.
For another excellent “what if this is all there is” scifi experiment (in a very different way), take a look at Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, also published last year. Also an arkship future kind of story, and (unless the moon blows up) more tied to our current trajectory.
I have to agree with Sailer, the book was tech rich and character poor. I skipped the middle portion for that reason. The last section was interesting.
Defiantly not life changing in any way. Perhaps I’m a born nihilist. 🙂
This as opposed to the rest of us stuck in Victorian era ethics?
When I read it (and I’m a big Stephenson fan, read most of his books), I had a similar reaction to some of the comments above – like he did a lot of author-research into the science of orbital mechanics to inject a sense of realism into an otherwise fantastical story. But though I found that element too nerdy for my taste, I plodded on and once the story moved beyond the survival-in-the-space-station stuff, it completely changes into a philosophical and metaphorical tale of what happens post-disaster. I mean, the title “Seveneves” actually does refer to the 7 women who (kind of) survived the disaster and their “archetypes” were the seeds for the 7 cultures of the new post-apocalyptic world that emerges at the end of the book. Nobody’s really talking about what winds up after all the adventures of the first 2/3 of the book. Anyway, not life-changing for me, but definitely a good read…
The Baroque Cycle!
The moon blows up in the first sentence?!
I’d stop reading right there. If the moon blows up, we’re all absolutely, categorically doomed. DOOMED, I tell ye.
Orbital mechanics?! Just the gravitational effects of the moon cracking into pieces – slowly, in a dignified manner – would cause mega-tsunamis that would wipe us all out. And that’s the best-case scenario.
Life on Earth needs the moon exactly where it is … and earthlings can’t live anywhere else but earth for more than a couple of years: not now, not never. These sci-fi arkship stories are just a superstitious bromide to make us believe we can kill our life support system and not go extinct. We can’t. DOOMED, I say.
I’m not very worried about the end-of-the-world, though. I know oblivion is in the mail, ETA sooner or later – and I’m all for preserving my own life, and everybody else’s. But I can’t shake the feeling that somehow existence isn’t optional: that even if everything was gone, new things would appear, even new life and new consciousness – and the new everything would be somehow linked to the old everything. I can’t justify that feeling: maybe it’s just a superstition or a quirk of my brain, but I have a strong sense of sureness about it.
Have you seen Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia? It’s about the same theme, and it has punched a hole right through my stomach. Even thinking about it gives me a sinking feeling. My grandma once said: “the world ends for everyone when we die”, and I realized all end-of-world prophets are literally correct; reality will actually be over in a few decades (for me). Melancholia added: “oh, and for your kids and loved ones, too.”
I’ve seen some Americans put off by Melancholia because it’s an European artsy film, which means it doesn’t exactly hold your attention. You just watch a bunch of people bickering and being depressed and stuff, for a very long and uncomfortable time—and then, end of the world. If you’re used to European artsy films or at least open-minded enough to try them, the juxtaposition is absolutely heart-wrenching.
An intelligent comment for once on Brad’s blog. Melancholia was great, and your comments on it rings true for me too. I want to watch more films directed by Lars von Trier, Bela Tarr, and Michael Haneke.
The people here, in general, are more concerned with sharing memes and crappy rock music.
I loved Melancholia, and wondered as I watched how many would get past the opening sequence… Excellent performances by all the actors, even Keefer Sutherland, who I otherwise generally dismiss.
I don’t know.
That is the worst comment on the worst thread ever
I went to S.F. last night to attend Neil Young’s film event at a theater there. His films “Human Highway” and “Rust Never Sleeps” were shown, with a live interview of Neil and some of the cast of “Human Highway” sandwiched in-between.
Interestingly, “Human Highway” was loosely an end-of-the-world film. Seems that Neil has also had the insanity of nuclear armageddon on his mind for a long time. Maybe he was raised with sirens and under-the-desk drills in Canada, and contemplated what could be his last thirty minutes on earth for awhile there under the desk.
The notion that the earth could be totally wiped out and no material human legacy persists doesn’t really change what I feel about my actions. Your punk ethos is still the way I’m moving; Gautama’s happiness in each of the further escapes is that, to me. That’s why I’m keen on Gautama’s way of living.
“I mean the idea that you can behave ethically while having a good time, and that this is the best way to live. In many ways I feel that Zen could be improved by adopting that outlook.”
MTD (Moral Therapeutic Deism) Zen, in other words. This explains a whole lot. It’s not really authentic Zen, of course, but it’s what people want from religion these days. There’s no arguing with what people want.
People been saying the world is gonna end ever since they looked around and noticed a “world.”
Sounds like an interesting read.
I had one delivered myself today called “Don’t Be a Jerk And Other Practical Advice from Dogen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master,” by some guy named Brad Warner.
I hope it’s good. I’ll let you know.
Be the first to review it for Amazon!
The Flat Earth Society has just announced that they are now recruiting new members from around the world…
So, there’s this small slug on the toilet wall next to me and once again, where are these things coming from? I can never find their ingress. This one’s getting flushed, like the others. When I used to lob them out into the dark, somewhere over the neighbour’s fence, they’d just come back, and more. But I won’t defecate on it, despite being readied, and despite the vast, commingled slurry awaiting it. It’s own flush to doom first. But a respectful one, considering my zero-tolerance approach to their glacial raids upon our home. A few minutes later, unsurprisingly, another one reveals itself just by my right foot as I stoop to pull up my jeans. I indulge in the passing fancy that there’s only one real slug and that this almost courageously puckish nib has something to tell me in disguise about such matters, as I pinch it lightly in a fresh square of paper and let it drop. I’m then reminded of Brad’s article on Seveneves and that gets me thinking about Gene Wolfe’s beguiling Solar Cycle books (whose first protagonist was called Severian) and the photograph of someone’s (I’d assumed) naked girlfriend left as a bookmark amongst the second cycle’s yellowed pages, and which I dropped burning into some rusty bin – poor wisp… Do slugs taste like snails?
Let us know.
“Our actions are carved into the universe.”
But sooner or later the universe will also die, won’t it?
The most recent data on the future of the universe gives a vision of never ending expansion. Since expansion causes cooling, at some point there will not be enough energy density left to sustain life.
This situation is known as the big freeze.
“Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.”
I say Robert Frost was biased to the cool side of things…
Seven come and
Seven go and
Seven still remain…
Seven holes and seven seams
Seven boiled and seven steamed
Imperial Teen – Seven
Sieben, sieben, ai lju-lju,
Sieben, sieben, ein, zwei,
Sieben, sieben, ai lju-lju,
Ein, zwei, drei…
Fuck yeah links! Open the seventh seal!
The first review is in. Three stars! (could be worse)
Wasn’t even a review – the person hasn’t even read the book yet.
And…on the basis of that one non-review, I ordered my own copy just now!
Hey, it had three stars…
Apparently he can’t read it, whatever downloaded on his kindle had the cover to Brad’s book but the content of Clearing Away Emotional Clutter by Dan Altman.
I’m sure Brad’s book is littered with emotional clutter, but that’s going too far.
we used to go to these every year, the drums really get intense after a couple hours
Yeah, SEVENEVES is a GREAT book. I snatched it right up because I loved Stephenson’s NECRONOMICON so much.
But it wasn’t so much about the end of the world as the REBIRTH of the world, which, we’re constantly dying and being reborn every moment of every day. It has a bigger context for me.
About 20 years ago my life got completely destroyed. I had a solid government job, benefits, retirement. It was all swept away in a day and I was imprisoned for 21 days in solitary confinement. And ever since I felt similar to those on the space station in that book, jury-rigging and building on everything. Now I’ve got a pretty good orbiting space ring and have made my first steps back down to planet earth again, or more like a few trips back to the town where I used to live and reconnecting with old friends.
So I’m in a new life now, but there are still parts of the old life there, like plants growing on a space station.
I still don’t know.
This guy might know:
Kinda like the Richard Simmons of Buddhism.
Nice. Perhaps we should all ramble over to his blog site and make his comment section the absolute worst blog comment section of all time.
I’m still shooting for a personal worst on this blog.
New book reviews still holding at 3 stars.
What’s up with the book cover for “There Is No God and He Is Always with You”?
Looks like it was designed by my mom. Actually it would be red if my mom designed it. She might even put a monster or two, depending on her blood alcohol level. “Don’t drink and design, Mama-san,” I always told her. But in this case… yeah.
I sincerely apologise for yo mom blood alcohol… made thing easier for me at time … couldn’ see bigger pickcha…
At chapta 3 of brad-sama book: so far, 4 star
Khru, you inspire me.
Flippin’ ball work; what could be so hard about that.
Mark, it’s simply a matter of having all your chakras aligned.
“He was there… in a 1905 ad for “painless dentistry,” beneath the quip, IT DIDN’T HURT A BIT!”
American culture goes ‘way back.
The full article
Don’t forget this kid…
Still holding at 3 stars. Perhaps the jerks are offended?
The snarkiness in this place has gone way up recently, and frankly I don’t care for it.
Hey Khru, STFU.
Even Jundo seems to like Brad’s new book!
I hesitated before buying your book, since Jundo seems to enjoy it.
I give this comment 5 Stars.
It’s enjoyable to read, and is just good sense.
Brad is like a God to the treeleafers, poor sod.
Yesterday in Barnes and Noble I saw a new science fiction book called “Don’t Be A Jerk”. The cover looked cool so I skimmed through a few pages but it seemed so far-fetched that I did not buy it.
Jerk-a-ganza 17: Psychedelic Dogen…
… it’s holding up so far.
It could be cuz I’m stoned, but that kinda freaked me out, but on the other hand it’s British crap, which is far too fucking obvious… unfortunately, cuz I’m in desperate need of a real freak out.
“I could’a been a jerk…” sez who
Holly shit, it’s up to 4.7 out of 5 stars.
Call me a jerk but I might even buy it.
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