The journey back

Many stories are odysseys, even some that aren’t. The truest definition, I believe, is not a journey into the unknown, but a long return from it. Neal Stephenson recounts an odyssey 5,000 years in the making. But you can’t go home again, not really.


Imagine our world if the moon – which has been a sort of anchor since long before we existed, which has populated our images and songs and mathematical equations, and which we all distantly consider ours – were to break. Worse still, this steady object among our belongings turns against us.

It isn’t an eclipse but a shattering, which at first splits the moon into a few large pieces that in a two-year span divide and subdivide as they knock against each other. As the pieces become smaller and more numerous, they fall upon the earth like a “hard rain,” lasting millennia and rendering the world uninhabitable in its wake.

In this story about change, the world unites to engineer a colony in orbit where the species may survive. The plan is to wait – 5,000 years according to forecast – until it’s safe again to land. But the thing is complicated, because only some can escape in time, and because in orbit the living environment requires adaptation.

A new society of orbit dwellers will be in some ways similar and in some ways very different from the society we know. It is a new civilization of women and men on a long, long journey home. The distances are vast, the path is circular, and the destination is always in sight.

Some readers have complained about the enormity of the book’s technical detail — the physics, the mechanics, the small descriptions of the gadgets — filling the large space between plot points in a speculative fiction 900 pages long. These qualities, and the length, serve a melodic purpose. The rhythm is slow, and the song is beautiful and strange, like its title, which is a palindrome…

You can’t go home again, it says, because you are already there.

A lovely view of heaven but I’d rather be with you…