With a single step

Paul Constant

March 13, 2017

Eventually we’ll get to the stars, but first we have to walk.

I do not like to run. I’ll sprint for a bus now and again, but the rhythm of jogging, the enthusiastic bouncing, has always felt artificial to me.

Instead, I prefer to walk. Not jaunts to the corner store or after-dinner strolls through the neighborhood. I can walk a marathon every Saturday — in fact, I basically require it. I’m a long-distance walker, by which I mean that if I don’t walk at least 12 or 15 miles in a weekend, I feel antsy and paranoid for the rest of the week. My body doesn’t really feel comfortable unless I walk 20 or 25 miles one day out of the week. The longest I’ve done in one day is 40 miles

It didn’t start that way. My walks began with afternoons at the movies. On my day off, I’d take a bus from my Capitol Hill home to the University District to watch a matinee or two. One day, I decided to walk to the University District, on a meandering route that led me through the Arboretum. It was so pleasant, I did it again the next week. And again.

Eventually, other possibilities started to come to mind. Could I walk to the movie theater at Northgate? Turns out, I could. Columbia City? No sweat. Soon, I stopped going to movies because the two hours sitting in the dark was getting in the way of the walking. With the help of Google Maps, my walks became more and more ambitious: I walked to West Seattle, and then to Bellevue. And one day I walked home from SeaTac. It was 25 miles, through parts of south Seattle I had never before seen — the Green River Trail, South Park, Tukwila. That was the day a hobby became an obsession.

My world is pedestrian-sized. Walking Seattle has taught me how the many neighborhoods and suburbs of city are connected. It keeps me in touch with Seattle’s changes – the construction that comes and goes, leaving a whole new neighborhood in its wake, the tent cities mushrooming under every bridge – and it reveals the neighborhoods that I would never have otherwise visited. I walked around Lake Washington in a two-day trip of 60 miles total, and I walked from the southwestern corner of Seattle by White Center to the northeastern tip of Seattle by Shoreline, a distance of 27 miles. I understand this land so much more than when I started walking a decade ago, and there are very few corners of this city that I haven’t visited.

Walking, it turns out, is not just my speed – it’s also my rhythm. The relentlessness of three miles per hour, the repetitious steps adding up to an impressive distance, is incredibly satisfying. I like to look at a map afterward and see how far I’ve gone. And my wristwatch step-counter has brought metrics into the whole thing. Now I know how far I walk at all times – exactly 2,529 miles in the last year, a total of 5.5 million steps – and I can place that on a globe and visualize my walks into a greater context. Between this February and last, I nearly walked across the United States.

World records for sprinting do not move me, but the patient rhythm of consistency is the music at the core of my being. Many years ago, I saw a photograph of Charles Schulz’s drawing board. On that board, he drew every Peanuts comic strip that appeared in newspapers every single day for nearly 50 years. And you can see that, with nothing more than ink on paper, Schulz eroded the surace of the drawing board away. He wore through the veneer, leaving smooth, raw wood beneath.

We usually only attribute that kind of relentless work to a force of nature, like tides patiently smoothing away the craggy rock face of a cliff. But Schulz did it with just his hands and a particularly tenacious commitment to professionalism. In my most prideful moments, I believe that I do something like that with my walks: I can travel dozens of miles in a single day, just by taking one step at a time. I wear distance and space away, just by putting one foot in front of the other.

When I talk to people about my walks, one of the first questions they ask is this: what do you listen to? The answer to that question has evolved as much as the length and character of my walks have changed through the years. At first, when I was just walking six to ten miles in an afternoon, I didn’t listen to anything. I was figuring out how the city was connected, and my attention was necessary as I worked out how to be a pedestrian in Seattle.

But as the walks got further and further, I needed something to distract me from the monotony of the traffic’s roar. I used to load up an iPod with music and listen to that. Then, two years ago, I started listening to political podcasts.

This was new to me. I never had much patience for talk radio. My mind would always wander when I listened to NPR, and I’d lose my place so easily. I had never successfully listened to a whole episode of This American Life, much to the consternation of my peer group. But political podcasts would keep my attention well enough, though I would go whole miles with the conversation in my earbud (because I never wear both earbuds while walking; I like to have one ear in reality at all times) reduced to a drone in the background of my attention.

Then, one day, my finger accidentally brushed against the speed button in my podcast app, and the world opened up. At one-and-a-half speed, my attention didn’t drift. No longer would I get bored at the pauses of a speaker, or the conversational delays. Finally, the voices in my ear moved at something equivalent to the speed of my thoughts. It was like falling in love. A whole new world opened up.

But as my walks lengthened and as the years turned, my political podcasts turned into endless processions of Donald Trump-related conversations. I started to realize that the podcasts were stressing me out and making my walks less enjoyable. And so then a thought occurred to me: Why not audio books?

For reasons explained above, I’ve never been able to listen to audio books. My attention would drift and I’d suddenly be hopelessly lost in the narrative, like when your eyes trace and retrace the same paragraph again and again when you’re reading while tired or uncomfortable. I just assumed I’d never be able to track an entire book in audio form.

But if I could listen raptly to podcasts at 1.5 speed, why wouldn’t I be able to enjoy an audio book? So I visited Libro.fm, an independent site that sells audio books in cooperation with local independent bookstores, and I browsed their bargain section. An unabridged version of Seattle sci-fi author Neal Stephenson’s latest novel Seveneves was available for $5. It was too good a deal to pass up.

So I bought the book. Even at an advanced speed, it took a long time to listen to the whole thing; at regular speed, it’s listed at nearly 32 hours. So I carried it in my ear on my walks for the next few weeks – up the Burke Gilman Trail to Lake Forest Park, and down the Interurban Trail to Kent, and through Boeing Field to Tukwila. I devoted all my walking time to the book, and it kept me company. Finally, last Saturday, toward the end of a 25-mile walk to Issaquah, Seveneves finally ended. I had successfully listened to my first audio book. It will not be my last.

Neal Stephenson understands the importance of rhythm. His first book to break big, Snow Crash, was the kind of sci-fi novel that packed ten million tiny ideas into just a few hundred pages. It seemed to be bursting with concepts, an overstuffed piñata. Even today, people are still prizing Snow Crash apart and discovering once-weird concepts that have transformed into banal everyday reality in the years since Stephenson published the book.

But as he grew more confident as a writer, Stephenson learned to parcel those ideas out. Some of the fans of Snow Crash’s giddy freneticism didn’t enjoy the more leisurely apportionment of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, or Cryptonomicon, or even the modern-day thriller Reamde. And you get the sense that Stephenson was more than happy to lose those impatient fair-weather fans. Stephenson isn’t interested in shocking his readers, or throwing as much as he can into the story in a fit of distraction. He doesn’t want to overwhelm with choice — instead, he seeks to overwhelm with the clarity and quality of his ideas.

In this way, Seveneves is likely the most Stephenson-y of all of Stephenson’s books. It begins with the destruction of the moon, and then it teases the reader by almost immediately hand-waving away the reason behind the moon’s destruction. The why, in Seveneves, doesn’t matter. Stephenson is only interested in the how.

And so that’s what he’s done. Seveneves is a story of survival: how humanity came together in the days after the moon’s destruction and before the resulting meteor storm that would render the Earth uninhabitable for millennia, to ensure that future generations would survive.

If you’re not the kind of person who would enjoy chapter after chapter explaining the technical aspects of space travel, Seveneves might not be for you. Several chapters are given over to detail-obsessed descriptions of plastic sheaths that provide shelter for astronauts. (A few passages evoked nothing so much as the passages in Moby-Dick where Melville ignores plot, character, and theme, reveling instead in whaling industry trivia.) And Seveneves’s endless recurrence of immediate problems which must be solved by resourceful humans can become a little numbing. But those problems establish a rhythm, and Stephenson is using that rhythm to tell an important story.

Now is the perfect time to read Seveneves. As we’re reeling from the destruction of order at the hands of an inexplicable chaos agent, Stephenson’s optimistic account of people gathering purposefully together in a spirit of community is downright inspiring. Sure, the humans in this book have their problems, but they’re also willing to come together and construct solutions to advance the human race. Even better, they’re eager to incorporate the failings of the human race into their solutions, to bake our meaty venalities and emotional frailties into the system so — to employ an engineering cliché — those frailties are features, and not bugs. Stephenson gives us a human race that we want to root for, that we need to survive.

A few of Stephenson’s choices are problematic. Some characters in the book are fairly obvious analogs for present-day celebrities including Neil deGrasse Tyson and Malala Yousafzai, which is slightly distracting until Stephenson can make them his own. But it’s obvious why he’s chosen the people he has to represent in his book: they are, in many different ways, problem-solvers – both scientific and social – and Seveneves is nothing if not a book about solving problems.

The space refugees in Seveneves are trying to figure out how to keep humanity alive for millennia on a space station. They don’t have the luxury of being distracted by morning newscasts, or social media, or celebrities. Though Stephenson places them in advanced versions of our most sophisticated spacefaring technology, he also forces them to address our most human problems: our need to have sex at semi-regular intervals, our demand for downtime, our boundless capacity to be annoyed with other humans.

Seveneves doesn’t avoid interpersonal conflict. It’s not some Star Trek utopia where humanity has evolved beyond the petty and the ignorant. But it does imagine a future in which we work to overcome those species-wide traits, rather than revel in them. It is, to be short, a story that we need right now.

When Seveneves was first released, Seattle Review of Books co-founder Martin McClellan reviewed the book. (You can read his review here.) Martin found the structure of the book to be problematic. After more than 500 pages following the nascent human space colony, Seveneves leaps forward in time by thousands of years, to show us the society that those first humans built.

It’s a gutsy move – one that annoyed plenty of readers. Martin’s reading of the book makes total sense; Stephenson masterfully trains his readers to care for a large cast of characters, and then he turns away from them onto a whole new cast, one which is at least as alien to us as ancient Egyptians are to modern humanity. Structurally, it’s an almost unforgiveable choice. I, however, loved it. But I think that I loved it because of the time in which I read Seveneves. Here is a book that promises a long and fruitful future for the human race after the worst disaster imaginable; this is a message that many are desperate to hear right now.

But this isn’t just some feel-good fable. In fact, it’s a practical demonstration of Stephenson’s worldview. Stephenson is affiliated with The Long Now Foundation, a group that urges people to take a longer view of the human story than just days or weeks or decades. The project which the Long Now Foundation is possibly best known is the 10,000-year clock, a device manufactured partly in Seattle which is scheduled to be buried in a Texas mountain. The clock will play new music at regular intervals, never once repeating itself for ten millennia. It is intended to remind us that we are small points of a much larger constellation, the story of the human race. Stephenson contributed to early attempts to design the clock, and he has been influential in its construction.

Some would argue that the long view diminishes individual human achievement. Even a list of supposedly indelible names – say, the American presidents – smears into a blur when viewed from a vantage point of thousands of years away.

But Stephenson demonstrates exactly the opposite in Seveneves. Choices made in the first two-thirds of the book have direct repercussions in the final third, hundreds of years later. Personal foibles become cultural institutions, and personal strengths become fable and lore. These two chunks of book, which at first seem too separate to belong between the same covers, prove to be inextricably linked in both obvious and nearly imperceptible ways.

As read by Mary Robinette Kowal (the first two thirds) and Will Damron (the final third), Seveneves is a series of echoes reverberating around a large canyon. When read aloud, Stephenson’s language – clinical, inquisitive, thorough – gains a warmth that it sometimes loses on the page. Kowal and Damron’s voices never interact, but they call and respond to each other through time. They are separate, but intertwined in some incredibly intimate ways.

In the end, Seveneves is a celebration of this long view. Though it does pulse with some of the same problem-solution, problem-solution, problem-solution rat-a-tat pace of The Martian, in which a crisis presents itself and is solved, only to be replaced by another, bigger crisis, those problems aren’t the point of the book. Humanity’s survival, really, is never in doubt; Stephenson is too much of an optimist to let us die.

But that flash and bang and narrative energy is in service to a deeper rhythm. Stephenson isn’t interested in sprinting to the resolution. He’s more interested in teaching us to think about how far we can go. He’s training us to think about the long distance, to imagine a story as not just the overcoming of conflict, but as a map for a much longer journey. When you finish reading Seveneves, you realize how far you’ve traveled — and when you look back at where you started, you realize that it’s further than your eyes can see. You’ve moved a great distance, and the experience has changed you, inside and out.

Books in this review:
  • Seveneves (Audio)
    by Neal Stephenson

    May 19, 2015
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on Libro.fm
  • Seveneves
    by Neal Stephenson
    William Morrow
    May 18, 2015
    880 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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