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Neal Stephenson wants to talk about geoengineering, but first some (many) detours
A review of Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock, which would have benefited from better editing.1
“People were expensive; the way to display, or to enjoy, great wealth was to build an environment that could only have been wrought, and could only be sustained from one hour to the next, by unceasing human effort.” — Neal Stephenson, Termination Shock
One of my favorite techniques in science fiction is taking pop-culture jokes seriously, expanding upon their ramifications with character, setting and story. Bruce Sterling’s 1998 gem Distraction opens with members of a local Air Force base holding a shake-down bake sale.2
Neal Stephenson’s 2021 stratospheric-geoengineering treatise Termination Shock launches with an attack by “30-50 feral hogs,” inspired by a tweet that launched a memetic debate over whether and how much the threat of backyard feral hogs are “legit” or ridiculous.
Stephenson convincingly demonstrates that the feral hogs overrunning Texas are a demonic scourge, in an extended opening sequence in which the hereditary queen of the Netherlands, Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia, barely survives a plane crash caused by a roving herd.
The herd is led by a Moby-Dick-esque beast known as Snout, who killed the young daughter of one of the other main protagonists, Rufus “Red” Grant, in his yard in rural Texas. Having tracked Snout’s herd for years, Grant saves the queen and kills his nemesis. He then helps her make her rendezvous with the cornpone oil billionaire T.R. “McHooligan” Schmidt, who has begun secretly launching sulfur rockets into the stratosphere to dim the sun. This rogue effort is a cheap way to simulate the effects of nuclear winter enough to counteract the deadly buildup of greenhouse pollution, as long as the rockets keep going.
If that sounds like an enjoyable start to a novel, then you probably have read other books by Stephenson. Unfortunately, it’s by far the most dynamic sequence of the book. The beginning thrill ride is pretty much a headfake, as the book switches erratically to its main topic of geoengineering and becomes, even by Stephenson’s standards, boring and talky.3
The vast majority of the rest of the 720-page tome offers an extremely good sense of what it would be like to hang out with techno-billionaires like Nathan Myhrvold and Jeff Bezos, offering several practical tips on how to stay on their good side (he’s worked for both).4
In interviews, Stephenson has said that Termination Shock is meant to describe “the geopolitical reaction” to global warming and the potential decision to engage in geoengineering. His goal was to have “realistic characters having realistic arguments,” to “make it a topic of conversation.”
I do think this is a helpful entry in spurring that needed conversation. But on its own, the book is less a serious investigation of the geopolitical ramifications of geoengineering than a monologue from a globe-trotting techno-enthusiast. I do wish his characters had any real psychological differences. It’s great to be reminded that gender, race, and wealth are irrelevant to whether you are a reliable, hyper-competent, semi-horny techno-enthusiast MacGyver, but it’s genuinely difficult to tell the characters apart when they’re talking.
So while it goes into remarkable detail on the mechanisms of the sulfur-launcher and the Netherlands’ movable seawalls, Shock’s political analysis doesn’t go much deeper than: it’s hard to cut carbon pollution, Greens don’t want us to do anything, geoengineering might benefit some regions and might harm others.
For example: by necessity of making the rogue billionaire geoengineer something of a good-guy protagonist, Termination Shock is blithely optimistic about the reliability of climate-model downscaling of the impacts of stratospheric sulfur injection. There’s the repeated implication that there would be clear regional winners and losers, as opposed to new and different forms of anthropogenic climate chaos.
As a novel, Termination Shock—whose truly global scope may be its strongest attraction— feels a bit too much like a collection of magazine-length travelogues; the stitching still shows. That said, the up-to-the-minute references to COVID and QAnon and the January 6 insurrection imply that awkwardness may be deliberate. Stephenson is okay with breaking the fourth wall, reminding the reader that the novel’s characters don’t exist but that the real world very much does. Set vaguely in the future, Shock is fundamentally a 700-page essay of Stephenson's opinions at and about the moment of writing (June 2021).
As explicitly-of-the-moment climate-politics tracts go, I greatly preferred Swedish author Andreas Malm’s Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, written and published a year earlier. It too has great cover art, punchy writing, and covers our global climate politics with greater insight and depth in less than a third as many pages.
However, I enjoyed Termination Shock much more than Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, a 560-page assemblage which has been heralded as a serious work of climate fiction. I won’t go into my feelings about Ministry here (if you’re deeply interested, here’s a thread), but one element of comparison is worth raising. Robinson has India do stratospheric sulfur injection without sparking World War III, whereas Stephenson has the U.S. (technically, a rogue American) do it. So, I guess they're both optimists. Unlike Ministry, though, Shock doesn't even try to imagine turning off the fossil-fuel spigot.
So far, of the three white western-American-male climate SF novels I've read recently —Termination Shock, Ministry for the Future, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s Water Knife, written in 2016—I feel that only Water Knife fully worked as a novel and an analysis of politics and society under global warming.5
Some of that may simply be because Bacigalupi didn't make technocrats, royalty, or billionaires his protagonists. They certainly exist in his narrative and shape it, but their stories are, in the end, kind of boring. Like Ministry and Shock, Water Knife begins with heart-stopping action, but then doesn’t let up. It’s a much more harrowing read, but I think it would be a mistake to think of it as dystopic and the others as optimistic—they're stories focusing at different moments of different people’s lives on one functionally equivalent near-future hothouse Earth.
I’ve been an admirer and enthusiast of Stephenson since reading Snow Crash when it came out in 1992. It was a particular delight to discover his earlier books, The Big U and Zodiac, were thinly fictionalized depictions of his and his friends’ adventures in my hometown of Boston. He was literally one of those cool weird environmentalist techno-geeks I admired as a teenager.
Termination Shock has been described as Stephenson’s first global-warming book, but Zodiac was a roman à clef about a Greenpeace activist, Snow Crash depicts hordes of climate refugees swarming a newly temperate Alaska, Diamond Age a post-21st-century-World-War-III global society, Seveneves depicts the apocalypse. So it would be better to say this is the first time Stephenson’s work has been branded as climate fiction.
The books also track Stephenson’s progress in society, from the scrappy dirtbag protagonists of the Big U, Zodiac, and Snow Crash to the scrappy dirtbags, billionaires, and queens of Reamde, Fall, and Termination Shock. He writes what he knows!
It is fun to read T.R. Schmidt’s plot-driving actions, magpie personality, and love for explanatory bloviation as a stand-in for the author as he constructed this novel. This, for example, could be authorial self-description: “T.R. was the living embodiment of what was now denoted ADHD. He went off on tangents, a small percentage of which made money.”
The tangent-prone Stephenson really can write action sequences! And depictions of complex machinery! He and his characters have a great sense of humor and a deep appreciation for cool. And every so often he turns out a gem of a sentence like this:
“It was one of those insane statistics about the scale of America that had once made the United States seem like an omnipotent hyperpower and now made it seem like a beached whale.”
To return this to where I started: Termination Shock shares a good amount of plot geography with Sterling’s Distraction, which also primarily takes place in the fetid Texas-Louisiana zone of a broken-empire America and gives the Netherlands a starring role in weird war. I believe that the quarter-century-old Distraction is still one of the strongest climate-politics SF novels extant, and re-read it about once a year. Each sentence crackles, the ideas come fast and furious, the politics are meaningful, the characters compelling, the plot tight and satisfying.6
Have you read Termination Shock? Do you have a recommendation for what I should read next? Please:
I refer both to this review and to the book.
Sadly, in Distraction, the schools do not get all the money they need.
Anathem is possibly my favorite Stephenson work, which is a deliberate triumph of slow verbosity.
Understand that every interaction with them is a test; demonstrate your competencies; never be boring or unreliable; be a performatively respectful listener; accept any nicknames they bestow upon you.
I should also throw in Cory Doctorow’s 2017 Walkaway, a valuable book inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell. He may be Canadian but he lives in Los Angeles.
To the degree you feel compelled to read a cli-fi novel written by a white cis-het man born in the 1950s who resides in the American west, I’d still put Distraction first—The Water Knife is only disqualified from this competition because Paolo Bacigalupi was born, like me, in the 1970s.