When the premise for Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Termination Shock, was announced, I admitted to a little trepidation. It’s essentially a near-future climate change thriller, so there are plenty of landmines an author needs to avoid in order to produce something that won’t clash with readers’ probably complicated thoughts on the subject. Fortunately, Stephenson is up to the task. His stylistic mainstays of digressions and fascination with unexpected consequences all fit with the story being told here.
Any worries that the novel would devolve into indulgent, self-important lectures were allayed relatively early on in the novel. Once Stephenson started talking about feral hogs and their intersection with meth gators, well, I knew he wouldn’t let the seriousness of the themes overwhelm the need to tell an entertaining story. That sort of approach is much more likely to have an impact than a lot of climate-based science fiction, which has a didactic tendency to preach to the choir.
Of course, Stephenson’s idea of an entertaining story might not mesh with a lot of readers, and indeed, it features plenty of info-dumping and digressions on topics that you may or may not find interesting. Most of these explorations are driven by unexpected consequences of climate change or the idiosyncratic and varied adaptations humans have made to deal with it. I’ve already mentioned the feral hogs and meth gators, but there’s also fire ants, which are attracted to the ozone produced by air conditioner relays, which aren’t easily replaced due to globalized supply chain issues, so people start abandoning their homes in favor of RVs, campers, etc… Naturally, that gave rise to sprawling truck stop/gas station complexes that are almost like miniature cities.
The owner of those complexes is a cantankerous billionaire who has noticed that climate-based issues are driving down real estate values, and so he decides to engage in a bit of geoengineering. He hoards sulfur, then builds a giant subterranean cannon that will shoot the sulfur up into the atmosphere. The sulfur will reflect a sizeable portion of sunlight back out into space, thus lowering temperatures on earth (and apparently providing spectacularly beautiful sunsets). This is not a new idea, nor is it something that we have not observed in nature before. Some volcano eruptions, such as Mount Pinatubo in 1991, have resulted in exactly this sort of thing. Of course, the effects of such a strategy are inconsistent. We’re talking about global climate here, so models can only tell you so much. Yes, global average temperature will go down, but what sorts of local effects are you likely to see? What impact will this have on sea-levels in the Netherlands? What about the monsoon season in India?
The book is filled with these sorts of speculations and adaptations to climate change. Most are not good long-term solution, but it gets at the decentralized way people respond to these sorts of issues, and they do provide mitigating effects while longer-term strategies like carbon capture are being set up. As I’ve often observed, human beings don’t so much solve problems as they exchange one set of problems for another in the hopes that the new set is more favorable than the old. Such tradeoffs are covered in depth throughout the novel.
The big sulfur gun geoengineering scheme is often cited as the big idea of this book, but the real theme here is that the problem of climate change will be broken down into a series of smaller, more focused challenges and solutions. The big sulfur gun isn’t actually that big. At best, it’s a delaying action. But it is something! And we’ll need to do a lot of somethings, big and small, if we’re going to tackle climate change. The problem is too big, too complex, involving too many people, too many governments, and too many agendas to solve it any other way. This book illustrates the distributed way that this sort of thing will happen. Sure, maybe all the governments of the world will come together in peace and harmony and completely rework globalized energy networks, our financial system, and so on, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for that one.
At first glance, the story threads in the book are a bit scattered, but it’s not an uncommon approach from Stephenson. You’ve got a thread about Dutch royalty, a partial Native American on a Moby Dick-like quest to kill a specific feral hog, the aforementioned Texas billionaire, and a Canadian man of Indian descent who gets involved in a strange border conflict with China. The usual Stephensonian distractions and digressions are out in full force, touching on all manner of seemingly disconnected subjects from falconry to drone-assisted hunting to obscure martial arts to deepfakes to large scale engineering. It feels like Stephenson is just obsessing over things he finds neat, but something about the way he lays these things out and integrates them into the larger story works for me. It does all come together in the end, and I think Stephenson fans will find plenty to chew on. I’m a big fan of Stephenson though, so your mileage may vary. Some of the things I’m praising in this novel are things that I often don’t like in other books. In any case, I liked this enough to nominate it for a Hugo award, and I hope it does find a large audience.