Termination Shock

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.

Termination Shock book cover

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.

3 thoughts on “Termination Shock”

  1. Just finished the book. The first ~200 pages felt mediocre and lengthy, actually much less fun than the first ~200 pages of Fall. In the end, I agree with you that Termination Shock is a well-rounded thriller, although I am still disappointed that a termination shock of the geoengineering scheme did in fact not occur in the book. Was there room left for a sequel?

  2. When the title “Termination Shock” was announced, I thought it would be a reference to the termination shock of our solar system. As we learned more about the book, that was obviously not the direction is was going, but still. I’d love to see Stephenson go to space again (Anathem had some good stuff in that area, but not enough!) sometime. There’s plenty of room for a sequel, I think, though I’m generally not super excited about sequels. That being said, Stephenson could probably pull that off (Baroque cycle was pretty great) and I wouldn’t mind hanging out with Rufus some more…

  3. Seveneves was probably as much “going to space” as Stephenson will ever do. He basically said that in the text he published on his webpage before the book was published. I enjoyed the space aspects in both Anathem and Seveneves, too. And yes, I was also irritated by the title “Termination Shock”, but in the book, it becomes clear what the title means in that context.
    Btw.: As far as I remember, Stephenson wrote the Baroque Cycle as a single work, but it was published sequentially. Therefore, I don’t see the typical sequel problematic there. Speaking of, even before Seveneves Stephenson mentioned that he was working on a new multi-volume historical fiction epos. As I am a big fan of the Baroque Cycle, I have always been very excited about the prospect of something like that happening again. Do you have any information if this is still in the pipeline?

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