Imagining the climate crisis in the near future: Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock

Science fiction set in the near future can be very useful for futurists. Such stories give us glimpses of the present day unfolding over just a few years.  Creators either work with current trends, imagine new developments, or both.

That’s why our online bookclub has been reading near future sf over the years.  Books by the likes of Kim Stanley Robinson, Madeleine Ashby, Cory Doctorow, Malka Older, and Vernor Vinge have proven fine combinations of entertainment and food for thought.

Termination Shock coverIn that spirit I just read Neal Stephenson‘s new novel, Termination Shock. (Amazon through our little bookstore). This one also fit my research into climate change, because it imagines a near future where the climate crisis has gotten worse, and people turn to massive geoengineering projects to address it.

Here I’ll share some initial thoughts.  I’ll stash spoilers in a couple of paragraphs after a suitable warning sign.

Termination Shock is a near-future science fiction novel/technothriller about climate change. Specifically, it imagines a geoengineering project designed to reduce the Earth’s heating, and how it might play out globally.

To tell this story, Neal Stephenson assembles a global cast and sends them on a lot of travel.  In fact, we could classify much of the book generically as travelogue. The main locales are West Texas, the Netherlands, and New Guinea.

Stylistically, Termination Shock is very Stephenson, full of his classic wry humor, deep dives into topics, feats of martial arts, lots of engineering, and a geek’s view of human interactions.  It’s accessible and absorbing.

The book’s first half is mostly stage-setting for the second. In it we meet a Texan zillionaire who sets up an enormous gun (seriously) (very Jules Verne, I think) to blast sulfur into the stratosphere.  He names the thing Pina2bo, after the 1991 eruption. T. R. McHooligan (yes) creates an elaborate demonstration of it for an audience drawn from the leaders of certain locales most threatened by sea level rise, then starts the vast machine going. It’s a fait accompli, essentially accomplished without obtaining approval from national governments or anyone else. In fact, stopping the sulfur launcher would suddenly warm the Earth, the threat of which is what the title names.

That global audience includes leaders from London and Venice, but the main part comes from the Netherlands, including its queen, and their actions and reflections take up most of the rest of the story. An important local ally for them is Rufus, a military veteran specializing in shooting wild hogs, which plague the area. A B-plot involves a Sikh martial artist who trains around the world, then fights dramatically against Chinese competitors on the mountainous Line of Control.

Now for spoilers.

Spoilers inside

The Texan project succeeds in altering the world’s climate fairly quickly, which benefits some nations and irks others, notably India, which fears loss of water due to a shortened monsoon. A lot of geopolitical scheming goes on, as India fears disaster and China seeks to shape events.  Spies, media campaigns, and direction actions crop up.  Two other sulfur-launching projects are set up, in Albania and New Guinea, providing a kind of global balance. Then India launches a surgical strike to take out the Texan gun, crewed mostly by drones, and spearheaded by the Sikh martial star. The latter dies heroically, making a bookend to Rufus’ personal tragedy which appears right after the novel’s start.  The sulfur launches continue.

Overall, this is a very engaging novel. Stephenson creates appealing characters and keeps them in sufficiently dire straits to keep us reading.  There are several spectacular set pieces, like a surprising plane crash and a running gun fight with drones, humans, and hawks. The book explores a real-world problem with a nice combination or political imagination and technical expertise. This is the kind of thing near-future science fiction can do well.

A few pieces didn’t sit as well with me. The Sikh hero plot ended well, but getting there felt padded out by the author’s martial arts enthusiasm. Some of the characters were surprisingly thin, like Willem, a major narrative host, whose personal life barely flickers around the plot.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • Stephenson describes a vast Dutch engineering project in loving detail. This recalls his recent calls for humanity to attempt more such, as well as similar projects in Seveneves (2015).
  • The novel argues that climate change will alter geopolitics, with “some places that most people have never heard of… becom[ing] the Suez Canals of the future.” (500)  China is spooky, but doesn’t accomplish much by the end.  India is the active nation, while Russia mostly fades into the background.Here’s a term to conjure with: climate peacekeeping. (579)
  • America appears in an interesting way. As a nation it’s mostly marginal, with characters mocking it without reprove.  Or rather, the American government is mostly offstage. Instead, America appears as a space, and one where unusual possibilities are available.
  • Some of technologies in play: deepfakes, hydrogen-fueled aircraft, earthsuits (air conditioned gear for dangerously hot climates), sensory body modifications, personal cooling devices (“Me-Fridgerators”!), drone troop carriers, non-nuclear EMP generators, and lots of drones in general (here’s a story which just broke about using drones to hunt people in one of the areas the novel describes).
  • COVID barely appears.  There are a couple of mentions of characters killed by it off-stage, and notes of successor diseases (COVID-21, I think), but the pandemic is not effectively present.

Termination Shock is very different from Ministry for the Future.  Comparing the two would be productive, and perhaps for a later blog post.

There are many nice long passages, and I’ll close with one such quote:

…where Willem came from, a Rhine was sort of a big deal;. A third of the Netherlands’ economy passed up and down one single Rhine. They had, in effect, built a whole country around it. Here [in Louisiana], though, people were gunning their pickup trucks over a causeway bestriding two and a half Rhines just as a temporary diversion of a seven-Rhine river over yonder.  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. (96)

(Spoiler photo by Quinn Dombrowski)

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One Response to Imagining the climate crisis in the near future: Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock

  1. Reading climate-wise, Termination Shock just arrived, so I scrolled past the spoilers.

    I’ll start it when I finish reading Amitov Ghosh’s short non-fiction, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, on the challenge of writing “serious fiction” about climate that doesn’t get automatically categorized as science fiction. I don’t totally agree with him about the absence “serious” but find his idea connecting colonialism, culture, literary genres and “why contemporary culture finds it so hard to deal with climate change” beyond fascinating. Then comes Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse, on order.

    As an aside, I discovered all three, Stephenson, KSR and Ghosh, at the about same time at UC Davis — and in that order.

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