NEAL STEPHENSON HAS a well-earned reputation for the kind of prescience that is equally often — sometimes in the same breath — hailed as one of science fiction’s most urgent and critical contributions to the public good and eagerly mined for technocultural Easter eggs. Most recently, he popped into headlines in relation to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s much-giggled-over video announcement of the company’s new push to build its own “metaverse”: the concept comes from Stephenson’s 1992 magnum opus Snow Crash, a novel that (with William Gibson’s 1984 Neuromancer) essentially bookended the heyday of cyberpunk. Only a few years prior, Stephenson had made a similar splash when rumors began to circulate that he not only anticipated the concept of cryptocurrency in 1999’s Cryptonomicon but in fact was Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym by which Bitcoin’s anonymous inventor goes. (This allegation proved so convincing that Stephenson had to spend some time denying it repeatedly, and he wasn’t always believed.) Stephenson, in short, has built a career out of not only his immense formal ambition and prolific production of sprawling SF narratives, but also his noted skill at preemption, his ability to anticipate the scientific moment to come rather than react to the one that already is.
This paratextual track record makes Stephenson’s newest novel, Termination Shock, an even more uncanny and unsettling read than it otherwise might be. Set in the near future — near enough that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are still cultural icons and COVID-19 merits a mention; distant enough that COVID-23 and COVID-27 do too — Termination Shock traces a dystopian world in which “global weirding” is in full force. Three striking examples from the first 20 pages alone: fire ants, drawn to ozone and concentrated by rising sea levels, destroy the air conditioners without which Texas has become genuinely uninhabitable, causing supply chain collapses and mass displacement; international travelers pack “earthsuits” in their carry-on luggage to deal with the wet-bulb temperatures they expect to find upon disembarking, even as they are rerouted to Waco because the air in Houston is too hot to allow their plane to take off again after refueling; massive packs of feral hogs cause crash landings when they swarm ill-attended runways. These are just as bizarre on the page as they sound when reported. (In particular, the last, unintentionally or not, evokes the infamous Twitter exchange in which singer-songwriter Jason Isbell’s earnest tweet calling assault rifles out as unnecessary earned the equally earnest response, “Legit question for rural Americans – How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?”)
In true Stephenson fashion, though, none of these are throwaway pieces of worldbuilding or spectacular background left behind in favor of the real plot. Collectively, they catalyze the encounter that will prove central to the book’s arc, in which Saskia, the queen of the Netherlands, accepts a mysterious invitation from T. R. Schmidt, a tycoon who has made his money on massive truck stops (that feel, though they may not be, based on Texas favorite Buc-ee’s). Schmidt may have begun in truck stops and real estate, but he is now turning his attention to a much more ambitious project: how to lower soaring temperatures worldwide by injecting sulfur into the atmosphere with enormous underground guns installed on expansive compounds. He’s got the first such gun and a stockpile of sulfur in hand, and he has invited Saskia along with a number of other representatives of wealthy areas threatened by rising sea levels (e.g., Venice, the City of London) in order to earn their buy-in as he takes the endeavor — named “Pina2bo” in a cheeky nod to the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, which lowered temperatures by nearly a degree over the next year — first online, then global. What follows is a rollicking tale of geopolitical conflicts and complications, as countries spar over the varied effects of the Pina2bo project (which grow increasingly complicated for climate modeling as new sulfur guns are built), try and fail to effectively rein in this project (a losing battle given the ineptitude of the US government’s regulatory systems), and improvise new political positions and affiliations after the cooler temperatures quickly start to gather global approval for geoengineering fixes. Turns out all we needed was an Elon Musk figure after all, willing to spend his fortune on techno-salvation for the anxious but placatable masses!
By and large, Termination Shock seems to be garnering exactly the critical response that its marketing materials set out to invite: namely, praise as a bold thought experiment, as (per its starred Kirkus review) “the kind of climate-change fiction we all need,” presumably because of Stephenson’s willingness to enthusiastically throw his considerable narrative weight behind no-holds-barred global mitigation projects rather than namby-pamby promises to tweak emissions here and there. I’m not so sure, though, that narrative endorsements of unregulated, untested projects by billionaires that promise to salvage the real estate value of Houston while shrugging off the prospect of catastrophic monsoon disruption for India and China as acceptable collateral damage are the kind of climate change fiction we all need. Termination Shock is genuinely thrilling in its giddy, manic commitment to thinking at scale, as in the accounts of geoengineering’s infrastructural schematics that stretch over dozens of surprisingly enthralling pages. This kind of calculated overload is what Stephenson does best, and such ambition is, as the recent Glasgow Climate Change Conference sadly illustrated, largely lacking in global climate action. “Vague promises to cut back on carbon emissions at some point in the distant future are too little, too late,” one Dutch politician announces as news leaks of the Pina2bo project. “No, the only way out of this emergency is geoengineering.”
But there’s something discordant and unpleasant about Stephenson’s treatment of other perspectives on climate change adaptation or mitigation in Termination Shock, which periodically evinces a profound scorn for any environmental position that is less than full-throated in its enthusiasm for cowboy-led technocratic intervention or that expresses concern that such actions may create unforeseen regional catastrophes. The “fucking Greens” are the novel’s favorite punching bags, pish-poshed as knee-jerk Luddites unable to move past naïve environmentalism and tackle the project of saving the world like grown-ups: geoengineering, we learn, was “loathed by the Greens. Just anathematized. To the point where you couldn’t even really talk about it in public or you’d get cancelled.” It’s a position that shades quickly and routinely into a dismissal of climate justice. On a professional visit to New Guinea, where another sulfur gun is being constructed, one of Saskia’s advisors looks out over a copper pipeline and thinks,
His Green instincts, drilled into him by a life spent in a modern Western social democracy, told him to be outraged by what the miners had done to this part of the planet. But he knew that every wind turbine feeding green electricity into the Netherlands’ grid had copper windings in its generator and copper cables connecting it to the system.
What this part of the planet might have to say about it seems inconsequential; nor does it seem accidental that this is vocalized through a gay Indo-Dutch man, as though to forestall concerns of white Western imperialism or ecofascism.
Things get even more concerning in the book’s most strained subplot — the only one to follow a figure not intimately tied to Saskia, T. R. Schmidt, or their various employees — which traces an Indian Canadian man named Laks from his career as an elite martial artist to his entrance into the battleground at the Line of Actual Control between China and India to his somewhat less than informed or willing conscription into India’s secret forces deployed to put a halt to the Pina2bo project. “I have just struck the first blow in the defense of our Breadbasket against the toxic and aggressive actions of those who would seek to, uh, change the climate in a way that is, uh, deeply toxic and racist,” Laks recites haltingly on camera as prompted. Whether or not he will be successful in the second blow is at the heart of the novel’s imaginatively unhinged climax (drone-fighting eagles taking to the sky over the Chihuahuan Desert in defense of American geoengineering!). The ethical question is sidestepped at the last minute in any case. “If they’d bothered to ask,” Schmidt drawls, he’d have been happy to share “the simulations my boys put together of how we can make it all work. Punjab’s gonna be fine.” Trust the Texan, y’all! Laks’s story line comes to an end with the revelation that none of it was necessary in the first place.
That’s not entirely surprising. Ultimately, what Termination Shock seems to find most interesting is the way that the daring and wealthy might accomplish what stagnant nation-states and entrenched political interests would never dream of doing. This geopolitical scale coheres what might otherwise be an impossibly large narrative world. It also marks a distinction in how Stephenson has approached the increasingly ubiquitous project of writing his climate novel in comparison to other fiction writers working from a wide array of genre positions. Cli-fi characters may brush against the machinery of power, but they generally map the projected experience of climate change among the variously vulnerable: not so in Stephenson’s work. Marketing materials aside, it wouldn’t be reading too much against the grain to situate all of this as satire, just as the excesses of Snow Crash were intentional hyperbole, parodies of the genre conventions and the technocultural contexts of cyberpunk alike. In that light, Termination Shock is less visionary thriller than biting cautionary tale. Let’s hope, then, that Termination Shock never receives the headline treatment celebrating Stephenson’s prescience, as Musk or Bezos or some other eccentric billionaire cops to spearheading a radical geoengineering project because no one else was stepping up to the plate. Narrative thrills notwithstanding, it’s a chilling view of the world.
Rebecca Evans is an assistant professor of English at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where she researches and teaches American literature, speculative fiction, and environmental studies.