Neal Stephenson is not only an influential writer but also a prophet, perhaps the highest praise one can give a science fiction writer. His novel Snow Crash envisioned a fully immersive virtual world long before films like The Matrix.
The book also coined the word “Metaverse” to describe the merging of virtual reality and the internet, a vision of the future that Mark Zuckerberg embraced to the point of renaming Facebook “Meta.” Stephenson also predicted the rise of Bitcoin in his novel Cryptonomicon. In fact, many have speculated that Stephenson is the true identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin — a claim Stephenson denies.
With such a distinguished reputation as a writer and visionary, one would expect that Stephenson’s latest novel, Termination Shock, an epic thriller about the fight against climate change, would finally be the wake-up call, rousing skeptics and ignoramuses to serious action. A person like Stephenson could make the climate crisis real for people, explaining science and its impact on humanity through a compelling narrative and well-developed characters. In addition, he was able to take into account the politics and ideologies at play, as he has done in his previous novels.
Unfortunately, Termination Shock isn’t a masterpiece by a writer at his peak, but rather a sprawling mess by a writer who feels he’s disrespecting the rules of his craft. Although multiple storylines run through the novel, few of them go anywhere or arouse much interest.
Even with a variety of characters with their own motivations, none of them seem to change or learn much over the course of the novel. And while the book’s themes touch on some of the most controversial and relevant issues in modern society, Stephenson rarely bothers to say much about them.
Technology vs Character Development
Instead, Stephenson seems to be mostly talking about geography, topography, and rocket science in this 700-page book. To a degree, this is to be expected given Stephenson’s consideration of the possibilities of geoengineering (i.e. global climate manipulation), but it quickly overwhelms all that is essential about the characters trapped in the scheme.
The political history of Indonesia, the cultural traditions of the Punjabi in India, sulfur production, crude oil refining or the inhospitable terrain near the Brazos River in Texas are discussed at length. There is surprisingly little as to why the characters do what they do and what their motivations seem to be.
To his credit, Stephenson offers at least a reasonably realistic account of climate change. Instead of resorting to Roland Emmerich’s apocalyptic spectacles, Stephenson simply describes rising temperatures that make winter seem like summer and make summer almost unbearable. He also describes the epic measures taken by developed nations to control sea level rise, tidal waves and massive hurricanes. All in all, humanity seems to be adapting fairly well to global warming.
Therefore, the central conflict of the story does not seem so urgent. Given that humanity has largely adapted to the changes brought about by climate change, there seems to be no reason to take drastic action against it. Sure, certain individuals in the elite classes could benefit from reversing global warming, but the majority of the human population seems to be coping just fine. When this fact is made apparent, along with the fact that geoengineering would have unintended consequences, the protagonists frankly come across as more like villains than heroes.
And no, the sheer variety and representation of the protagonists doesn’t make up for that problem. As if trying to win a bet against those who doubt his storytelling ability, Stephenson builds his story around the most random and diverse assortment of protagonists: a Dutch queen, her gay, half-Indonesian advisor, a Comanche redneck, a Texan cowboy -Billionaire and a Sikh martial arts brother from Canada. Curiously, apart from the billionaire, none of them are climatologists or have any significant influence on the events of the novel.
With so many characters and global conflict, the novel quickly becomes a convoluted collection of different sequences of events (“story” is too strong a word for them) and character portrayals. The main plot involves Queen Saskia of the Netherlands visiting the launch site of Texas billionaire TR, who aims to lower sea levels that threaten coastal cities around the world.
A secondary storyline involves an Indian-Canadian Laks becoming an internet stickfighting sensation. A third storyline follows Willem, the Dutch Queen’s assistant, traveling around talking to people about what TR is doing. Finally, there is a fourth plot in which a grieving divorced man works for TR after hunting wild boar that have overpopulated Texas.
All of this could work if one of those protagonists actually did something to earn interest. With the exception of Laks, most of them listen to people, witness events, and attend meetings. Part of this is due to Stephenson’s adventurous decision to choose the most irrelevant people he could think of for such a story. Perhaps he was tired of writing about scientists and world leaders and wanted to consider viewers who readers could better relate to – if that was intended to use billionaires, queens, and veteran practitioners gatka (Indian stick fighting) seems like a strange choice.
The other problem with the characters is Stephenson’s weakness as a novelist. Although Stephenson provides backstories to each of them, so much of this portrayal means little when everyone is passively participating in the situation around them. The details mean little in the end and there is little about the psychology of the characters. If the reader ever wonders why any of the characters are doing what they are doing, the inevitable answer is “because of climate change or something.”
This problem of shallow characters is compounded by the fact that they all have the voice of an inarticulate teenager. Whether noble, hillbilly or peasant in Papua New Guinea, they all use the same vocabulary and phrases and express the same thoughts and answers. If Stephenson didn’t give their names, it would be impossible to tell who was speaking.
Fortunately, between the terrifying conversations between gossamer characters, there are some interesting sections discussing the science of the future. This is where Stephenson is clearly in his element, going into impressive detail about the technology and the impact of climate engineering.
While occasionally boring, it manages to ground the novel in reality and make the prospect of global conflicts arising from climate politics particularly unsettling. Even if the climate remains more or less the same over the coming decades, it is likely that governments will still use it as an excuse to seize power and implement their agenda. After all, this is already happening in part in the West.
As might be expected, Stephenson’s non-climate predictions, particularly in terms of computational technology, are also interesting and well developed. It can realistically integrate self-driving cars, internet goggles, air-conditioned suits, powerful drones, and other innovations.
Looking for an audience
At times, Stephenson’s vision of the future seems a bit too modest and a little short-sighted. Somehow its characters don’t have the same attachment to their devices and online media as most people do today.
The demographics appear to be more or less the same, although by that time most societies will see population decline and a much different (probably worse) economic situation. And the political order of that period seems pretty much the same, except that the United States has become a dysfunctional “mess” that presumably can’t do anything about the climate-altering events in the novel — oblique references to January 6th and Donald Trump suggests that the American political right is responsible for this outcome, in case anyone is wondering.
Overall, it’s difficult to pinpoint who the audience for “Termination Shock” should be. Even for people keenly interested in climate change, “Termination Shock” won’t appeal to them, as it remains somewhat ambivalent about its impact on the world and makes an unapologetically radical plea for geoengineering — something that would likely put off environmentalists who use it anyway cannot stand nuclear power. For those unfamiliar with the subject, the whole book may seem like much ado about nothing.
Stephenson is obviously a brilliant and accomplished writer, but so little of that comes through in Termination Shock. No matter how a reader approaches it, it’s a disorganized book with little profit. Next time he should play to his strengths (the virtual world over the natural world), get back to basics (with well-defined characters and coherent plots), and cover issues that will have a bigger impact on humanity than a slight warming of the planet .