Over the past 30 years or so, Neal Stephenson has made a place for himself in the literary world somewhere between Tom Clancy and William Gibson. His early novels like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age were imaginative, second-wave, cyberpunk thrillers, swimming in the pools of then-speculative technologies like the “metaverse,” nanotechnology and AI.
Around the dawn of the millennium, Stephenson made a sharp left turn: His 1999 novel Cryptonomicon was a split-timeline narrative of WWII-era cryptographers and their rank-and-file cat’s-paws, as well as their descendants in the modern era working to create new cryptocurrencies backed by wartime gold hoarded away by their ancestors. He followed this up with his “Baroque Cycle,” which traced the fortunes of yet another generation of the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families…but in this case, during the Restoration, as they circumnavigate the world as pirates and weave themselves through the early histories of banking and science and the start of the modern world.
His new novel, Termination Shock, continues the form that Stephenson established in Cryptonomicon and later novels like Reamde and Fall: a “twenty minutes into the future” tale of climate collapse, geopolitics, obscure martial arts and cowboys, both literal and metaphorical.
The novel’s plot hinges on the climate crisis, as seen through the lens of the millions of citizens of “Netherworld”: the low-lying coastal areas, like Holland and Venice, that are faced with sinking beneath the rising tides of a newly hotter planet. This transcontinental, multinational, not-quite-community includes a motley and diverse cast of characters, from the Queen of the Netherlands to a Canadian Sikh welder who travels to the Punjab to connect with his heritage and somehow gets involved in a bizarre (and apparently real) ritualistic pissing contest between India and the People’s Republic of China in a mountainous region called the “Line of Actual Control.” Along the way, we also meet suave scions of ancient Venetian merchant families, the “Cajun Navy” (who organize disaster relief along the Gulf Coast and the bayous of the Mississippi Delta) and an ex-military mechanic turned feral hog hunter on a heartbreaking quest of vengeance against the pig who ate his daughter.
All of these misfits are drawn together, directly and indirectly, by a Texas billionaire named T.R. “McHooligan” Schmidt—a sort of cross between Ross Perot, Elon Musk and Colonel Sanders—who decides to actually do something about climate change: namely, to fire massive amounts of sulfur into the upper atmosphere to absorb and reflect sunlight, producing both glorious sunsets and a reduction in the rapidly rising global temperature.
Termination Shock’s plot is driven by the fact that Schmidt simply uses his wealth to just go ahead and start firing rockets, without seeking permission or begging forgiveness from any nation-state, governing body or authority. This, needless to say, does not go over well with everyone…particularly as his scheme will have unpredictable effects on many localized agricultural ecosystems, as well as the “termination shock” that will almost certainly happen to the global climate if, once started, the process is suddenly stopped.
All of this is laid out in Stephenson’s notoriously dense prose. His protagonists are almost always obsessive geeks of one kind or another, and here, as in his other novels, he uses that obsessiveness as a way to infodump vast amounts of information on his readers.
It’s funny and informative, but his target audience has always very much been the sort of readers who might watch YouTube documentaries on how ancient swords were made or how the global shipping supply chain works. It’s technothriller-as-infotainment.
For someone who is known for exploring the ramifications of seemingly simple decisions or technological innovations, Stephenson seems curiously disinterested here in looking at the consequences of Schmidt’s geoengineering scheme, which is in fact a real-world concept that is being thrown around right now as a way to combat climate collapse. Termination Shock’s narrative isn’t about whether such a process could prevent climate change, but rather how people and governments might respond to someone attempting such a thing. We never find out if it actually works, or if the side effects are worse than the problem it’s attempting to solve.
This creates a weird, tonal mismatch between the first two-thirds of the novel and the final act; we spend so much time on the details of geoengineering we expect the denouement to be about that. Instead, Stephenson seems to run out of steam; the novel concludes with a curiously anticlimactic shootout at the O.K. Corral that’s more Clancy than Gibson, devoting pages and pages to the finer points of using golden eagles as anti-drone countermeasures (no, really), even as other, massive events are unfolding in the wider world beyond the West Texas desert, where the novel’s cast of characters have all come together. (This is something Stephenson has struggled with before; Cryptonomicon is a nearly 1,000-page epic that ends with its heroes battling a minor character who has been mentioned only in passing before.)
The real joys of this novel are in the eccentric, yet weirdly plausible details of the characters, most of whom are multiethnic and multicultural in ways that are too absurd, in our globally connected, modern world, to be unbelievable. Stephenson is not a moralist, and he’s always excelled at making even his antagonists sympathetic, and that remains the case here. There are no bad guys or good guys; just people trying to do what they think is right or muddle through a confusing world.
It’s impossible to tell if the hasty resolution of Termination Shock is setting up a sequel; it certainly feels like it would be a waste to create such compelling characters and then just sort of leave them on the stage. But the ride thus far is entertaining, and even if Stephenson doesn’t really follow the big ideas of the novel to their logical conclusions, they still make for fascinating, if not always immediately compelling, reading. Here’s hoping this is the first part of a bigger story of how humanity survives, or doesn’t, the termination shock of necessary change in the middle of the 21st century.