Neal Stephenson – Termination Shock (2021) review


A couple of decades into the future, weather events have become even more crazy and heatwaves affect everybody’s lives on a daily basis. Especially in the southern US, where we find ourselves. The Queen of the Netherlands is keeping a low profile as she flies with a small entourage to Houston, Texas, to meet a tech billionaire with an audacious plan to singlehandedly engage in some drastic geo-engineering. Because of extreme heat and an incoming hurricane, their little plane swerves to Waco and then crashes, and the Queen and her entourage is taken up by a local Comanche desperado with a Captain Ahab complex for killing the wild boars that are flooding the state. Not to mention the meth gators. 

As you see, there is a lot going on in this novel and you can count on Stephenson to give us ambitious stories with unusual and funny characters and wonky plot-lines. And yes, it has the unnecessary back-stories and it has the info-dumps, but those are features. I read Stephenson the way I read Bill Bryson: I enjoy his writing voice and interesting ideas (especially when his exposition is about Dutch culture and royalty. I can almost hear Stephenson think: “I need to research the shit out of this. And I need to make a list of Dutch names and expressions”). 

It is a reasonable question to ask how much of this story is about politics, because climate change is by its very nature completely interwoven with politics. Stevenson’s own political preferences are actually not so salient in the story because he is more interested in telling character journeys in a tongue-in-cheek way, while letting the setting of the book tell its own story about the social and natural consequences of extreme weather events. The weather is its own character in the book. As the characters move through that setting, we readers follow their personal confrontations with these events. And sometimes Stephenson makes them say things to indicate that our attitude to petrochemicals is changing. It is foremost a story that investigates a setting and not a political manifesto. 

Termination shock is a technical term that gets its meaning later in the book, but in the meantime we have future shock by all the flooding and extreme heat in the world, and culture shock by the Dutch queen as she makes her way through Texas (which I enjoyed a lot). The US doesn’t come out well in this future, but the story is not as darkly satirical as the first half of Fall, or Dodge in Hell (2019) (but a lot better than Fall’s second half). The story is a bit on the slow side and the characters don’t have any spectacular arcs to follow, because their objectives and desires are abstract and danger is far off, but the thematic material is interesting. Stephenson stands on far shakier ground when he starts extrapolating our current pandemic, and makes predictions about the near future that could be dated very quickly. 

Let’s get down to brass tacks. (I don’t even know what that means.) LET’S GET DOWN TO BRASS TACKS. This book is about an individual act of geo-engineering and the crazy, unexpected consequences. Stephenson doesn’t present this as a good – or even preferable – way to handle climate change, notwithstanding his predilection for putting tech tycoons in his novels. He simply follows the assumption that politics will fail royally to do something about it and that it is a matter of time until some entrepreneurs take matters into their own hands to serve the most desperate customers. It makes for a cool story, and Stephenson is able to root his story in economic and political considerations that make it feel grounded in reality. The unexpected consequences I mentioned above are also seen through that economic and political lens, making the novel blossom into a geopolitical techno-thriller in its final quarter. 

Compared to the rest of Stephenson’s bibliography, it is not his most exiting or energetic novel, but solid and interesting enough and well worth reading. The story ranges all over the world and embeds a lot of cultural depth, post-colonial histories, identities and geopolitical tensions and that is all very fitting for a story about a global phenomenon like climate change. The greatest difference with writers like Robinson is that Stephenson still mostly wants to be cool, and an entrepreneur with a crazy plan is cool, and putting martial arts in your book is cool. It is the basic nerd mindset that shapes the overall mood of the book. 

Termination Shock wisely refrains from picking sides, and is more interested in focusing on the revenge of geography for nations around the world. When your country is in danger of being flooded, or of heating up so much that it becomes unliveable, or when your breadbasket depends on a monsoon, that tends to shape your concerns and motivations. And when the geo-engineering genie is out of the bottle, new political alliances and fault lines emerge. The book sure made me wonder what the next few decades are going to be like.

This entry was posted in Books, Science fiction and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Neal Stephenson – Termination Shock (2021) review

  1. Andreas says:

    I‘m hooked. When Stephenson is good, he’s great. Still have to read Dodge, though.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Bookstooge says:

    getting down to brass tacks.

    I believe it comes from when you used to pull up carpet, there were brass tacks keeping the undercoating (I don’t know what it’s called) of the carpet attached to the floor. So it basically means you’re getting to the bare essentials of the issue with nothing covering anything up.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Wakizashi33 says:

    *”and putting martial arts in your book is cool.”* Yes! I was re-reading Neuromancer over the weekend and love the scenes with Hideo, the ninja.

    I still want to read Seveneves, but the length of Stephenson’s books always makes me hesitate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s typical Stephenson, putting a ninja in the story. Hm I miss the days when his books were a bit shorter. He said that people love big books, but I also think that he doesn’t want to spend time editing to make them shorter. They’re still good, so…

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I’ve often been curious about Stephenson’s work but at the same time I’ve been awed (not to say a bit terrified) by my perceived complexity of his books which don’t look suited for the faint hearted 😀 and so I wonder which of his works would be a good starting point…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. bormgans says:

    I´m on page 457 right now, but so far I think Stephenson does pick sides, and this book is about much more than cool stuff. I´m a bit on the fence about the detail and backstory. It might be necessary on a fundamental level. Have to think about it some more. Anyhow, I think he cleverly wrote a highly political book disguised as entertainment. I´ll get back to your review when I finish it. Atm, I would also rate it 8.5. I´m very curious for the last quarter.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ola G says:

    Sounds good! Not Stephenson’s best is still pretty good, usually, and I’m glad to see you enjoyed this one.
    Which Stephenson’s books are your favorites?


    • My favorites are Anathem and Cryptonomicon. Really loved them. After that, the Diamond Age and Seveneves. What about yours?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ola G says:

        I’ve actually only read Anathem and Seveneves, and the first is among my absolute favorites, while the second felt quite uneven – brilliant in places, laughable/irritating in others 😉 I have Cryptonomicon on my TBR though, so early next year I should be able to get to it 😉

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s