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.