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By Omar El Akkad
By Neal Stephenson
We open on the queen of the Netherlands crash-landing a private jet on a runway in Waco, Texas, immediately precipitating a massacre of feral pigs.
It is, as far as beginnings go, fair warning: Neal Stephenson’s work might be deeply rooted in and informed by the blurriest edges of scientific inquiry, but a fundamental weirdness marks his fiction, often in a way so glaring yet unexpected that some readers will pick up his books just to see what the damn things are about. His latest — the 700-page climate-fiction opus “Termination Shock” — begins with a kinetic mania that feels very much in keeping with the opening of “Snow Crash,” Stephenson’s breakthrough novel and the book that perhaps best established him as a kind of speculative polymath, a hadron-collider of a mind.
But those feral pigs have barely turned cold before “Termination Shock” goes in a very different direction — 300 pages or so of mostly exposition and character back story, the price both reader and author must pay to construct the load-bearing narrative beams of Stephenson’s audacious future.
As you’d expect from a novel that spans just about every time zone on the planet, “Termination Shock” is about a lot of things, perhaps the most central of which is the intersection of hubris and technology, that place where the Anthropocene’s prettiest chimeras reside. Set in the near-ish future, the story charts a world gone haywire with the aftereffects of human-driven climate calamity; storm surges routinely inundate, hot seasons kill, entire swaths of the planet are becoming unlivable. Rather than try to mitigate the interventions that caused this mess in the first place, a Texas truck-stop baron named T. R. Schmidt has another idea — even more intervention, this time in the form of a huge skyward-pointed gun, designed to fire atmosphere-cooling sulfur into the air. As with almost all of Stephenson’s work, there is plenty of real-world bedrock on which he builds his fiction. Sulfur in the atmosphere can indeed theoretically cool the planet, though it can do a lot of other things too (most of them not particularly compatible with a healthy environment).
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Schmidt’s sulfur gun, and his decision to use it as the centerpiece of his unilateral geoengineering experiment, is the unifying thread in a story that features everything from Venetian nationalism to martial arts melees at the Indian-Chinese border. The characters who populate Stephenson’s fractured world are equally far-flung, and to his credit, the author gives the central ones elaborate pasts that could easily feel like notes cribbed from a series of unrelated Wikipedia articles, but don’t. There’s a density to these people, anchored firmly to the historical and geographical minutiae with which Stephenson is so often concerned. In fact, the back stories are the source of some of the book’s most emotionally resonant moments. As absurd as the rest of this sentence is going to sound, there is something profound in the grief of a veteran trying to hunt down the massive feral hog that ate his daughter. You don’t get this sort of thing too often in a lot of Stephenson’s work, and as is the case here, it’s all wrapped up in the sheer oddness of concept that permeates almost every other part of the scene. But when the author allows himself to center human emotion, he frequently does it quite well.
Partly as a result of all this density, though, the first half of “Termination Shock” can be a slog. There’s just so much character development to get through, so much technological and geopolitical groundwork to lay. It’s almost a necessity, given how sprawling and detailed a world the story demands. Stephenson is one of speculative fiction’s most meticulous architects, and here he’s got sheets and sheets of blueprint. If you’re one of the many readers who enjoy his novels for precisely this reason, rejoice — few writers do this stuff better. There’s a roughly 20-page section early on that explains exactly how the giant sulfur gun works, and I found it fascinating as a work of both imagination and pedantry. But there are also a couple of drawn-out scenes in which multiple characters speak almost exclusively in exposition and, at the end, one of those characters helpfully sums up all the key concepts discussed.
There are also more minor gears that don’t quite connect. Recurring Covid outbreaks — a device Stephenson returns to sporadically over the course of the novel and uses as a starting point for some interesting virus-circumventing technology — feel grafted on. They mostly get in the way of the narrative (are people going to social distance? wear masks?), and through passing mentions of social bubbles and the like, the concept is largely relegated to the background. Throughout the book, but especially as it nears its climax, the drones that fly in and out of so many scenes feel overused, their myriad capabilities bordering on deus ex machina territory.
It’s only in the last third of the novel that it earns its publisher’s “techno-thriller” advertisement. Once all the pieces are in place, the action picks up and the full force of everything Stephenson spent hundreds of pages constructing becomes clear. What feels at first like a largely unrelated side plot — that of an Indian Canadian named Laks who’s trying to find himself — comes into focus after a satisfying if highly unlikely (even by the standards of speculative fiction) series of twists.
One of Stephenson’s greatest talents is his ability to utilize size and scope, the spatial intensity of things. Throughout “Termination Shock,” this talent serves as a means not only to get inside characters’ heads, but also to show how the ordering of the world has changed in the years between now and this invented future. In one scene, a political fixer from the Netherlands considers the sheer bigness of the Mississippi, a waterway as expansive as seven Rhines put together: “It was one of those insane statistics about the scale of America that had once made the United States seem like an omnipotent hyperpower and now made it seem like a beached whale.”
In 1941, George R. Stewart’s novel “Storm” — chronicling the 12-day life of a fictional cyclone — was published. It is, arguably, the first modern eco-fiction novel. On the spectrum of work that has come out of the genre in the 80 years since, “Termination Shock” sits on the opposite side of something like Megan Hunter’s “The End We Start From.” Whereas Hunter deliberately paints her drowned London in subtle, understated shades, subjugating the origins and physics of the calamity to the poetics of the storytelling, Stephenson is very much interested in origins and physics. The result is not so much a novel of ideas as a novel of concepts. That’s not a criticism — “Termination Shock” manages to pull off a rare trick, at once wildly imaginative and grounded, and readers who go in for this world-building will likely leave with a heightened concern for all the ways in which we are actively making the planet inhospitable. Like T. R. Schmidt’s sulfur gun, this novel is both a response to a deeply broken reality, and an attempt to alter it.
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