This book is the first post-Covid novel I’ve read, although there have probably been some others written by now. But given that it was published barely 18 months into the pandemic, and the time it takes to write, edit, and publish a book of just over 700 pages, it’s a somewhat impressive feat. However, the handful of places where Covid is mentioned in those 700 pages – mostly having to do with using apps to alert you to the need to wear a mask due to the proximity of someone who has either been exposed or is at high risk of infection – it seems like these might have been worked in during the final stages of the editing process. They don’t play a role in the plot at all.
So no, Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock is not about Covid or any other pandemic. It is Stephenson’s entry into the growing oeuvre of SFF novels about people finally doing something about the climate emergency. I’ve enjoyed most of Stephenson’s books that I’ve read, starting with Snowcrash and The Diamond Age. I think he had one of the strongest three-book streaks in modern SF with Anathem, Reamde, and Seveneves, but the sequel to the action thriller Reamde, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell I found so boring that I didn’t finish it. Seriously. It started off with a very interesting premise, but about 300 pages into this 883 page tome I couldn’t force myself to go on.
Termination Shock starts off with a bang. Literally. The crash of the bizjet caused by feral swine on an airstrip in Waco, Texas. It’s being piloted by a woman we’ll come to know as Saskia, who is Queen of The Netherlands. Everyone on board survives and there’s some impressive action as they flee the scene for reasons unexplained. Then things plod along with a lot of exposition and setup and character introductions and engineering and meteorology and geology for quite a lot of pages. So about 200 pages in I was thinking I wasn’t going to like this one very much, but then things definitely picked up.
I’ve just read Kim Stanley Robinson’s two climate crisis books New York 2140 and The Ministry For the Future. In them, Robinson leaned heavily toward carbon sequestration and other large-scale mitigation efforts, initiated and run by large international bodies. In Termination Shock, Stephenson explores another, sometimes opposing strategy, geoengineering. Here’s what’s happening: A Texas billionaire named T.R. Schmidt has decided to take matters into his own hands and is firing rockets into the toposphere that spew forth sulfur dioxide. The highly reflective particles of sulfur reflect sunlight back out of the atmosphere, which cools things below. It happens when a particularly big volcano of a certain type erupts, which is where people got the idea; the last one that did this was the Phillippines volcano Mount Pinatubo in 1991, and in fact T.R. has named the ranch where he’s doing this, down in the Chihuahuan Desert, Pina2Bo. He has invited a handful of representatives of some places that face inundation from rising sea levels to witness the first launch. They’re from places like the City of London, Venice, and The Netherlands, which accounts for the presence of Saskia. They’ve been asked to arrive clandestinely, because … well that’s what gives rise to the book’s increasing pace of action.
Because, you see, some places will benefit from T.R.’s geoengineering scheme, and others will not. Not just physically, but also politically and economically. The fear is that some large, heavily polluting economies will use the artificial cooling caused by the sulfur injections to keep on dumping carbon and methane into the atmosphere. And the uneven cooling may ease droughts in some places but exacerbate them in others.
In addition to Queen Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia and T.R. Schmidt, the main characters in Termination Shock are Rufus Grant, a very mixed race U.S. Army veteran who hunts wild boars for a living, and Laks Singh, a Canadian Sikh martial arts practitioner. Rufus is a loner with a tragic recent past who’s quite a marksman and a self-taught drone expert. Laks is a directionless young fitness buff who goes to his Punjabi ancestral homeland to find himself and gets mixed up in the ongoing Chinese-Indian border dispute. A minor character but one who’s pivotal to our understanding of things that happen is Willem, the queen’s advance man. I can’t help but picture him as Willem Dafoe (who is probably my favorite actor, and who would be perfectly cast as this character if Termination Shock were ever filmed). And then there’s the guy who calls himself Bo, who’s some sort of high-up operative of the People’s Liberation Army, who keeps popping up wherever Willem goes and just before disasters happen.
Soon enough it becomes clear that somebody – China? India? Saudi Arabia? – is pretty upset about what T.R. is doing and … well, I just mentioned disasters happening. Things explode, guns are fired, drones are deployed copiously, and the disparate characters’ paths converge in a satisfying climax.
One thing I love about reading books by Stephenson (and yes, Robinson) is that I learn a lot of interesting stuff. In the case of Termination Shock that includes fascinating facts about the Line of Actual Control between India and China, the geography of Papua New Guinea, the Dutch flood control gate known as Maeslantkering, and the Punjabi martial art gatka. In case you need labels, Termination Shock isn’t hard SF, it’s near future speculative fiction. And you shouldn’t read it just for the interesting tidbits, but to keep the climate emergency in the front of your mind. Oh, and it’s also a fun read with characters you might become just a little attached to.
(William Morrow, 2022)