Termination Shock – Neal Stephenson

Termination Shock

Termination Shock

Summary

With the global climate getting worse and worse, and the US in a shambles, one Texas billionaire has taken it on himself to do something, and to demonstrate to others (including the Queen of the Netherlands) just how it can be done.

Review

Neal Stephenson and William Gibson are often confused in my mind, likely because I’ve read little of either. I’ve read at least one William Gibson novel (didn’t care much for it), but I believe this is my first from Stephenson. Perhaps from now on I’ll be able to tell them apart.

I found Termination Shock to have a pretty rock start, a concern in a book of almost 700 pages. To my dismay, for at least the first 50 pages – possibly 100 – Stephenson seems to make no effort at all to make the characters engaging. We’re thrown into what appears to be an adventure story, with little knowledge about the world, and little reason to care about the half dozen characters we meet. The result was unsurprising; I didn’t care much about them, and didn’t feel very grounded in the world. In fact, it’s not until most of the way through the book that we get a good sense of the political realities (e.g., that the US is a decadent fiasco).

Those political realities, however, are really just a framework for a story about climate change and geoengineering, and – eventually – about a few particular characters. The character side of the story, unfortunately, is fairly weak. We start out with a host of people going to visit a demonstration project and, despite being wealthy, powerful people, they all travel halfway around the world, do as they’re told, and look at what they’re meant to look at – without ever a word of explanation. Not of what they’re seeing, that’s clear enough, but of why they’re there, and why they put so much trust in an eccentric Texas billionaire. The story starts with a secret flight into the US by the Queen of the Netherlands, but just why it should be secret is opaque, at best. It doesn’t help that a lot of those initial pages focus on how one man kills pigs.

Stephenson is clearly having fun describing the nuts and bolts of how stratospheric sulfur could mitigate the heat-trapping effects of atmospheric carbon, and of just how to get the sulfur there. There’s barely a glance, though, at the potential side effects (beyond differential effects on different parts of the planet). The overall thrust of the book is that it’s better to do something than nothing, even if that something hasn’t been thought out. That’s all well and good, but in the timeframe of the book, there would be time to at least discuss side effects, beyond just suggesting opponents are wacky nay-sayers. I found it disappointing to see so much effort expended on the hardware, and so little on whether that hardware is really a good solution.

There’s a stab at some geopolitical warfare, but it’s at a surprisingly limited level, and a lot of loose threads are left dangling. The Chinese are ubiquitous, nefarious, and powerful, and they do both good and bad things, but … oh well, that’s life.

Despite its weaknesses, the book is well written, and an interesting (if limited) exploration of at least one geoengineering approach to climate change. As a suggestion that we should finally do something about the climate it’s effective, and I take that to be at least one of its goals. And the characters do, eventually become more engaging, though the book remains fairly distant overall.

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