Not only was Neal Stephenson an influential writer, he was also a prophet, perhaps the highest praise one can give to a science fiction writer. His novel “Snow Crash” conceptualized a fully immersive virtual world long before movies like “The Matrix.”
The book also coined the word “Metaverse” to describe the blending of virtual reality and the internet, a vision of the future that Mark Zuckerberg embraced to the point of renaming Facebook “Meta.” Stephenson too predicts the rise of bitcoin in his novel “Cryptonomicon”. In fact, many have speculated that Stephenson is the real identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous Bitcoin developer – a claims that Stephenson denies.
With such a reputation as a writer and visionary, one would expect Stephenson’s latest novel, ‘Termination Shock’, an epic climate change thriller, to finally be the wake-up call to shake the skeptics and the ignorant to serious action. Someone like Stephenson could make the climate crisis real for people, explaining science and its implications for humanity through a compelling narrative and well-developed characters. Moreover, he could consider politics and ideologies at stake as he did in his previous novels.
Unfortunately, rather than being a masterpiece from a writer in his prime, “Termination Shock” is mostly a sprawling mess from a writer who thinks he’s above abiding by the rules of his craft. Although there are several storylines progressing through the novel, few of them go anywhere or generate much interest.
Even with a wide cast of characters with their own motivations, none of them seem to change or learn much over the course of the novel. And although the themes of the book touch on some of the most controversial and relevant topics in modern society, Stephenson hardly bothers to say much about any of them.
Technology vs character development
Instead, what Stephenson seems to be talking about primarily in this 700-page book is geography, topography, and rocket science. To some extent, this was to be expected, since Stephenson considers the possibilities of geoengineering (i.e. manipulation of the global climate), but it quickly overwhelms anything substantial about the characters caught up in the scheme.
There will be many explanations about the political history of Indonesia, the cultural traditions of the Punjabi in India, the production of sulfur, the refining of crude oil or the unpleasant terrain near the Brazos River in Texas. As for why the characters do what they do and what their motivations are, there’s surprisingly little.
To his credit, Stephenson offers at least a somewhat realistic portrayal of climate change. Rather than resorting to apocalyptic glasses by Roland Emmerich, Stephenson simply describes rising temperatures that make winters look like summers and make summers almost unbearable. It also describes large-scale measures taken by developed countries to control sea level rise, tidal waves and massive hurricanes. All told, humanity seems to be adapting quite well to global warming.
This is why the central conflict of the story does not seem so urgent. Given that humanity has largely adapted to the changes brought on by climate change, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to take drastic measures to deal with it. Of course, some individuals in the elite classes could benefit from the reversal of global warming, but the majority of the human population seems to be doing just fine. When this fact becomes apparent, along with the fact that geoengineering would have unintended consequences, the protagonists frankly look more like villains than heroes.
And no, the diversity and representation of the protagonists does not compensate for this problem. As if to win a bet against those who doubt his storytelling ability, Stephenson builds his story around the most random and diverse assortment of protagonists: a Dutch queen, her gay half-Indonesian adviser, a Comanche redneck , a billionaire cowboy from Texas and a Sikh martial arts brother from Canada. Curiously, none of them are climatologists and have any significant influence on the events of the novel, except for the billionaire.
With so many characters and global conflict, the novel quickly becomes a convoluted assortment of various sequences of events (“plot” is too strong a word for them) and character expositions. The main plot concerns the Dutch queen Saskia visiting the launch site of the Texan billionaire TR who wants to lower the level of the oceans which threaten coastal metropolises around the world.
A subplot involves an Indo-Canadian Laks, who becomes an internet stickfighting sensation. A third plot follows the Dutch Queen’s assistant Willem, who travels and talks to people about what TR is up to. Finally, there’s a fourth plot in which a grieving divorced man finds himself working for TR after hunting boars that have overpopulated Texas.
All of this could work if one of these protagonists actually did something to earn the interest. With the exception of Laks, most of them listen to people, attend events, and attend rallies. This is partly due to Stephenson’s quixotic decision to choose the least relevant people he could think of for such a story. Perhaps he was tired of writing about scientists and world leaders, and wanted to consider viewers with whom readers could better identify – if that was the intention, use billionaires, queens and qualified practitioners of gatka (Indian stick fight) seems like an odd choice.
The other problem with the characters is Stephenson’s weakness as a novelist. Even though Stephenson provides each of them with stories, much of that exposition means little when all of them passively accept the situation around them. The details end up meaning little and there’s almost nothing given about the psychology of the characters. If the reader wonders why any of the characters do what they do, the inevitable answer will be “because of climate change or something”.
This problem of flat characters is compounded by the fact that they all have the voice of an inarticulate teenager. Whether they are royalty, rednecks or peasants from Papua New Guinea, they all use the same vocabulary and the same turns of phrase and express the same thoughts and responses. If Stephenson didn’t include their names, it would be impossible to tell who is speaking.
Luckily, between the gritty conversations between paper-thin characters, there are some interesting parts that discuss the science of the future. This is clearly where Stephenson is in his element, going into impressive detail about the technology and effects of climate engineering.
Although tedious at times, it manages to ground the novel in reality and make the prospect of global conflict stemming from climate change policies particularly unsettling. Even if the climate remains more or less the same in the decades to come, it is a safe bet that governments will nevertheless use it as a pretext to seize power and implement their agenda. After all, this is already happening to some extent in the West.
Predictably, Stephenson’s non-climate predictions, particularly with respect to computer technology, are also interesting and well developed. It is capable of realistically integrating self-driving cars, internet goggles, air-conditioned suits, powerful drones and other innovations.
In search of an audience
At times, Stephenson’s vision of the future seems a little too modest and somewhat myopic. Somehow, his characters don’t have the same attachment to their devices and online media that most people have today.
The demographics look more or less the same, although most societies will experience demographic decline at this point and a much different (probably worse) economic situation. And the political order of that time seems much the same, except the United States has become a dysfunctional “mess” that presumably can’t do anything about the climate change-related events that unfold in the novel – references slants to Jan 6 and Donald Trump suggests that the American political right is responsible for this outcome, if anyone is wondering.
Overall, it’s unclear who the audience for “Termination Shock” is supposed to be. Even for people heavily invested in climate change, “Termination Shock” won’t appeal to them as it remains somewhat ambivalent about its effect on the world and shamelessly pushes the radical case of geoengineering – something that would likely trigger environmentalists who already can’t stand nuclear power. For those who don’t care much about the matter, the whole book might seem like much ado about nothing.
Stephenson is obviously a brilliant and accomplished writer, but so little of that comes through in “Termination Shock.” No matter how a reader approaches it, it’s a disorganized book with little reward. Next time around, it should play to its strengths (the virtual world over the natural world), get back to basics (with well-defined characters and cohesive storylines), and deal with topics that will have more impact on the game. humanity only a slight warm-up. the planet.