TERMINATION SHOCK – Neal Stephenson (2021)

Termination Shock Neil Stephenson ToppingScience Fiction has always been about its own times too, and so today Cli-Fi – a term coined by Dan Bloom – is taking center stage more and more. While there is Cli-Fi that’s not speculative, so far most of it has been part of SF, and lots of SF authors will have to incorporate some of its elements, whether they want to or not: anybody writing about future Earth will have to deal with climate change one way or another. While we continue our journey into the 21st century, the Change will become less and less speculative, turning what started as a speculative genre into dead serious realism. Horror possibly. It’s clear that fiction about the changing climate is here to stay, in whatever form.

Over the past few months, I’ve read 3 high profile authors’ most recent takes on the genre: Bewilderment by Richard Powers, The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson and Neal Stephenson’s brand new Termination Shock.

I’ll briefly compare these three offerings, but let me first situate Termination Shock in Stephenson’s larger oeuvre, and also say something about its general merits. There will be no spoilers, but I’ll have to talk about the book’s core message – as that needs more than just a novel, but a megaphone too.

Stephenson’s track record since 2015 has been a bit spotty. It seems generally accepted that Seveneves didn’t top Anathem, and that his two latest books where overall letdowns: D.O.D.O. is not much more than a very entertaining beach read, and while 2019’s Fall; or, Dodge in Hell starts as powerful satire it morphs into a snoozefest.

It will please Stephenson fans that Termination Shock is more or less a return to form. Not that it is on the same level as Anathem, or packs a similar, monomaniacal Hard SF punch as Seveneves. But this book isn’t a lighthearted blockbuster affair like D.O.D.O., even though its story could be made into a thrilling movie easily. And while there was some drag occasionally, it doesn’t have FALL‘s long-winding descent into a narrative virtual void.

Not that it will convince everybody: Termination Shock has 706 pages with lots of backstory and details that some will find unnecessary and boring. A long read, yes, but more friendly to the general reader than some of his other works – Stephenson even takes time to explain the word ‘stochastic’.

True, at times there’s detail that might not really be needed, like when he lists the birth years of three brothers of a character that do not become characters themselves. But on the other hand, you could simply say it is immersive writing, in a form that keeps the reader on its feet, as you never now which detail will prove to be important later. Moreover, genealogical complexity is an important part of the ideological foundation of the book, and it is Stephenson’s eye for detail that gives him an edge over books like Bewilderment – but more on that later. (For those interested: in an interview with Elizabeth Tabler for Grimdark Magazine he talks a bit about his tendency to include lots of information.)

Make no mistake about it: I thought the bulk of this book was a very smooth, entertaining ride. The novel has both depth, cool tech and cool action stuff – but calling it a full thriller is probably a bit of a stretch, even though it indeed has guns and spies and a strong geopolitical conflict angle. Stephenson’s prose seems effortless and the way he makes everything click – all the different threads, themes and characters he set up in the first 400 pages – is masterful, almost jaw-droppingly so.

As for those themes & characters: this is a novel which superbly pairs choices of plot, setting and characterization to its thematic core. Again, Stephenson makes it seem natural, but balanced writing like this is way beyond most authors.

The Netherlands and its Queen might seem like an improbable focus, but the country is both below sea level, a former colonial power and an engineering hub – tying three threads intimately connected to climate change together. Similarly, Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia, the Queen, carries quite some symbolic weight: a powerless constitutional monarch, a parent of an idealistic Green daughter, a descendant of ancient wealth, a shareholder of Royal Dutch Shell, a flesh & blood woman, a well-connected socialite whose life is governed by news cycles, and someone familiar with realpolitik – “a big part of her job had always been signaling agreement with people who were some combination of delusional or disingenuous”.

Similarly, when I first read the blurb online, I was disappointed that Stephenson picked yet another billionaire as an important character – like a Queen, a cartoon, undoubtedly, no? But again, T.R. Schmidt – the Texan who starts the geoengineering project that is central to the story – works both as a realistic character, as well as an over the top symbol. A self-made man, albeit one that got millions from dad, and now making money with gas stations with over 100 pumps each. Played by an actor in his own commercials, later even replaced by an animation – a cartoon indeed. Egocentric, and at the same time a philanthropist. In the end, a character that reflects the complexity of the human world.

Complexity and connections: that’s what this book is about. Our planet is complex and connected, politically, financially, culturally, genetically, historically, and as a weather system.

But the book is also about an important disconnection: the disconnect between people and reality.

For starters, there’s the disconnect between “elite cultural and diplomatic circles” and reality. While Termination Shock acknowledges the problematic political course the USA has been on for quite some time – the book is set somewhere after 2029, and the USA by then is “a basket case and global laughingstock” – at the same time Stephenson acknowledges that “on the nuts-and-bolts level of the petroleum and mining industries, they still seemed to get a lot done in the world.” It is something “the chattering classes, who live in that sort of bubble” don’t seem to grasp, just like “the Greens” don’t get that you can’t just stop enough people eating meat or buying cars.

But Stephenson’s main target is not those who offer easy critique of the USA or big footprint lifestyle on social media – it is the West at large. A Chinese character utters what is the very heart of this novel: “It is a very curious thing about the West. This inability, this unwillingness to talk about realities. Basic facts that are obvious to everyone not in your bubble. (…)”

Yet surprisingly maybe, with Termination Shock Stephenson doesn’t really try to point at the general disconnect between people and the reality of climate change as such, as he did in that Grimdark interview:

The world’s reaction to COVID–which unfolded as I was writing this book–showed us that it’s impossible to get many people to believe in the existence of a disease that is placing them and their loved ones in immediate danger and causing hundreds of thousands of people to drop dead all around them. Trying to communicate about human-caused climate change is far more difficult than that, given that the consequences are mostly far away and detectable only by scientific instruments and statistical analysis. It would be difficult to get people to understand these facts even if social media weren’t pouring highly optimized disinformation into their heads.

Stephenson points at something much more specific in this book. He spends quite some time painting a crucial aspect of that reality: the vast scale of the United States, of the logistics of copper & oil mining, of the material interests of those involved, of buildings, roads, cities, India. He portrays the giant behemoth the human race has become. Anybody (“the Greens” – or “first world elite environmentalists” as he calls them in this talk with Lev Grossman) who believes that we can turn this tanker soon enough is naive and ill-informed. The fact that its basic nature is connected, tied into everything, makes it hard to manoeuvre. This seems to be the core message of the book.

As such, it acknowledges the necessity of geoengineering. We won’t get there with planting trees, trying to lower emissions or capturing carbon – at least we won’t get there soon enough, before some of our cities will drown and we’ll need airco-suits outdoors. We will need to do more. Not that Stephenson is a full-fledged techno-optimist who thinks that there’s a silver bullet solution that will cure all permanently, but the stress in certain circles on just behavioral modifications is not realistic. In the talk with Grossman he basically says we’ll have to build huge carbon extraction systems, and before those will be operational, some geoengineering “would save a lot of lives.”

There’s a good bit on capturing carbon that illustrates the problem neatly:

“We would have to make a pile of carbon the size of Mount Rainier. About thirty cubic miles. Imagine a cube a mile on a side (…) And now imagine thirty of those. To get that done in any reasonable amount of time – let’s say fifty years – you have to imagine a 747 cargo freighter loaded with pure elemental carbon dumping it onto the pile every nine seconds for fifty years, 24/7/365,” T.R. said.

While it is clearly a constructed & at times over-the-top story, it is because of this realism that Termination Shock is much more about a way forward than Bewilderment. Powers’ book is a bit whimpering and whiny, in that he doesn’t offer anything except a cry about what the target audience already knows: what about the lives of our children? No details, just emotions.

The comparison to KSR’s The Ministry for the Future is a bit more complicated. Francis Fukuyama – of all people – offers a shallow comparison of the two on American Purpose, and mistakes his taste for literary analysis. (Doing so, he spoils too much of Stephenson’s book, so don’t click that if you haven’t read Termination Shock.) What Fukuyama fails to see is that KSR has written a book that is much more innovative as a novel than Stephenson’s, as if his characters only operate as vehicles for ideas – an idea often parroted. If that were truly the case, why was I emotional at the end of that book, or why did I think the eco-terrorism angle had me at the edge of my seat?

But I don’t want to hold Stephenson to the ‘innovative’ standard, or rather, in a paradoxical reversal, while Stephenson has written a much more conventional novel than KSR, Termination Shock‘s main idea is much less conventional among the literati and the Western cultural elite – even though geoengeneering also features in Ministry.

I would recommend reading both books – there’s a heap of interesting stuff in both of them, and while your mileage may vary, both were very entertaining to me – and not even in a very different manner. Both books offer the intellect and imagination of a great writer on full display – what more would one want? If I have to favor one, I’d go for Stan: The Ministry offers the broadest feast, and doesn’t shy away from realism either – even if Robinson’s best case scenario approach is probably a bit naive.

Stephenson ends his book with sausages. Instead of virtue signalling, he presents a future in which meat is still eaten – with gusto. I had to think about something Slavoj Žižek has said about the 2008 crash: “the true dreamers are those who think the things can go on indefinitely the way they are”. It is indeed impossible to think things will just continue as they are, but the question is what change will bring exactly. One thing is sure: it won’t be as comfortably entertaining as Termination Shock.

Neal_Stephenson in 2019

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21 responses to “TERMINATION SHOCK – Neal Stephenson (2021)

  1. Great review Bart. I highly enjoyed Stephenson’s fresh take on the whole issue. You pinpointed all the relevant themes in the book. Actually, now that I think about it, the concept of termination shock doesn’t even feature that clearly in the book. He acknowledges that geo-engineering is a temporary solution, only meant to buy us more time. The danger is that people or countries get used to that in turn and we become dependent on it. Or that it is an excuse for the economy to maintain business as unusual.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, appreciated! I highly enjoyed it too. Like you, I’m at 8.5, if I’d have to rate it.

      And you are right about the title: it’s named once, but it doesn’t actually feature in the story itself. I guess it serves as a warning indeed: we shouldn’t become too dependent on solutions like T.R.’s, even though they will be necessary. It’s only if you take what he says in the YouTube-talk with Grossman into account that this becomes fully clear.

      I also think the book wouldn’t suffer from a reread, I have the feeling there’s more construction/ties/links/etc. below the hood than one could see after one reading only. But as I’m already backlogged with re-reading projects, it’s not going to be me.


    • Btw, in a talk with Fukuyama (also on YouTube) he said his next stuff will be a series of historical novels. (In a different time and place than the Baroque Cycle.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hmm ok. Interesting. I’ve never read the Baroque Cycle but I am slowly warming up to the idea of trying them. Especially after Termination Shock made more excited about Stephenson the writer. I could also try the Ministry for the Future. Would be fun to compare it to Stephenson. But after two bad experiences with Robinson I am very hesitant.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Baroque is very dense. I have only read the first book, and I really, really liked it, but at the same time I’ve felt like starting the second one, another mammoth, and you know my hesitance for mammoth books. I know I’ll love it when I do start it eventually though. My guess is that you’d like it a lot too. Oh, Anathem is his pinnacle for me, but I’ve said that a lot already over the years.

          As for KSR, I believe you’ve read 2312, but what was the other title? Ministry is atypical in the sense that it takes infodumps to the extreme, in that it reads partly as non-fiction, but in a fun fashion, I thought. Maybe also look into Shaman (about set in hunter-gatherer prehistory) or Aurora (a masterpiece imo). I haven’t read The Years of Rice and Salt (another acclaimed title), nor what is considered his most famous work, the Mars trilogy. I will get to all those eventually, I plan on reading his full oeuvre.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I’ve made my peace with dense mammoth books now that I’m reading Malazan. I think I will like the baroque books because I loved Cryptonomicon. For KSR yeah the other title was Aurora, which I found very frustrating. I couldn’t finish the final chapters. With 2312 I dnfd at 60%.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your thoughts on these books. I’ve yet to read any of them but have Ministry on my list as one I plan to read. I’d been planning to skip Termination Shock because of my experiences with Seveneves, which I didn’t dislike but also didn’t enjoy enough to want to sit through a similar book of that length. Sounds like this one might not be the same experience so I’ll keep an open mind to it. And this also has me wanting to go back and read Anathem, a book that’s been on my physical shelves for a very long time. And it looks great there! But I’d probably feel better about it being there if I were to crack it open and give it a try. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome! My advice would be to just read Anathem first, or maybe Snow Crash, I thought that was really fun & fresh. Remains highly readable today. Both are really different from Seveneves, and from each other. Snow Crash goes down easy. Anathem is a bit more work, but you would deprive yourself of something brilliant if you let it sleep on your shelf. No time like the present. I would be very surprised if you didn’t feel the book was better to read than to look at. And Ministry, well, ymmv, but I thought that was a very brave attempt from KSR, and I liked it a lot, maybe the best of his I’ve read.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoyed Snow Crash. You’re right, it was a much lighter read but surprisingly still readable even considering how quickly technology changes. And I appreciate that each of his books migth be very different. Granted, it does mean I may not like them all, but I like when authors push themselves and don’t get stuck in a rut. I’ll definitetly put Anathen to the top of this list, perhaps a book to read in 2022.


    • By the way, I just realized sitting right next to Anathem on that shelf is a copy of Cryptonomicon, also unread. Any chance you’ve read that one? And if so where would you rate it compared to Anathem? Still read Anathem first?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have a copy too, still unread. I know it is also highly regarded by most fans, also one of his masterpieces. I think it has about the same complexity/density as Anathem. The subject matter is different though, so what to read first just depends on your taste on that front.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I intend to read both KSR and Stephenson’s books – thanks for the review and the reminder 😉 But first I have Cryptonomicon on my list 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I guess you’ll get to Cryptonomicon first. I’ve had my dose of Stephenson for now. Whenever I think to read another book by him (Cryptonomicon and the final 2 of the Baroque Cycle are still on my pile) he seems to publish a new one, and I give that priority.

      Liked by 1 person

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  7. It’s funny that you mention Francis Fukuyama’s review of Termination Shock, because that single review has kept me away from reading it. I’ve always gotten a strong libertarian vibe from Stephenson, and seeing Fukuyama praising it, and simultaneously bashing KSR’s “Ministry”, threw up weird red flags for me.

    I see you’re reading PACIFIC EDGE now. I love that book. I’ve read it about 4 or 5 times. It’s so beautifully low key and mundane. Like Huckleberry Finn meets Utopian fiction. Some middle sections can be critiqued, but the opening and closing sections are IMO perfect and poetic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can understand that sentiment. I can’t take Fukuyama serious at all. His opinion on Ministry seemed very biased to the point of it being unfounded. Then again, I guess you are right about Stephenson, he has a bit of libertarian vibe indeed. As I wrote, both books have merit, as stories, but also ideologically. If you’ve enjoyed Stephenson before, chances are you’ll like this is well, it’s entertaining, and offers interesting thoughts.

      I’m about 50 pages in in Pacific Edge. I like it at lot so far, indeed low key, very human too. No idea what direction the book will take though. And again I’m surprised that there’s so much of his later work/thought already present. That fictional author is already writing his book outside!


    • Just put the Pacific Edge review up. It’s here: https://wp.me/p1tcLv-7PV

      Absolutely loved the book too.


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