Book Review: Termination Shock

My copy of Termination Shock.

The greatest renewable resource humans have, and I think a reason to be cautiously optimistic about our approach to climate change — and yes, I’m taking into account that three years of the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that at least 30 percent of the human population will respond with either apathy or outright hostility — is our human ingenuity.

In that vein, Neal Stephenson’s latest speculative fiction, cli-fi offering (a term I recently learned as it regards science fiction novels specifically addressing climate change) is the 2021 novel, Termination Shock.

As with the previous Stephenson book I read that was more about living forever through the digital realm, Termination Shock is full of big ideas, quirky sidetracks (albeit, some of those sidetracks do pay off, like golden eagles taking down drones, and if that doesn’t sell you on the book, come on), fascinating near-future technology and also feels deeply modern, with references to COVID-19, Trump, etc.

But at its heart, Termination Shock is a celebration of the way in which human ingenuity — as hindered as it may be at times by human stupidity, human greed, human shortsightedness and perhaps the greatest enemy of human ingenuity, nation-states with their own geopolitical motivations and interventions — can help us to either adapt to, and survive with, climate change, or wholesale change the outcome of climate change, at least to the extent of it not being a civilization-ending problem.

The small ways include changing highways to be higher than impending floods, and to re-direct highway traffic to one-way to ensure people can evacuate, or to raise houses up on concrete stilts, or to wear earthsuits, so people in brutal Texas heat can survive, or to have entire professions sprout up around killing the wild feral hogs taking over certain populations (which I actually recently saw an article about!), or how technology has at least solved some other pesky, human-killing things, like self-driving cars, or the convenience of virtual glasses (Stephenson really seems to love this idea).

However, the big idea though comes in the form of solar geoengineering, wherein a zany, ballsy Texas billionaire, T.R. Schmidt, wants to, and does, build the World’s Biggest Gun to shoot sulfur into the stratosphere to counteract all the carbon we’ve put into it over the last 150-some years. The gun holds “bullets” with the sulfur and the sulfur, once in the stratosphere, bounces the sun’s rays back into space.

While it’s not a carbon capture mechanism (capturing the carbon before it reaches the atmosphere), or some other seemingly smaller, largely dispersed, method of mitigating our carbon output, it is a nice stop-gap measure until more of those “big guns” can come online in other parts of the world, or some other technology is invented and comes online.

I mean, it really does seem like something ripped out of The Onion, no?

“Texas billionaire has a climate change solution: Shooting the stratosphere with a REALLY big gun!”

But it’s not as far-fetched or silly as it sounds. In 1991, Mount Pintaubo in the Philippines, erupted and released 22 million tonnes of sulfuric dioxide into the atmosphere, resulting in global temperatures dropping 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit from 1991 to 1993.

A number of parties end up getting roped into T.R.’s plan because they have interest in combating climate change issues, too, such as the Netherlands and sea level rising. That brings Queen Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia, or Saskia informally, to Texas. And yes, the Netherlands has a constitutional monarchy similar to Britain.

Somehow, Rufus, a gun-toting black man raised in the heritage of the Comanches, who lost his daughter to an aforementioned wild hog — and he’s on a Ahabian quest to capture the hog — ends up enmeshed with the Queen and her posse when the pigs crash her plane as it lands in Texas.

That pairing alone, the Queen of the Netherlands and Rufus, was one of the most interesting and inspired ways to approach a climate change book. I loved both characters and their pairing. Rufus is just a good guy, trying to do right in the world, and despite her Queen status, Saskia comes across norMAL as her people would say, and horny (there’s a lot of funny texting back and forth between her and her 16-year-old daughter, the Princess, about hooking up in Texas with … someone).

Included in the Queen’s posse is her right-hand man, Willem, a gay man who is part Dutch, part Chinese and grew up in the states, with a father who dealt with the Nazis and remembers distinctly the 1953 flood in the Netherlands (a real event that killed scores of people). He was another interesting character, although I wasn’t quite able to ascertain his motives and his story arc. At the end of the book, he sort of just fades away.

Another interesting character far from Texas was Laks, a Sikh man who reminded me of Jack Reacher in the way his stature and physical prowess is described by Stephenson, but who has sort of eschewed the stronger elements of his Sikh life in favor of fighting in the way of gatka, a marital art associated with the Sikhs of the Punjab. That leads Laks to the Line of Actual Control, which is a real boundary dispute between India and China in the eastern Himalayas.

Laks becomes something of a viral social media star, attracting the attention of the Indian Army and they turn him into a quasi-Manchurian candidate to later go on and sabotage T.R.’s big gun in a “climate peacekeeping” mission.

That’s the thing, again, about geopolitical issues trying to address something affecting the entire globe: Different states, peoples and governments respond differently. Particularly when you’re dealing with something like what T.R. is doing in Texas, it’s going to have knock-on effects that aren’t as great for, say, the people of India whose farmers depend on monsoons; hence, the “peacekeeping” mission. But also, the book is so named because once something like T.R.’s geoengineering starts happening, it would be worse to stop it than to allow it to continue happening. At least, that’s the thinking behind a “termination shock.”

On this score, with the geopolitical maneuvering and back-and-forth, I thought Stephenson’s book was super interesting. I know some who aren’t as into politics might not be as jazzed by it, but I found it realistic and captivating.

Behind the shadows and orchestrating flooding of their own, are the Chinese, again, with their own geopolitical interests. It’s a lot to juggle! They even use deepfake videos (a scary near-future, or present? technology) to bring own the Queen of the Netherlands; she abdicates the throne after a deepfake video shows her being in favor of geoengineering, which goes against the wishes of the people of her country.

Interestingly, the United States (and great Britain to a lesser extent) are hardly factors in the story because as Stephenson alludes to repeatedly, the United States is a “clown show,” with references to Trump, QAnon and the sacking of the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. I say interesting because when a big world problem like climate change presents itself, people naturally assume that the most powerful country on Earth, the United States, will spearhead a solution.

Not so, says Stephenson, but maybe its billionaires will.

As Peter Suderman notes in his own review of the book, climate change is too big (again, with too many competing, and sometimes cooperating, geopolitical forces), too complex and involving the “buy-in” of too many people, governments and interests that hoping for some sweeping legislation to fix the problem is a fool’s errand, essentially.

“You can’t wrap your head around it. No one can.

Instead, what you can do is break it down and solve one discrete problem at a time, using engineering and mutually beneficial cooperation rather than politics.”

Amen. Which is why I love the idea of a zany billionaire being like, I don’t know, I’m just going to do it and if you stop it, that’s actually worse, okay.

We need innovation and our ingenuity to come to the table in a big way to solve big problems. That’s the way toward living with climate change, adapting to it and surviving it.

Not legislation. Not governments. Not politicians. And not even Queens.

At least so says Stephenson, and I agree with the general thesis. As Suderman further adds, human civilization and our resulting technological process is “zany, complex, occasionally menacing, and kind of magnificent, all at once.”

See, I find beauty, and yes, optimism, in that vision of humanity rather than the cynical bleakness often on offer as regards our relationship to climate change.

I also think it’s important, as this book does, to reckon with the fact that any legislation, but in this case, climate change legislation, or any action beyond legislation, is going to have trade-offs and those knock-on effects. There’s no other way around it. Instead, it’s about addressing them as they come.

So, if you also prefer a more humane (I say that because I think too often people seem … anti-human? in how they view our so far lacking response to climate change, almost like a “good riddance to us” thing), optimism, deeply interesting perspective on addressing climate change, and with a lot of interesting characters, who are mined even deeper than T.R. goes to build his sulfur gun, then you’ll love Termination Shock.

Stephenson is a thinker and I like reading thinkers.

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