Book review: Termination Shock, by Neal Stephenson

posted: October 29, 2023

tl;dr: How a billionaire might fight climate change with geoengineering...

As a widely read and highly respected science fiction writer based in Seattle, one of the U.S.A.’s technology centers, Neal Stephenson gets to hang out with some interesting, influential people. He not only talks to connected, knowledgeable individuals to learn about projects that may alter life on Earth, but he actively participates in several of them himself, as a futurist and advisor. I would be curious to know whom he spoke to while researching Termination Shock, a book about a private citizen’s attempt to use geoengineering to offset the effects of global warming due to the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. I occasionally see stories about individuals, as well as countries, who may be contemplating such action.

In Termination Shock Stephenson presents a plausible technical explanation for how such geoengineering might be conducted. The detail with which he describes such a system leads me to wonder if he’s been talking to engineers who have actually been designing one. It’s within the grasp of a billionaire, and only requires that the nation or state it is contained within does not take action to shut it down. Stephenson presents several plausible locales where this could happen, due to a variety of reasons including lawlessness.

A book cover with the author's name and title in bold, block letters, yellow for the name and orange for the title, over an image of a turbulent sea of bright blue water and white foam, with the title appearing several times in faint white letters

But while I find the technology interesting, most of Termination Shock centers around the political aspects of geoengineering. Indeed, the politics are a more challenging problem to solve than the technology. One of the main characters in Termination Shock is the fictitious Queen of the Netherlands, the country with perhaps the most experience creating technical solutions to the problems of the sea and other water sources inundating land, a problem that is exacerbated by rising temperatures that melt glaciers and polar ice. An alliance forms between the Netherlands and other low-lying areas around the world that stand to benefit from the success of the geoengineering project. But, as in almost all such projects, there are tradeoffs involved, and losers to accompany the winners.

Termination Shock takes place in the near future. As do I, Stephenson predicts that there will be future pandemics which he calls COVID-23 and COVID-27. He also accurately, in my view, describes how cold warfare is now being conducted, often via sabotage events that cannot be traced back to the nation that sponsored them. Has it yet been definitively established who blew up the Nordstream pipeline, a major event in the War With Russia? The emphasis Stephenson places in his writing on politics and especially the impact of events on his human characters places him among the best science fiction writers in the genre. He is far more than a one-dimensional technology writer.

While I enjoyed Termination Shock, it hasn’t displaced Cryptonomicon and Snowcrash as my favorite Stephenson books. That’s quite alright, I will continue to look forward to the next book that Stephenson publishes, to learn more about where the world may be headed.