‘Termination Shock’

An epic climate-change novel from Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson is expansive.

It’s not just that his new novel Termination Shock is 720 pages long, it’s that it needs to be that length to encompass his prodigious vision. In fact, it needs to be even longer, because though the novel ties up certain important plot points, it leaves other vital elements hanging.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

Like Quicksilver, the first novel of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, Termination Shock deals with an entire era of human behavior and its attendant crisis. In this case, he’s not focusing on the Baroque Era and the transformation of Western Europe’s economy in the 17th century–rather, he’s describing our current era, the Anthropocene, and the climate change human activity has wrought across the globe.

Termination Shock

Where Stephenson predicated his 2015 Seveneves on the unlikely event of an exploding Moon, he based Termination Shock on the all-too-likely case that humanity will do nothing to prevent climate change in the next five years.

Set in the near future, where even more climate problems are evident than now, Termination Shock is an adventure story that suggests and dismisses a kind of silver bullet solution (actually, a sulfur bullet solution) to global warming while taking us on a tour of the history and geography of, among other locales, West Texas and the Indo-Chinese Himalayan border. Everything is, politically and climatically, intertwined.

The novel assumes that high net-worth individuals will not just jet into space or retreat to safe havens, but stay engaged with the human economy. And it sets a few of those individuals against and alongside world governments that are alternately hamstrung and significantly reactive to the problem and its solutions.

Termination Shock follows, on the one hand a representative cast of characters just trying to adapt and roll with ever-faster climate changes and, on the other, a cadre of the wealthy and powerful who benefitted from the sales of fossil fuels and who are now taking actions to avoid massive losses from its global effects.

Stephenson’s last two books dealt with the destruction of the moon and the digitization of consciousness, tracing the profound ramifications of each of those events. and how human culture and civilization might respond to that. So, he doesn’t shy away from large topics.

Man-eating feral hogs, air-conditioned fire ants and gargantuan meth-gators are some of the compelling stars of the novel’s launch. The opening sequence is a tour de force that crashes us deep into West Texas with protagonists alongside whom we’ll spend much of the rest of the plot. It’s a rich stew that features royalty, Comanches, a mysteriously puissant Chinese bureaucrat and a slew of explicit allusions to Moby Dick.

I’m a Stephenson fan and, for decades, I’ve been working to prevent climate change, so I have a doubly high bar of expectations for Termination Shock. It’s not a perfect novel — there are plenty of plot gaps, hollow characters, and loose ends — but for the hours that I was engrossed with it, I didn’t want the book to end. I hope, like Quicksilver, it’s the first of a series. It’s worth the expanse.

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Dan Friedman

Dan Friedman is the former executive editor of the Forward and the author of an ebook about Tears for Fears, the 80s rock band. He has a PhD from Yale and writes about books, whisky and the dangers of online hate. Subscribe to his newsletter.

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