Termination Shock

Book Review: Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson

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What would happen if a rogue Texas billionaire launched a massive solar geoengineering project without any international negotiations or government approval?

This is the basic premise of Termination Shock, a novel by Neal Stephenson, bestselling author of Snow Crash and many other works of speculative fiction.

Termination Shock

Termination Shock starts with one of the most memorable opening chapters in climate fiction: a hair-raising scene where the queen of the Netherlands crash-lands an airplane due to the sudden appearance of an utterly ridiculous and unexpected obstacle on the runway. The situation is so absurd that it strains belief – but the author’s vivid descriptions before, during, and after the scene are fascinating and compelling enough to inspire readers to suspend disbelief and keep reading.

The opening chapter does a good job of establishing the overall tone and larger-than-life character of the novel. The queen of the Netherlands, a Texas billionaire, a self-employed Comanche veteran, a Punjabi-Canadian Sikh martial artist, and a mysterious Chinese intelligence operative all become key players in an increasingly global struggle to determine if, when, where, and how solar geoengineering will be implemented as a response to the climate crisis.

A Texas billionaire named T. R. Schmidt gets the ball rolling by secretly starting a massive project to inject sulfur into the stratosphere directly above his secluded Texas ranch. Once the project launches and goes public, it becomes clear that any rogue actor with enough cash can do the same.

This may seem like a good thing at first glance. Injecting massive quantities of sulfur into the stratosphere is a relatively cheap and easy way to counteract the effects of global warming caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. But there’s a catch.

Solar geoengineering affects weather patterns in ways that will be helpful to some nations and economies but harmful to others. The project will also lead to a sudden and disastrous reversal of the warming reductions (“termination shock”) if the sulfur injections slow or stop for any reason. The exact details of where and how the solar geoengineering scheme is implemented determine who profits and who loses. This leads a growing cast of governmental and non-governmental actors to intervene in the solar geoengineering playing field, either by supporting Schmidt or by opposing him and advancing their own competing projects.

Termination Shock is a remarkable work of climate fiction. The outlandish larger-than-life characters and actions keep the narrative exciting and engaging, sustaining a strong and suspenseful pace even through the moments that are more focused on detailed descriptions and character development than high-stakes action. In turn, the skillful descriptions and serious social and economic issues at play help ground the more cartoonish elements of the plot and characters. The result is a novel that is at once an entertaining whirlwind of a tall tale and a deeply serious commentary on solar geoengineering, climate change, economics, politics, culture, and related issues.

The one obvious shortcoming of this novel is also arguably its greatest strength. None of the main characters or their actions really offer the reader any particularly palatable or ethical solutions to the climate crisis or the question of solar geoengineering. It’s all just a bunch of powerful players running around acting in their own economic and political interests with little or no regard for public input or operating from an ethical perspective beyond narrow self-interest.

But that’s as it should be. Termination Shock isn’t a utopian tale of how to respond to the climate crisis. It’s a thoroughly entertaining, dramatic, and engaging novel about a variety of larger-than-life characters acting primarily from a place of self-interest and self-absorption, either at the individual level or at the level of pursuing national self-interest at the expense of other nations. And, for better or worse, that makes for some very salient and insightful commentary on the state of the real world’s response to solar geoengineering and the climate crisis in general.

All of the big players are in it to get their slice of the pie rather than act in the public interest in pursuit of climate solutions. Termination Shock does an excellent job of exploring and critiquing that reality while telling an entertaining tale. What, if anything, we can do about the problem is left for the reader to decide.

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