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A Great Science Fiction Writer Underwhelms With Climate Change Thriller

Celebrated science fiction writer Neal Stephenson’s latest novel on climate change has lots of interesting asides on technology, but little excitement and flat characters.


Not only is Neal Stephenson an influential writer, but he is also a prophet, perhaps the highest praise one can give to a science fiction writer. His novel “Snow Crash” conceptualized a fully immersive virtual world well before movies like “The Matrix.”

The book also coined the word “Metaverse” to describe the blending of virtual reality and the internet, a vision of the future that Mark Zuckerberg has embraced to the point of renaming Facebook “Meta.” Stephenson also predicted the rise of Bitcoin in his novel “Cryptonomicon.” In fact, there’s speculation Stephenson is the real identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous developer of Bitcoin – a claim Stephenson denies.  

With such a sterling reputation as a writer and visionary, one would expect Stephenson’s newest novel, Termination Shock, an epic thriller about fighting climate change, to finally be the wake-up call to shake skeptics and ignoramuses into serious action. A person like Stephenson could make the climate crisis real for people, explaining the science and its implications for mankind through a compelling narrative and well-developed characters. Moreover, he could consider the politics and ideologies at play as he has in his previous novels.

Unfortunately, rather than being the masterpiece of a writer at his peak, Termination Shock is a mostly a sprawling mess from a writer who believes himself above respecting the rules of his craft. Although there are multiple plot lines progressing through the novel, few of them go anywhere or excite much interest.

Even with a wide array of characters with their own motivations, none of them seem to change or learn much over the course of the novel. And although the themes of the book touch upon some of the most controversial and relevant themes of modern society, Stephenson hardly bothers to say much about any of them.

Technology vs. Character Development

Instead, what Stephenson mainly seems to talk about in this 700-page book is geography, topography, and rocket science. To some degree, this is to be expected, since Stephenson is considering the possibilities of geoengineering (that is, global climate manipulation), but it quickly overwhelms anything substantial about the characters caught in the scheme.

There will be ample explanation of the political history of Indonesia, the cultural traditions of the Punjabi in India, the production of sulfur, the refinement of crude oil, or the unpleasant terrain near the Brazos river in Texas. As for why the characters do what they do and what their motivations seem to be, there’s surprisingly little.

To his credit, Stephenson at least offers a somewhat realistic depiction of climate change. Rather than resort to the apocalyptic spectacles of Roland Emmerich, Stephenson simply describes rising temperatures that make winters feel likes summers and make summers close to unendurable. He also describes the epic-scale measures taken by developed nations to control rising sea levels, tidal waves, and massive hurricanes. All things considered, humanity seems to adapt fairly well to global warming.

This is why the central conflict of the story doesn’t seem all that urgent. Seeing that humanity has largely adapted to the changes wrought by climate change, there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason to take drastic action to address it. Sure, certain individuals in the elite classes might benefit from reversing global warming, but the majority of the human population seems to cope just fine. When this fact becomes apparent, along with the fact that geoengineering would have unintended consequences, the protagonists frankly seem more like villains than heroes.

And no, the sheer diversity and representation of the protagonists don’t make up for this problem. As if to win a bet against those who doubt his storytelling ability, Stephenson builds his story around the most random and diverse assortment of protagonists: a Dutch queen, her gay half-Indonesian adviser, a Comanche redneck, a cowboy Texan billionaire, and a Sikh martial arts bro from Canada. Curiously, none of them are climatologists nor have any significant bearing on the events of the novel except the billionaire.

With so many characters and a world-spanning conflict, the novel quickly becomes a convoluted assortment of various event sequences (“plot” is too strong a word for them) and character expositions. The main plot concerns the Dutch queen Saskia visiting the launch site of the Texan billionaire T.R. who wants to decrease ocean levels that threaten coastal metropolises across the world.

A secondary plot involves an Indian-Canadian Laks, who becomes an internet stick-fighting sensation. A third plot follows the Dutch queen’s assistant Willem, who travels around and talks to people about what T.R. is doing. Finally, there’s a fourth plot in which a grieving, divorced man finds himself working for T.R. after hunting wild boars that have overpopulated Texas.

All this could work if any of these protagonists actually did something to merit interest. With the exception of Laks, most of them listen to people, witness events, and attend gatherings. Part of this is due to Stephenson’s quixotic decision to pick the most irrelevant people he could think of for such a story. Perhaps he was tired of writing about scientists and world leaders, and wanted to consider the bystanders with whom readers might better relate—if this was the intention, using billionaires, queens, and skilled practitioners of gatka (Indian stick fighting) seems like odd choices.

The other problem with the characters is Stephenson’s weakness as a novelist. Even though Stephenson supplies each of them with backstories, so much of this exposition means little when all of them passively go along with the situation around them. The details end up meaning little and there’s hardly anything given about the characters’ psychologies. If the reader ever wonders why any of the characters do what they do, the inevitable answer will be “because of climate change or something.”

This problem of flat characters is compounded by the fact they all have the voice of an inarticulate teenager. Whether it’s royalty, rednecks, or peasants in Papua New Guinea, all of them use the same vocabulary and turns of phrases and express the same thoughts and responses. If Stephenson didn’t include their names, it would be impossible to distinguish who’s talking.

Fortunately, between the cringe-inducing conversations between paper-thin characters, there are some interesting portions discussing the science of the future. This is clearly where Stephenson is in his element, going into the impressive detail about the technology and effects of climate engineering.

While occasionally tedious, it succeeds in grounding the novel in reality and making the prospect of global conflicts arising from climate change policies particularly unsettling. Even if the climate remains more or less the same in the coming decades, it’s a safe bet that governments will nevertheless use it as a pretext to gain power and implement their agenda. After all, this is already happening to some degree in the West.

As one might expect, Stephenson’s non-climate predictions, particularly in regard to computer technology are also interesting and well developed. He is able to incorporate self-driving cars, internet glasses, air-conditioned suits, high-powered drones, and other innovations in a realistic way.

In Search of An Audience

Occasionally, Stephenson’s vision of the future feels a little too modest and somewhat shortsighted. Somehow, his characters don’t have the same attachment to their devices and online media as most people have today.

Demographics seem more or less the same, even though most societies will be experiencing population decline by that point and a much different (probably worse) economic situation. And the political order of this time seems pretty much the same except that the United States has become a dysfunctional “mess” that presumably can’t do anything about the climate-changing events taking place in the novel—oblique references to January 6th and Donald Trump suggest that the American political right are responsible for this outcome, if anyone is wondering.

Altogether, it’s difficult to determine who the audience is supposed to be for Termination Shock. Even for people heavily invested in climate change, Termination Shock will not appeal to them since it remains somewhat ambivalent about its effect on the world and unapologetically pushes the radical case for geoengineering—something that would probably set off environmentalists who already can’t stand nuclear energy. For those who hardly bother with the issue, the whole book might seem like much ado about nothing.

Stephenson is obviously a brilliant and accomplished writer, but so little of this comes out in Termination Shock. No matter how a reader approaches it, it’s a disorganized book with little payoff. Next time, he should play to his strengths (the virtual world over the natural world), get back to basics (with well-defined characters and coherent plots), and treat issues that will have a greater bearing on humanity than a slight warming of the planet.