Book review: Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson

I must confess that I have a problem with Neal Stephenson.  Based on his past performance, I have high expectations for his works, so even when he delivers something as technically proficient as Termination Shock, with interesting ideas that hit close to home, I may be left indifferent or even disappointed.  The verdict for this book is indifference.  Despite the ideas, I found it bland, dragging and full of shallow characters I could not sympathize with.

The world in the near future is feeling the effects of global climate change.  Strong storms, rising sea levels and temperatures that prevent people from going outside in the middle of the day are common.  Localized ecological catastrophes from invasive species follow close behind.  In this setting, most people are still stubbornly sticking to the old policy of reducing carbon emissions or recapturing greenhouse gasses.  Some visionaries, however, toy with the idea of geoengineering, artificially changing the climate.  One such person is J. R. Schmidt, a Texan multimillionaire, who got rich of a chain of full-service truck stops.  He invites a few select guests to a secretive conference on geoengineering.

The book begins with Saskia, the queen of Netherlands, piloting her private plane to Waco, TX.  On landing, the plane crashes into a herd of wild pigs on the runway and rolls over.  Saskia emerges unharmed, to the sight of a local man shooting some of the pigs and an alligator, and defending her bodyguard who went first out of the plane.  The local is Rufus, a wild pig hunter who has been searching for an extra-large boar who killed his daughter.  In this, he likens himself to a character from Moby Dick.  He actually kills the animal on the runway, and suddenly finds himself with no further goal in life.  Saskia sees this, and she asks Rufus to escort her to J. R., which he does.

J. R. Schmidt reveals at his conference that he built a large gun on his ranch, capable of shooting projectiles into the stratosphere. Each projectile carries a payload of Sulphur, which is spread in the upper atmosphere and serves to cool the planet down. However, it would take a number of such guns, firing continuously, to achieve global effect within a reasonable time frame.  For the time being, the single gun and potentially a few more would have only localized effects, some positive and others negative.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a young Sikh man from Canada, nicknamed Laks, travels to Punjab to reconnect with his roots.  He eventually makes his way to the Chinese-Indian border, where adventurers from both sides battle with sticks and stones to redraw the boundary between the two countries, while maintaining the cease-fire both countries agreed to.  This border, called Zone of Actual Control, has become a hotbed of the so-called performative warfare, where fighters showcase their martial arts prowess for the dubious benefit of capturing a few acres of frozen rocky wasteland.  Their battles are recorded via drones and streamed worldwide, and gamblers can place bets on various battles of the better-known warriors.  Laks gradually climbs the rankings until he becomes one of the most accomplished fighters.  After winning a fight against the highest-ranking Chinese fighter, however, he is struck by an experimental Chinese weapon that fries a part of his brain.

During this time, Saskia returns to the Netherlands, where she faces multiple environmental crises.  To make matters worse, the Chinese, who are net beneficiaries of J. R.’s geoengineering efforts, are waging asymmetric warfare against the Dutch to pressure them to endorse this undertaking.  During a particularly strong storm they explode hidden charges to damage the Dutch levies, and then release a slew of fake videos that portray Saskia as endorsing more aggressive geoengineering works.  Saskia decides to resign, in order to avoid a constitutional crisis, after which she flies to Venice to meet with fellow participants of the initial conference.  They take her to an island in the Adriatic, where they built their own canon and began lobbing Sulphur projectiles into the stratosphere.  From there, she visits Saudi Arabia where she learns of a similar project, which is using a specially modified aircraft, and she is told of a third gun in Indonesia.

India, unlike China, is suffering negative consequences from J. R.’s gun.  The Punjab, the breadbasket of the country, is suffering from an unusual drought, and it is estimated that in the future the situation would worsen.  The Indian government modifies Laks’ brain to intercept and interpret signals from their drones, and once he recovers, he is secretly sent to infiltrate J. R.’s ranch and destroy the Sulphur gun.  There, he joins a few Indian operators who fly armed drones that clear the way for him.  Unbeknownst to any of them, Rufus, who has been flying his own drones for J. R. as part of his new job in the ranch security, has at his disposal a group of falconers with falcons trained for taking down drones.  So, when the Indians detonate an EMT over the ranch to take out all electronic equipment and invade with their drones, their initial success is cut short when Rufus arrives, in tow with the falcons.  The birds take out the drones, and Rufus kills Laks.

In Stephenson’s true fashion, there is plenty more to unpack in this book.  Side stories and side characters abound, there are a few historical lessons, and entire chapters are dedicated to the characters’ origin stories, which have little or no bearing on the main storyline.  And this is the biggest issue I’ve had with the book.  Stephenson can write high-energy adventures like Snow Crash or The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., and he can write very long and dense books, like Anathem, where all ideas, threads and background information organically come together.  This book is neither.  It appears to continue with the trend from Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, where he introduces a plethora of ideas, but very few have any bearing on the overall story or conclusion.  This made the reading very frustrating for me: many interesting segues went nowhere, and many characters with interesting backgrounds ended up completely one-dimensional.

Characters suffer from several issues, one-dimensionality being only one of them.  The most grievous crime was, in my opinion, the lack of agency.  The only movers and shakers in this story are the governments of China and India, and J. R.  The governments are largely faceless, and their only representative, a Chinese operative named Bo, serves more as an observer.  J. R., on the other hand, is the one who puts the entire story into motion, and throughout the book he works towards his goal.  Unfortunately, in the third act he is completely sidelined, not even spectating the final confrontation.  A further issue, related to the characters’ lack of agency, is their disposability.  Laks was the person Stephenson spent most time developing, and the one I felt most sympathetic towards.  However, he was killed in such an offhand fashion that even though I’m not a fan of melodramatic scenes, I would have appreciated something a little less realistic and more heroic.  Other characters with their own background chapters fizzle out over the course of the book, with plausible reasons but no justification why Stephenson spent so much time initially developing them.

It is obvious that the author never intended the book to be character driven.  Instead, the novel is fueled by ideas.  The greatest futuristic prediction doesn’t seem to be global climate change and its effects, but the use of drones.  From manned drones with augmented reality, through extrasensory input from drone feeds, to drone swarms that can be used to combat groups of armed people, drones are everywhere.  This topic is being handled in a very professional fashion, as a matter of fact, and yet it was quite eye-opening to me.  Global climate change comes second, but there the effects seem to be better developed than the actual geoengineering part, which seems too far-fetched to me.  In addition to these, there are ideas that are thrown around, offer some tantalizing implications, but are never developed to their full potential.  One such idea, which greatly frustrated me, was the hint of a highly dysfunctional United States.  Stephenson touched on this in Fall, and when I saw it in this book, I was hoping for more.  Instead, I got even less than before.

All my complaints don’t mean that the book was bad.  The writing is superb as always, the third act is compact and suspenseful in a way the author’s always done, and most of the visuals are simply outstanding.  However, the story remains so dull that even in the most critical moments I didn’t feel worried about any of the characters.  Not that they weren’t in danger; I just didn’t have enough feelings towards any of them to care.  In this regard, the book reminded me of Stephenson’s Interface, which I still consider his weakest work.  My recommendation is to skip this book.  For an envirothriller, I suggest Paolo’s Bacigalupi’s Water Knife; for a more interesting book by Neal Stephenson, pick a different one and you are almost always guaranteed better entertainment.

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