Climate Change

Neal Stephenson's Termination Shock Is a Glorious Sci-Fi Vision of How To Respond to Global Warming, One Geoengineering Problem at a Time

In Stephenson's near-future novel, innovation, not legislation, is the best response to a changing climate.


By the time Neal Stephenson's new novel, Termination Shock, begins, humans have already begun adapting to climate change. Stephenson's near-future world has grown hotter, in some cases dangerously so. But people, in their infinite idiosyncratic ways, have more or less figured out how to deal. 

Some of these adaptations are obvious: In Texas, where much of the action is set, roadways are raised, and houses are built or retrofitted to sit on stilts in order to avoid flood plains. Some of these adaptations are unexpected and not entirely welcome: An influx of fire ants attracted to the ozone produced by air conditioner relays, which for mostly unrelated reasons had been complicated by supply chain issues from a monopolistic Chinese supplier, had left large numbers of people in the state without cool air. That, in turn, created masses of "relayfugees" who set up ad hoc camps, which, this being Texas, are built out of recreational vehicles, camp trailers, and oversized SUVs.

Other sorts of adaptations are just neat: There are novel drone systems that provide sensory information to quasi-cyborg state operatives and massive truck stop/gas station complexes that serve as full-service hubs for mobile living. People of means or whose jobs require it wear modular, powered suits that can keep them cool even in sustained wet-bulb temperatures that might otherwise quickly kill a person. If it worked for Dune, it can work for Texas.

Every one of these adaptations solves what is essentially a small, or at least manageable, problem: what to do about local flooding, or pest invasions and supply chain frustrations, or having to work outside when the heat is so strong it could kill you. These aren't attempts to fully resolve the problem of global warming, or remake the world's political order. They're just methods of responding, through a combination of engineering and distributed decision making, to the minor irritations and major challenges that global warming will present. And that, in its own strange way, is the solution—or at least the very best we can do. Termination Shock is a novel about how myriad small innovations can give us a more livable world.

If there's a single big idea behind Stephenson's new novel, that's it: Global warming—climate change, the vast complexity of the modern fossil fuel economy, the geopolitics of emissions reductions, and so on and so forth—can't really be solved, or at least not in the sense that people often talk about solving it. It's too big, too complex, involving too many people, too many governments, too many interests. You can't wrap your head around it. No one can.

Instead, what you can do is break it down and solve one discrete problem at a time, using engineering and mutually beneficial cooperation rather than politics.

Early in the book, Stephenson presents this idea explicitly. A Dutch royal functionary is discussing the threat rising sea levels pose with his proudly nationalistic father. The functionary asks whether his father takes the threat of sea-level rise seriously, and his father responds that of course he does.

The conversation proceeds (I've excised some of the narration and description):

"What are we going to do about it is the question."

"We, as a civilization? About global climate change?"

"I know, right? Too vague! Too much diffusion of responsibility. Too much politics," the functionary says. And then he proposes to his father an alternative way of looking at things:

"Instead ask, what are the Dutch people going to do specifically about rising sea level and suddenly it is simpler and clearer, no? Instead of the whole world—the United Nations and all that—it's just the Netherlands. And instead of all the detailed ramifications of greenhouse gases and climate change, we are talking about one issue that is clear and concrete: rising sea level."

Termination Shock is thus a novelistic attempt to break down the challenges of climate change and address them clearly and concretely rather than as a mass of unsolvable civilizational mega-challenges.

Which doesn't mean no one does big things. On the contrary, the story kicks off when a genial, somewhat cantankerous Texas billionaire who owns a chain of sprawling high-tech truck stops decides to take matters into his own hands, or in this case, airspace. Rather than advocating for emissions standards or international treaties or supporting climate activism, he builds a gigantic subterranean launcher, which he dubs the Biggest Gun in the World, and begins firing sulfur into the atmosphere. He doesn't ask the Federal Aviation Administration for permission. He doesn't set up a governing authority or get stakeholder buy-in. He just collects sulfur, builds a big machine, and takes action.

Scientists have speculated for years that releasing sulfur into the upper atmosphere could help cool the planet by reflecting sunlight in a way that allows temperatures to cool. Indeed, this is precisely what happened in 1991, when Mount Pinatubo exploded in the Philippines, releasing vast amounts of sulfur into the atmosphere and producing several years of cooler global temperatures.

To do this intentionally would be to engage in a kind of geoengineering, which is generally either ignored or frowned upon as part of the climate change response toolkit. Stephenson's novel, then, offers a thought experiment: What if, instead of attending summits and signing treaties and attempting to work through various bureaucratized and collectivized political systems, some feisty, motivated individual just did it? Someone, for example, like the aforementioned genial, somewhat cantankerous Texas billionaire, who, naturally, names his sulfur-launching ranch Pina2bo.

This might sound like a rather large-scale solution, and in some ways it is. But Stephenson presents it as little more than another engineering project designed to solve a specific, individual problem: It's too hot in Texas, and it's causing various issues for the billionaire's many properties there. Local heat is a problem. Putting sulfur in the air will help mitigate that problem. In some ways, that's all there is to it.

But of course, the story doesn't stop there. The Texas experiment creates complications—namely that shooting sulfur into the atmosphere won't help every place equally, and in fact might make weather conditions in some places, like India, much worse. In addition, the Texas sulfur solution inspires imitators and competitors, including powerful European families and various nation-states, from the Middle East to China, all of which suddenly begin attempting to solve their own often-interlinked climate, weather, and political problems.

Frankly, it's kind of a mess, and it doesn't always go well. A weird foamy sea event kills dozens of innocent surfers. Small-scale quasi-wars among shadowy groups of maybe-private fighters break out in locales with weak governance. China and India fight a bizarre sort of social media–age reality TV border war using sticks, rocks, and regional martial arts techniques, with heroic fighters vying for nationalistic glory not-so-secretly backed by their governments. Feral hogs consistently prove to be huge, huge headaches.

In one of the novel's grandest sequences, the Maeslantkering, a Dutch storm surge barrier that is one of the largest moving objects in the world, is overpowered by a massive wave that may or may not have been specifically engineered by a rival nation. Termination Shock takes for granted that ad hoc geoengineering schemes will inevitably lead to some forms of global conflict.

Some of this is par for the course for Stephenson, who has had a longstanding fascination with large engineered structures and decentralized problem solving. At times the novel, like so many of Stephenson's stories, reads like a compendium of objects, people, and hobbies that Stephenson finds neat: There are extended sections on falconry, obscure stick-fighting methods, drone-assisted hog hunting, high-end private train travel, and the Texan obsession with brisket. It's weird and often quite comic—and also sometimes terrifying and awe-inspiring, because that's how Stephenson sees human civilization and technological progress. It's zany, complex, occasionally menacing, and kind of magnificent, all at once.

Early in the novel, one of the characters drives by the Bonnet Carré Spillway in New Orleans, a massive flood control system built starting in the late 1920s following a devastating flood that left hundreds dead and tens of thousands displaced from their homes. Stephenson lovingly describes the spillway's various engineering characteristics, how it was designed to function, its legacy in popular culture, and the way its usage changed over the years as weather patterns shifted. Notably, the spillway is currently used partly as a massive public recreation center. The environment has always presented challenges, the passage seems to suggest, sometimes deadly ones. But people have engineered solutions and integrated them into their lives.

Thus climate change, in the novel's vision, is real, and represents an increasingly large and serious problem for the citizens of the 21st century. But it's not necessarily a full-fledged extinction event. People will adapt, some better than others, using their own preferred means and methods, because that's what people do. Somehow, humans muddle through—and as often as not, it's both absurdly funny and incredibly cool.

Legislation vs. Innovation

Stephenson, of course, isn't the only science fiction author to tackle global warming in recent years. Indeed, there's an entire subgenre, dubbed "cli-fi," devoted to extrapolating how climate change will transform our world. Perhaps the best-known practitioner of this genre is Kim Stanley Robinson, the justly celebrated author of the Mars trilogy. His most recent novel, The Ministry for the Future, tackles many of the same concepts as Termination Shock, to the point where the two read almost like companion novels, except with perfectly opposing views about how to address the threat posed by climate change.

In The Ministry for the Future, a small international agency attempts to battle climate change largely through legal, bureaucratic, and political means. Yes, there are large-scale geoengineering schemes, including a clever system for refreezing glaciers, and there are certainly individual actors who take matters into their own hands, some of which include terrorist organizations motivated by what they see as climate violence.

But by and large, Robinson imagines responding to climate change by changing laws, and by using legal pressure to upend existing economic systems. And so The Ministry for the Future is the sort of novel that occasionally drops into direct-to-reader lectures about monetary policy, the origins of inequality, and the "defining characteristics of neoliberalism." It includes passages on the work of "Paris Agreement standards and certification teams," and an early chapter of the novel begins by describing the statutory authority for the creation of the United Nations subagency from which the novel takes its name. Much of its future-politics speculation hinges on the notion that central bankers are and will continue to be the real rulers of the modern world.

By the novel's end, the entire global economic order has been transformed, top to bottom—not only via a new globally managed cryptocurrency designed in part to track all economic activity so as to prevent actions deemed destructive to the climate, but also via a universal basic income, a reduced population and slower growth, a shift in the cultural power status of women, and what amounts to central management of the world economy by "Red Plenty algorithms" that somehow were programmed to avoid "the old bad inefficiencies, while keeping the good inefficiencies that were important for resilience and justice." Good luck with that.

For all this, it is a surprisingly effective and engaging novel. Robinson is a deft and elegiac writer with a powerful sense of the interaction between humans and social systems and fascinating ideas about how humans might manipulate their environments. He is not the madcap storyteller that Stephenson is, but he is earnest and melancholy and writes with real feeling and granular detail in an impressive number of voices and modes. He is worth reading and worth considering, even though I think he is wrong about both how the future will unfold, and how it should.

Robinson dedicated the book to a Marxist political theorist and has said he was influenced by "eco-Marxism," and so it is not surprising to find that ultimately he imagines a vast economic revolution, driven primarily by bureaucratic controls and the force of law—and also, perhaps, some necessary violence.

As it turns out, the ministry maintains a black ops wing that carries out at least some of the terrorist acts the novel portrays. The novel leaves it to the reader to determine exactly how far the ministry's secret violent campaigns went, but there is at least some suggestion that it might have included targeted killings along with property destruction. The novel portrays this violence without quite explicitly condoning it, but the violence is presented as in service of an ultimately positive and even necessary social, political, and economic revolution.

And thus The Ministry for the Future makes a surprisingly useful contrast with Termination Shock, for it assumes that the most effective way to respond to global warming is through top-down political control and near-totalizing social change—with stringent laws and, if necessary, unaccountable, opaque armed force.

Stephenson, on the other hand, imagines a distributed and ever-evolving set of responses forming out of differently motivated coalitions and individuals working toward their own varied ends, sometimes in conflict, but often in cooperation as well.

Stephenson's vision of a response to climate change is messy, imperfect, and indeed barely constitutes a plan of any kind at all. It's not a holistic solution; it's just some people doing stuff, and then other people doing stuff in response. Some things work. Some things don't. Mostly, it works out, but not always. It's a story of haphazard, undirected progress predicated on the idea that we can respond to problems with incremental innovation, not legislation.

Read in tandem, this pair of novels inevitably raises the questions: Which of these visions is more plausible, more realistic, more achievable, more likely, more humane, and more desirable?

Both stories start from the belief that humanity is vast and varied and idiosyncratic and wonderful and awful and generous and selfish and that, given any opportunity, people will inevitably pursue profit and pleasure and personal gain. For Robinson, that's precisely the problem. For Stephenson, it's the solution—or as close as we'll ever get.