Review – Stephenson, “Termination Shock”

Neal Stephenson, “Termination Shock” (2021) – I recently had the inspiration to google “Neal Stephenson net worth.” The internet seems to know what every even mildly famous (Stephenson once said he was probably about as famous as the mayor of Des Moines- figure maybe we could bump him up to, I dunno, El Paso mayor status now?) is worth, or at least gives a confident-sounding answer. The answer the Internet gave for Neal Stephenson is eighty-five million dollars. That’s a lot! It makes sense, given that he’s been a bestselling writer for a while, but more so because he is a friend of — and his work is an inspiration to — tech billionaires, including the current biggest of all, Jeff Bezos. Something tells me those nerds probably let slip a few tips to the old beard-monger (he’s not that old or that beardy these days, granted) when they’re in their cups, geeking out with the dude who wrote “Snow Crash.”

I’m a materialist, so I’ll just say it: I think Stephenson’s proximity to/immersion in the world of rich tech people has dulled his imagination, blunted his literary ambitions, and (along with what I can only imagine is soft-touch editing) encouraged several of his bad traits as a writer. I’m a dialectical materialist, of sorts, so, naturally, I will complicate this assertion. I don’t think money necessarily leads to bad art. I do think that the mental/cultural/aesthetic space of contemporary rich people ala Bezos is so profoundly anodyne that spending enough time in it will, almost invariably, infect a person with its banality. Moreover, depicting the anodyne space of “bizjets” (as Stephenson invariably calls private jets at this point), high-end hotels, conferences, etc in a way that doesn’t numb the mind… well, my favorite filmmaker, Michael Mann, has to expend all his talent to make settings like that compelling, and he only has to do it over the course of a two hour movie, with frequent dips into more interesting environments (“The Insider” is one of his harder movies to watch in part because of this issue).

Neal Stephenson is, in fact, a major talent, though I wouldn’t say a prose stylist in the way Mann is a cinematic artist. His talent is a cobble of ideas, capable genre chops, ambition, and flaws. You know what doesn’t have cobbles, or if they do, they’ve been artfully arranged by mercenary art school grads for maximum soullessness? The world of billionaires. And that is the world where we live in for most of “Termination Shock,” Stephenson’s go at a climate change novel.

The idea here is that in the near future, a Texas billionaire (who, god help me, I can’t help but imagine as Rod Strickland, Hank’s boss on “King of the Hill”) starts shooting sulfur into the atmosphere to abate climate change. He invites the Queen of the Netherlands — Stephenson likes to introduce her in any given section with her fusillade of names, but mostly, she goes by Saskia — and elites from other low-lying areas to look at his Big Gun for shooting sulfur-shells into the atmosphere and help advance his plans. This puts Saskia, here depicted as just a sensible, self-aware lady trying her best, into a whole political thing. Meanwhile, Canadian Sikh action-guy Laks (Stephenson is a words and ideas guy who loves action-guys, more later) goes to the Punjab to connect with his roots through learning advanced Sikh stick-fighting, and winds up in some weird fighting with the Chinese in the Himalayas. Then these things get connected!

I’m aware of where criticisms of Stephenson usually land- on the politics of his ideas and postures, and sometimes, as an afterthought, on his prose. I’ve been doing this long enough that I accept that his politics won’t be like mine, and I more or less accept his prose, too. The big red flag for most people will, naturally enough, be geoengineering (trying schemes to reverse climate change). I am not a scientist or engineer. Here’s what I know: most people I know with an opinion on geoengineering are firmly against it, and that includes a substantial subset made up of every actual scientist I know and have heard opine on the subject (a substantial minority of science-enthusiast friends are pro-geoengineering); that our system, and especially the individual billionaires involved, probably shouldn’t be in charge of anything more important and dangerous than a pair of soft shoes. So, basically, not too dissimilar to nuclear power, except I could see a situation where nuclear power was key to the future, and even Stephenson seems to only see geoengineering as a temporary measure…

Anyway! Stephenson clearly —likes— geoengineering schemes- why wouldn’t he? He likes big, ambitious technoscientific schemes. But you might be surprised how little he dwells on opposition to geoengineering, especially for a dude who in other novels makes his dislike for critics of ideas he sees as important through turning them into truly obnoxious villains. True, his characters invokes “the Greens” as an ever-present force blocking progress, but that’s mild stuff, for Neal. The politics he’s concerned with is great power stuff and in the end, he treats them all alike- looking out for their interests (except the US, which he treats as something of a basket case that can’t really act in its own interest- fair enough). There’s some China-baiting but by the time the book reaches a denouement, the Chinese are not the problem. By the end of the book, he’s making a decent point, even, not about geoengineering so much as maybe, even if we “need” billionaires and terrible governments to do big important projects, they should also not cowboy around doing whatever without talking to each other. I think most of can agree that communication is good (the most communication I want to make with a billionaire is “hand it over and get in line for your turnips with everyone else” but, you know).

So, no, it’s not the politics that makes this probably the worst Stephenson novel. Rather, the politics is infected by the same anodyne, under-thought but over-elaborated, quality that makes the plot, writing, and characterization bad. Basically, it’s a very dull seven hundred pages. It’s a thriller — Stephenson has clearly long loved airport thrillers ala Grisham but has only indulged in writing them the last decade or so — that seldom thrills. That sucks, because Stephenson has packed big books before with stuff. If it wasn’t discussion of ideas, it was fun incident. But, god help me, the world Saskia inhabits just can’t be interesting no matter how hard Stephenson tries (I don’t know how hard he’s trying). Witnessing the aftermath of climate catastrophes (like a pretty horrifying-sounding beachside mass-drowning in sea foam) having a love life, getting ratfucked by the Chinese and their deepfake schemes, could be interesting, but aren’t. They’re written like so many depictions of flying around in “bizjets” and attending conferences. It is almost determinedly boring, like he’s trying to prove some kind of point.

What of characters not trapped in the “air-conditioned nightmare” of beige rich life? What about Laks the Sikh stick-fighter? Well, it’s a little more interesting. It sounds absurd at first, that India and China would restrict their wrangling over deglaciated Himalayan real estate along their 1962 ceasefire line by having “volunteers” fight with sticks, rocks, and fists. Stephenson waxes thoughtful on the long history of “performative war,” which wasn’t particularly persuasive on why someone wouldn’t just use a knife or a gun, and why the invariable casualties (rocks can also kill you!) wouldn’t produce the sort of outrage that would escalate the situation… but it is true that not everyone uses every weapon they have. Stephenson relies on the example of nuclear weapons- I thought more about fascist versus antifascist confrontations. Who knows what will happen post-Rittenhouse verdict — and if the fascist right thinks they’d have more than a momentary advantage if things went to the gun, they are wrong, guns are plentiful in this country and they can’t organize for shit — but for now, there are practices that contain the escalation of the violence.

So, in principle, the “Line of Actual Control” storyline passes the sniff test, and the action was more interesting than Saskia flying (herself- you see, she trained as a pilot, so she’s not just some useless scion of unearned wealth, oh, no!) around. But let’s talk about the non-grossly-wealthy characters in “Termination Shock.” These are mostly Laks, who briefly becomes a social media celebrity for leading a crew of Indian stick fighters against Chinese opposite numbers, and Rufus. Rufus is the inevitable standin most Stephenson novels have for the wisdom of the American heartland. This time, the stand-in is, like Nas, “all races combined into one man” instead of being just a white guy, but mostly Stephenson identifies him as a Comanche. He gets involved in the action by rescuing Saskia and the Dutch royal crew from thirty to forty feral pigs when they visit Texas at the start of the book.

Here’s the thing- Rufus’s story, about how he got obsessed with feral pigs after one ate his kid, how he developed state of the art feral pig hunting techniques, how he read Moby-Dick after someone compared him to Captain Ahab, etc etc… it’s both the best part of the book, action wise (and comes to a halt once the Texan geoengineering billionaire hires him to attend to the dry fart of the plot), and the prime symptom of the patronizing ventriloquism Stephenson has long done with working-class characters, and which has gotten worse as time has went on and as Stephenson moves in more rarified social circles. Rufus is a noble savage in a peculiarly old-school mode, not so much Tanto as the sort of Native American imagined by Enlightenment types- simple, noble, formal, thoughtful, rational even if attached to strange cultural norms. He is contrasted to ignoble savages, like (white American) people who try to fight Laks for being Sikh, and, implicitly, the white heartland Americans who have let Stephenson down by supporting Trump and otherwise seceding from consensus reality. As for Laks, he’s Stephenson trying to write his way into the head of a good-hearted, smart but not especially verbal, athletic/mechanically-inclined guy. You get these a lot in Stephenson novels, but they’re usually side characters, and so you don’t see the strings quite as much. Let’s just say Stephenson’s loquacity as a writer and the supposed strong silent types he writes make for some odd contrasts.

One thing you can say for Stephenson’s working class puppets- in the end (and the back quarter is much better than the preceding parts), everyone is a puppet, blown along by forces greater than themselves, even queens and billionaires and people trying to make new countries out of geoengineering-happy low-lying rich countries (and a few impoverished Pacific Island countries fronting for them). Climate change, capitalism, and great power conflicts are so big no one can entirely manage it, even the billionaires or powers like India and China. That’s true enough. But between the lack of much to say about this state of affairs, and the hundreds of pages he makes you spend in beige billionaire hell…between both Stephenson and Kim Stanley Robinson writing climate change novels that are, above all else, failures to imagine radically different ways of arranging things (even when both have imagined precisely that in other works!), it’s not an encouraging picture. **

Review – Stephenson, “Termination Shock”

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