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Thursday, January 06, 2022

Review: Termination Shock

 Termination Shock is Neal Stephenson's novel about geo-engineering to cool down the atmosphere. It is a massive novel, clocking in at 716 pages, and contains many classic Neal Stephenson shticks, including massive detours into a character's completely irrelevant past history (one of the main character was a feral pig hunter in Texas), and a plot setup that's wooden and doesn't stand up to any kind of critical thinking.

The book's proposed solution to climate change is to pump sulphur into the stratosphere. The Termination Shock described in the title refers to a backlash effect should the continual stream of sulfur injection stops. Strangely enough, that's not actually covered in the book at all, and the Termination Shock refers to the global implications causing foreign actors to move on the sulfur injection facilities. The actual details behind how sulfur injection would work to reduce climate changes are only alluded to, rather than described, which is rather uncharacteristic of Stephenson's work. There's an implication that this action while providing cooling still would be incomplete: ocean acidification would be unsolved, but Stephenson never follows up on any of this.

Stephenson's vehicle of choice for geo-engineering isn't government or activist action, but of course, that favorite troupe of science fiction, the billionaire entrepreneur who calculates that a reduction in temperature in Texas would benefit his real-estate holdings by much more than the cost of sulphur injection. In classic fashion, he doesn't bother consulting with anyone, but just implements it, only inviting the Queen of the Netherlands to take part in the initial launch. What follows is a split-thread involving a Gatka fighter and various Chinese actors. Those side threads, unfortunately don't involve anything more than cliches.

As with other Stephenson novels, the prose is eminently readable, and once in a while you have a real gem, such as:

One part of her was incredulous that people would live here. Could anything less sustainable be imagined? She was drinking water from a bottle made of petrochemicals. At three in the morning the temperature was still so high that humans could not sleep unless they ran air conditioners powered by generators that burned more petroleum. The generators and the air conditioners alike dumped more heat into the air. Over dinner, Rufus—speaking in an understated, deadpan, almost scholarly way—had told the story about the fire ants and the relays in the air conditioners. Over dessert, Beau talked about meth gators in a much more exuberant style. It made Texas sound about as hospitable as the surface of Venus. But Saskia was conscious of the fact that she and her people had been living in an unsustainable country for so long that it was the only thing they knew. If the pumps that held back the North Sea were shut off, the country would be flooded in three days. There was no place they could retreat to. If anything, Texas was more sustainable than the Netherlands. It was mostly above sea level, it produced its own oil, and when that ran out, the Texans could have all the wind and solar energy they felt like collecting. (kindle loc 1697)

and, in reflection about the choice to live in places like Indonesia:

 He could have moved, of course, and lived out the rest of his life in a part of the world characterized by greater political stability. But having seen shit you wouldn’t believe in Indonesia, he had arrived at the conclusion that political stability anywhere was an illusion that only a simpleton would believe in. That (invoking, here, a version of the anthropic principle) such simpletons only believed they were right when and if they just happened to live in places that were temporarily stable. And that it was better to live somewhere obviously dangerous, because it kept you on your toes. Willem had thought all this daft until Trump and QAnon. (kindle loc 9372)

The book kept me reading, but when it finished made me think of all the plot-holes involved, and the complete misdirection (one of the major POV characters effectively does nothing), and I decided that other Stephenson novels such as Seveneves  are much better reads and not as obviously full of plot-holes.

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