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

At the time Neal Stephenson was writing his new novel Shock at the EndHumans have begun to adapt to climate change already, as if it were a new beginning. Stephenson predicted that our near-future world would become hotter and, at times, more dangerous. People, with all their idiosyncratic ways have managed to figure out the best way. 

Some adaptations can be obvious. In Texas where most of the action takes place, roads are raised and homes are retrofitted or built to stand on stilts to prevent flooding. These adaptations can be unexpected, and sometimes not welcome. For example, large numbers of residents were left without cooling air due to fire ants flocking to the ozone created by the relays of air conditioners. This was mostly because of supply chain problems from a Chinese monopolist. This led to a large number of people being called “relayfugees”, who established ad-hoc camps out of their recreational vehicles and camp trailers.

Some adaptations may be more interesting than others: These include drones that can provide information to quasicyborg state agents and large truck stop/gas station complexes which serve as mobile service hubs. Modular, powered suits can be worn by people who have the means to keep cool or for those whose job requires it. Even in wetbulb temperaturesThis could otherwise cause the death of a person. It would be great if it was possible to make the system work. DuneTexas can use it.

Each of these solutions solves a problem that is small or manageable. It could be local flooding or pest invasions or supply chain problems, or working outside in the extreme heat. They aren’t meant to solve the global warming problem or change the political system. These are just ways to respond, using engineering and distributed decision-making, to minor irritations as well as major problems that global warming may present. This, however, is a strange thing. Is the solution—or at least the very best we can do. Termination ShockIt is an innovative novel that demonstrates how many small improvements can create a better 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 is far too complicated, large and involves many individuals, many governments, many stakeholders. This is a complex topic that you can’t grasp. You can’t.

Instead of focusing on politics, you can break it down, solve each problem one at a time using engineering and mutually-beneficial cooperation.

Stephenson explicitly presents the idea in his book. The threat of rising sea levels is being discussed by a Dutch royal officer with his nationalist father. His father replies that he takes sea-level rise threat seriously and asks the functionary if he is concerned.

Conversation continues (I have removed some narration and descriptions)

The question is: “What are you going to do?”

“We, as a civilization? What is global climate change?

“I know, right? Too vague! Too much decentralization of responsibility. “Too much politics,” says the functionary. He proposes to his dad a different way of seeing things.

Instead, ask: What are the Dutch going to do about it specifically? Sea level rising It suddenly seems simpler and more clear, isn’t it? Instead of the whole world—the United Nations and all that—it’s just the Netherlands. We are not referring to the various ramifications that climate change has on greenhouse gases, but a single issue: the rising sea level.

Termination shock It is therefore a unique attempt to solve the problems of climate change, and deal with them directly and effectively rather than as an unsolvable mass of civilizational mega-challenges.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone does great things. The story begins when a Texas billionaire, a genial but somewhat cantankerous, decides to make matters worse by acquiring a large number of high-tech truck stop chains. He builds an enormous subterranean rocket launcher and starts shooting sulfur into the air, rather than supporting international climate treaties, emissions standards, or other global initiatives. He does not ask for approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. He does not set up any governing authority nor get buy-in from stakeholder. He collects sulfur, creates a large machine and then takes action.

Since the 1970s, scientists have been speculating that sulfur released into the upper atmosphere may help the planet cool down by reflecting the sunlight and allowing the temperatures to drop. In fact, scientists have known for years that this was exactly what happened when Mount Pinatubo burst in the Philippines in 1991. This caused large quantities of sulfur to be released into the atmosphere, which in turn led to several years of cooling global temperatures.

It would require you to be involved in geoengineering. This is an unwelcome practice that’s often either overlooked or misunderstood as part the climate change toolkit. Stephenson’s novel offers an experiment in thought: Instead of trying to negotiate through bureaucratic and colletivized political systems and attending summits, what if Stephenson envisioned a feisty and motivated individual instead?It was easy!? One example is the genial and cantankerous Texas billionaire Pina2bo.

Although it sounds large scale, this solution is not insignificant. Stephenson presents the project as a simple engineering task that solves an individual problem. For example, it is too hot in Texas and is causing problems for billionaire owners. It is an issue because of the local heat. This problem can be mitigated by adding sulfur to the atmosphere. That’s it.

However, this is only the beginning. 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. The Texas solution to sulfur causes competition, with powerful European families and a variety of nation-states from China to the Middle East, who all suddenly start trying to resolve their often interrelated climate, weather and political issues.

It’s a messy business, and sometimes it goes wrong. Many innocent surfers die in a bizarre foamy storm. A few small-scale, quasi-wars break out amongst shadowy organizations of perhaps-private fighters in areas where there is 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 continue to prove huge and huge headaches.

One of the most important sequences in the novel is The MaeslantkeringThe Dutch storm surge barrier is one of the most powerful moving objects on the planet. However, it is being overpowered by an enormous wave which may have been engineered in a different country. Termination Shock We take it for granted that some form of conflict will result from ad hoc geoengineering.

Stephenson is not immune to some of the above. Large engineered structures, decentralized problem solving and long-standing interest in them have been a fascination for me.. The novel reads at times like many Stephenson stories. It is a collection of people and objects that Stephenson considers neat. There are sections about falconry and obscure stick-fighting techniques, drone-assisted hog-hunting, private high-end train travel and the Texan obsession for 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 is complex and zany at times, but also terrifying, beautiful, and a little bit frightening all at the same time.

One of the main characters is seen driving by the scene in the first chapter. Bonnet Carré SpillwayNew Orleans has a huge flood control system that was built in response to a flood in 1925. It is the result of a flood that caused hundreds to die and thousands more to be displaced. Stephenson explains the spillway’s many engineering features, how it is designed, the legacy of the system in popular culture and its changing usage over time as the weather changed. Notably, spillway is Partly used as an enormous public recreation centre. The environmental challenges have always been there, as the passage suggests, even deadly. People have found solutions to these problems and integrated them into daily life.

Climate change in the vision of the novel is real. It’s a serious issue for citizens of 21st Century. However, it is not necessarily an extinction crisis. Because people adapt to change, each person will be better at it than the others. Somehow, humans muddle through—and as often as not, it’s both absurdly funny and incredibly cool.

Comparison of legislation and innovation Innovation

Stephenson isn’t the only science fiction author who has tackled global warming over recent years. There’s a whole subgenre called “cli-fi” that focuses on extrapolating the effects of climate change on our lives. Kim Stanley Robinson is perhaps the most well-known and celebrated practitioner of this subgenre. Mars trilogy. His latest novel is Ministry for the FutureThe book, focuses on many of the same topics as Termination ShockThey were almost identical to each other, but with completely opposing viewpoints on climate change.

Ministry for the FutureThe smallest international agency, the CIA, attempts to fight climate change through legal and bureaucratic means. Yes, large-scale geoengineering is possible, with a system that refreezes glaciers. But there are also individual actors, many of them terrorist organizations, who are motivated by the threat of climate violence.

Robinson envisions a response to climate change as changing laws and using legal pressure to disrupt existing economic systems. This is what it looks like Ministry for the FutureIt is an example of the kind of novel that can sometimes drop into direct-to reader lectures on monetary policy, inequality’s origins, and “defining characteristics” of Neoliberalism. The novel includes sections on “Paris Agreement standards” and “certification teams.” An early chapter begins with a description of the legal authority that created the United Nations subagency, from which it takes its name. Many of it’s future-politics speculation is built on the idea that central bankers continue to be the true rulers of modern society.

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.” We wish you all the best.

It is an engaging and effective novel, despite all of this. Robinson is a skilled and thoughtful writer. His powerful understanding of human interaction with other systems as well as fascinating ideas on how humans can manipulate their surroundings makes him a convincing and elegant writer. Although he’s not as witty and entertaining as Stephenson, he writes in a genuine feeling. It is well worth his time and attention, even though he seems to be wrong about the future and what it should look like.

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.

It turns out that the ministry has a black operations wing which carries out some terrorist acts. It is up to the reader, however, to find out how far these secretive violent campaigns stretched. There are some indications that they may have involved targeted killings and property destruction. While the novel does not condone this violence in any way, violence is seen as necessary to a social, political and economically positive revolution.

So it goes. Ministry for the FuturThe surprising contrast between e and? is e 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, however, sees a network of diversely motivated people and groups working together to achieve their goals. Sometimes they are in conflict with each other.

Stephenson’s vision for climate change response is messy and imperfect. In fact, it barely represents a plan. The solution isn’t holistic. There are just some people who do things and others responding. Certain things are successful. Other things may not work. It usually works, but sometimes it does not. This is a tale of undirected, haphazard progress based on the belief that incremental innovation can solve problems. Not legislation.

These novels can be read in conjunction and raise the question: Which one of these visions seems more possible, feasible, more humane or more appealing?

Both stories are based on the assumption that humans can be vastly different and unique and will pursue personal pleasures and profit at all costs. Robinson believes that this is precisely what the problem is. For Stephenson, it’s the solution—or as close as we’ll ever get.