Though it takes place just a few decades in the future, Neal Stephenson offers up Termination Shock as a futuristic sci-fi adventure story. The accelerating factor, the reason it has such a sci-fi aura, is ongoing climate crises.
When we meet Rufus – his friends call him Red – he’s working on night-vision drones that help him stalk herds of wild boars that are wreaking havoc across the Texas plains. He switched to nighttime hunting so he wouldn’t have to wear the refrigerated suit that anyone in their right might wears in the midday summer heat when they’re going to be outside for more than ten minutes.
We meet Saskia – though all but her friends call her ‘Your Royal Majesty’ – when she crash-lands her private jet on a Waco, Texas runway overrun by wild boars. Tough she and her staff survive, her very public arrival does not bode well for keeping her mission a secret. The Queen of the Netherlands is not supposed to be meeting privately with other de facto world leaders.
When we meet Texas billionaire T.R. Hooligan – those who really know him call him Dr. Schmidt or just T.R. – we begin to understand what all of his notable guests have in common. They all have behind-the-scenes political power. They are all rich. And, they all come from low lying countries that are about to be overwhelmed by rising sea levels.
Finally, there is Laks, a Canadian-born Sikh who travels to his family’s origins in India’s Pujab region hoping to find masters who will sharpen his skills at the martials arts discipline called gatka. He is an unlikely hero but we know he’s destined to become one. How that happens is a mystery I hesitate to reveal since we don’t discover the answer until well past the halfway point of this 706-page novel.
We do know that it has something to do with the global impact of the climate solution T.R. and his friends have cooked up.
In the real world, people like Bill Gates believe we can geoengineer our way out of the climate crisis by spreading finely ground silicates or other reflective particles throughout earth’s stratosphere. https://www.forbes.com/sites/arielcohen/2021/01/11/bill-gates-backed-climate-solution-gains-traction-but-concerns-linger/?sh=38b02101793b
Stephenson did his research, kicking Gates-like proposals a little further down the road.
In Texas-like style, T.R. decides to take the geoengineering bull by the horns. When he first demonstrates the massive cannons buried deep underground in West Texas, Saskia and her counterparts from Venice, Singapore and London thinks he’s just looking for their support. They don’t realize they’re witnessing history in the making.
T.R.’s cannons boom round-the-clock, nearly two hundreds shots a day carry tons of liquid sulfur into the stratosphere where they dissolve into powdery crystals that will reflect some of the sunlight back into space. As portions of earth begins to cool, T.R. hires Rufus (and hundreds of other ‘black hats’) to help defend his geoengineering launch site, while Saskia conspires with the others to create more of them in outposts around the globe.
Because the future U.S. that Stephenson presents is run by clowns, having descended from world power to a country that no one takes seriously anymore, no one tries to stop him. And, what T.R. sets in motion cannot be stopped without earth suffering the even greater consequences of ‘termination shock.’
It takes no stretch of the imagination to see Stephenson’s near-future depiction as credible. Oil companies continue to hold sway over the world’s economy. Politicians continue to dither. Climate activists – all labeled ‘greenies’ in Stephenson’s account – continue to be dismissed, their vision of clean energy and a renewed earth ecology deemed unrealistic.
Ironically, while Termination Shock presents a future in which the climate crisis has pushed humanity close to dystopia, it is a surprisingly entertaining way to image that very real, horrific possibility.