Cross posted from the Words&Dirt blog. I'm a longtime reader and fan of lesswrong, but not a regular poster. My best friend submitted this review of Neal Stephenson's 2021 book 'Termination Shock' into the ACX book review contest this year. It didn't make the finalists, but I thought the community here might get appreciate it anyway. The author (Miles) and I would love to here your perspectives on the book, review, and more generally, solar geoengineering. 

Double Take: The Edifying Ambiguity of Neal Stephenson’s “Termination Shock”

I. Grabbing the Wheel

It’s like, we’ve been in a car with a brick on the gas pedal and no one at the wheel, careening down the road, running over people and crashing into things. We’re still in the car. We can’t get out of the car. But someone could at least grab the wheel. (655)

This passage doesn’t show up until the final act of Neal Stephenson‘s Termination Shock, but it’s a useful image for introducing the book’s premise. Imagine the late 2040s, just two and a half decades from now. Humanity has continued to do diddly-squat about climate change. Life is becoming increasingly difficult for people across the globe, primarily due to rising temperatures and sea levels. Frustrated with our collective complacency, a Texas billionaire decides to “grab the wheel” by building a giant gun in the ground, complete with six 240-meter barrels that point straight up toward the sky. Every eight minutes, this gun fires a “bullet” that is actually a miniature rocket. These rockets use molten sulfur as fuel, which converts into sulfur dioxide exhaust as they sail through the stratosphere. Once injected into the stratosphere, the sulfur dioxide reflects some portion of the sun’s light back into space, thereby reducing the amount of heat entering Earth’s atmosphere and bringing down global temperatures. From this starting point, Termination Shock introduces a host of characters whose lives intersect with this project, depicting the challenges they face amidst growing geopolitical tensions.

Depending on your familiarity with the climate literature, this scenario may strike you as completely bonkers, predictably inevitable, or somewhere in between. But for anyone unfamiliar with the idea, “solar geoengineering” (AKA “solar radiation modification” or “SRM”) is a very real technology with a theoretical history going back at least as far as a landmark climate report that was submitted to Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. In recent years, solar geoengineering has garnered renewed attention from climate scientists, who generally remain wary of its deployment but also admit that it’s our cheapest and fastest tool for mitigating the worst climate outcomes. We have good reason to believe it will work, largely due to data collected in the aftermath of Mount Pinatubo’s 1991 eruption. According to Stephenson, this event “blasted fifteen million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere” and resulted in “a couple of years’ beautiful sunsets and reduced global temperatures” (253). Less optimistic climate activists such as Naomi Klein and journalists like David Wallace-Wells have documented potential risks, voicing fears that this technology may be misused by “planet hackers” or “an environmentalist billionaire, going rogue.”

Regardless of our personal views on solar geoengineering, we can all celebrate that this idea became the central focus of Neal Stephenson’s newest novel. Stephenson––an author famous for penning yarns packed with tangential descriptions of abstruse technologies and concepts––turns out to be an ideal mind for considering the granular details of how near-future humanity might find itself suddenly staked in the solar geoengineering game. More than any of his previous novels, Termination Shock directly addresses the proximate problem of “innovation starvation,” which Stephenson has been publicly worried about for over a decade.

Solar geoengineering technology is an example of a “moonshot idea,” a concept that came out of Stephenson’s work with Arizona State University’s Project Hieroglyph, and which Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer define as “the intersection of a huge problem, a radical solution, and a breakthrough discovery that makes the solution possible now or in the near future” (Hieroglyph, xxv). In this case, our “huge problem” is climate change and the “radical solution” is solar geoengineering. The “breakthrough discovery” is a bit harder to define. Stephenson’s story doesn’t lean on any major conceits that go beyond current technology, but one could argue that his breakthrough discovery is the jarring fact of someone finally doing something proactive to reduce global temperatures after decades of inaction. “Termination shock” has a technical definition––”the consequences of shutting the [geoengineering] system off after it’s been running for a while”––but the novel isn’t really about that (353). It’s about the psychological “shock” caused by the “termination” of a longstanding status quo. And once this event becomes public knowledge, we get to enjoy Stephenson playing around with the reactions of individuals and nations, which are variously funny, sensible, and scary.

This brings us to the main reason why Termination Shock is both a brilliant and vitally important work of climate fiction. The novel is an invaluable narrative resource for climate futurism because it is both a cheerfully optimistic and darkly cynical vision wrapped up in the same story. In this review, I will provide plot and character analyses that describe two extremes at opposite ends of an interpretive spectrum, allowing for multivalent exploration of the ethical and logistical challenges of solar geoengineering specifically and geopolitical management of climate change generally. My hope is that this analysis will also highlight the immense value of climate fiction when it comes to understanding and solving our real-world climate problems.

Unfortunately, a thorough job is going to require lots of spoilers. So, for people who would prefer to read the book and form their own opinions before wading through mine, the next two sections will contain a general overview and some criticism, keeping spoilers to a minimum. Then I’ll move on to the spoiler-rich section to execute my main argument.

II. General Overview (Minor Spoilers)

In many respects, Termination Shock is a “typical” Stephenson novel. This means it’s something of a klugey mess, highly unusual in its substance and style. In the past, I’ve compared his books to Swiss Army Knives––singular instruments designed for a wide range of utility. Making a guess about Stephenson’s writing process, it seems like he spends some number of years researching a bunch of different technologies and theories, then crams them together into a single story. For Termination Shock, I made a nonexhaustive list of current and future technologies readers will encounter:

  • Solar geoengineering, including grounded as well as airborne models;
  • Drones, including automated flocking, weaponization, and drones that can carry single passengers;
  • “Earthsuits,” modular suits designed to help humans withstand varying levels of extreme heat;
  • Wild pig hunting and breeding genetics;
  • Augmented reality and artificial intelligence;
  • Carbon-neutral air and sea travel;
  • “Performative” warfare;
  • Non-lethal weapons such as electromagnetic pulses and radiation guns;
  • Martial arts, especially a Sikh tradition called Gatka;
  • Sea walls, storm surge gates, and sea level management;
  • Contact tracing apps;
  • Self-driving cars;
  • Disinformation via news and social media, including deepfakes;
  • Falconry as an anti-drone security measure;
  • High-altitude conditioning and equipment;
  • Artificial meat;
  • Cloud computing and climate modeling/prediction;
  • Underwater explosives that create targeted rogue waves;
  • 3D printing;
  • Enhanced perception and proprioception as part of recovery from brain injury;
  • Advanced video surveillance

Similar lists could be compiled for Stephenson’s other novels, and some of those would be considerably longer than this one. The results of Stephenson’s predilection for covering so many topics at once are always interesting, but not always successful from a narrative perspective. His characters aren’t reliably well-developed, and he often has trouble coming up with satisfying endings.

To his credit, Stephenson’s characterization and narrative arcs have been improving over the course of his career. This is where Termination Shock really stands out. All the main characters in this novel are fantastic (more on this later), and are bolstered by a delightful supporting cast. And he sticks the landing when the story comes to a close. Another perk is that, at just over 700 pages, Termination Shock is a comparatively concise and approachable addition to the Stephenson canon. For all of these reasons, I’m hoping that this novel will satisfy old fans of Stephenson’s work and also recruit lots of new ones.

As far as central themes that can be addressed without spoilers, there are a couple worth highlighting. The first is the tension between the need for a new global identity focused on collective problems and the self-interested tribal agendas of existing nations, corporations, and individuals. Climate change, one character rightly argues, is a problem that can’t be solved “with local barriers. The politics are too…intractable. A planetary solution is the only way” (211).

The importance of a “planetary solution” has been central since the beginning of the environmental movement, but Stephenson’s special contribution is how he imagines rising sea levels and temperatures giving birth to a new international tribe of unexpected allies. “Strange bedfellows have been a constant throughout all history,” he quips. “It’s just that climate change moves the beds around” (498). Stephenson cheekily names this tribe the “Netherworld,” referring to nations and geographical regions that are or soon will be underwater. Key members include the United States, the Netherlands, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and Italy (specifically Venice). Stephenson also suggests that countervailing forces will arise to challenge the Netherworld’s agenda––countries that may have a lot to lose due to the side effects of solar geoengineering. The deliciously nebulous term “Climate Peacekeeping” makes an appearance, inviting us to consider both the positive and negative ways that militaries might be used in this struggle. Termination Shock is a futuristic feast for geopolitics junkies.

Stephenson also comments on social justice and colonialism––issues that have saturated American culture in recent years. He provides witty and insightful examinations of legitimate historical grievances, and also points out how the complexities of racism and colonial oppression have been oversimplified. A good example is this passage from early in the novel, when Rufus Grant––a multiracial man who at this point in the story is in the business of trying to control exploding wild pig populations in Texas––drives past a protest on a college campus on his way to visit a professor:

At first the protesters gave him mean looks for driving a huge gas-guzzling dually until they saw through the glass that he was a person of color and then they didn’t know where to direct their moral indignation…

As he cut across the grain of the crowd, headed for Dr. Rutledge’s office, he got a good look at the signs the protesters were carrying. A lot of them had to do with the notion of humans as an invasive species, a topic that was very much on point as far as Rufus was concerned.

It would have been easy enough, and satisfying in a certain way, to make the comparison between what Rufus was trying to do to the pigs now and what the Comanches had tried to do to white people two hundred years ago. But you had to be careful. The Comanches themselves were invaders from the north who had “displaced”––a euphemism if ever there was one––the Indians who had been in Texas before. And they’d been able to do it because they were early and enthusiastic adopters of the invasive species known as the horse.

Some of the other protest signs, he couldn’t help noticing, we’re on the theme of extinction: a fate that all humans were facing if we didn’t get a handle on climate change. So by the time Rufus finally got to the front door of the building where Dr. Rutledge worked, he was thoroughly confused. Did these kids hate humans because they were an invasive species that should be eradicated? Or did they love humans and not want them to become extinct? Imponderable questions, these, which perhaps college sophomores stayed up all night hashing out over pizza and beer while Rufus was out alone with a tripod and a rifle hunting a demon. (20-1)

Much later, Rufus treats us to another nuanced interpretation of American history:

As a young man Rufus had disappointed some of his white army friends who had wanted him to be a whole lot more authentic, according to their version of what that was. But this had been back in the days before Rufus had developed his theory…that Comancheness was a viral thing that could hop from brain to brain, regardless of skin color, and that––using the early Texas Rangers as a vector of infection––it had completely taken over America a long time ago. Old-school Christian values and straight-out racism had held it at bay through the world wars and the fifties, but then the barriers had fallen one by one and before you knew it there was a white guy in red-white-and-blue war paint sacking the U.S. Capitol in what the media described as some kind of Viking getup but Rufus knew perfectly well was a Plains Indian-style bison headdress. And just like Comanches with their raids, those people didn’t stick around and try to plant their yellow rattlesnake flags on the Capitol dome. They just wandered off, having counted coup on democracy and taken a few cop scalps, and melted back into their nomadic trailer park encampments. Point being, Rufus hadn’t worked all that out in his head back when he’d been a buck private; he had not had the mental equipment to explain to his white brothers in arms that the Comanches had won the long war. The war between men’s ears. (674-5)

I don’t have much to say about these passages except that I found them to be highly entertaining and original contributions to conversations that lately feel stale to me.

III. Criticism (Minor Spoilers)

It’s probably obvious by now that I adore this novel, but I found plenty to criticize as well. Arguably the book’s biggest weakness is that it fails almost entirely to explore its eponymous concept. Given the title and premise, one might assume that the story follows this basic structure:

Texas billionaire initiates solar geoengineering →
World finds out and promptly panics →
Someone successfully sabotages the billionaire’s project, but not before it has already impacted the global climate →
Termination shock begins →
???

But this isn’t how it goes, and termination shock remains nothing more than an intimidating possibility throughout the novel. Now, since no one really knows what termination shock would be like, perhaps we can excuse Stephenson for not wanting to go there. Then again, that feels like a pretty flimsy excuse for a writer who’s comfortable imagining what would happen if the Moon suddenly fractured into pieces or how monks living in another cosmos might discover the same rules of mathematics that we have in this universe. I think Stephenson missed an opportunity here, but I can dream that he’ll try to fix this with a sequel.

Another problem involves Stephenson’s penchant for glamorizing elites and discounting the experiences of common people. Given his preoccupation with obscure ideas and cutting edge technologies, it makes sense that Stephenson’s characters aren’t everyday folks. But this tends to create a kind of narrative selection bias where Stephenson bends over backwards to explain the perspectives of hyper-rich and privileged people while often ignoring or brushing aside other viewpoints. As a result, his stories favor individualist and libertarian mindsets, with elites playing the “real game” of global influence while the hoi polloi just mill about benignly or get in the way.

Also along for the ride is Stephenson’s readiness to depict national governments as impotent, gridlocked bureaucracies that can’t get anything useful done. He is especially hard on the United States, including several references to America as a “completely insane and out-of-hand country, unable to control itself” and a nation whose “sheer incompetence” has become its most reliable feature (579, 583). Depending on your political orientation, this will either feel like smart, realpolitik storytelling or snobby cynicism about humanity’s capacity for collective action. If you’re in the latter camp, I’d recommend Kim Stanley Robinson‘s The Ministry for the Future for a more collectivist fictionalization of the climate problem.

Probably the biggest downside of fictional attempts to address real-world problems is that readers can get carried away by the story, allowing the author to smuggle in lies, half-truths, or to simply omit crucial information. Despite my respect for Stephenson as a researcher and belief that he’s an essentially honest writer, I thought it best to fill out my knowledge of solar geoengineering by consulting a couple recent works of nonfiction. I settled on Elizabeth Kolbert‘s Under A White Sky and Gernot Wagner‘s Geoengineering: The Gamble. I found both books to be highly informative, with the authors displaying excellent journalistic neutrality covering a subject that is both technically and ethically complex.

Kolbert’s main concern is the “recursive logic of the Anthropocene,” a dynamic whereby technological solutions to problems create new problems that then require new solutions (117). Solar geoengineering fits the bill, and she spends the last third of her book discussing various implementation schemes and their accompanying environmental and ethical risks. Kolbert rightly argues that solar geoengineering is merely a form of satisficing––not something we can use to eliminate the root cause of climate change, which is carbon emissions.

One unnerving prospect that Stephenson ignores is the development of a global tolerance to solar geoengineering, similar to the physiological tolerance humans build up through regular use of substances such as caffeine or cocaine. In her analysis of one climate model designed to halve the rate of global warming, Kolbert reveals that the amount of sulfur needed would increase by about an order of magnitude over ten years––a ramp-up that would create a greater “chance of weird side effects” (181). Some of these potential side effects are unknowable without actually pulling the trigger on solar geoengineering, but some we can reasonably anticipate: “Loading the stratosphere with sulfur dioxide would contribute to acid rain,” Kolbert writes, and “could damage the ozone layer” (171). These risks may be obviated by using calcium carbonate in lieu of sulfur––a base rather than an acid––but most models use sulfur since its effects are better understood (thanks Mount Pinatubo!).

When it comes to termination shock, Kolbert’s portrait is bleak: “The effect would be like opening a globe-sized oven door. All the warming that had been masked would suddenly manifest itself in a rapid and dramatic temperature run-up” (180). This is obviously an undesirable state of affairs, one that will likely scare many people into writing off solar geoengineering altogether. But Kolbert doesn’t go that far:

Geoengineering may be “entirely crazy and quite disconcerting,” but if it could slow the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, or take some of the “pain and suffering away,” or help prevent no-longer-fully-natural ecosystems from collapsing, doesn’t it have to be considered? (200)

This is an urgent and daunting question, one that highlights the very tough choices we have ahead of us.

Turning now to Wagner’s book, this is one I’d recommend to pretty much anyone with even a remote interest in these topics. It’s short and accessible, with balanced data and meticulous arguments steeped in game theory. Many of his points and sources converge with Kolbert’s, but Wagner provides significantly more detail since his entire book is focused on a single topic.

Given the dire projections of current climate models, Wagner thinks some degree of solar geoengineering is inevitable. He argues that “the only appropriate way to look at the impacts of solar geoengineering is in the full context of where the world’s climate is heading already,” and asserts repeatedly that any rational deployment of solar geoengineering would need to occur in tandem with significant efforts to slash emissions, ramp up renewables, and deploy all viable carbon capture technologies (45-6). Solar geoengineering won’t land us safely on its own, but it can lengthen the runway and give us more time to solve the underlying problem. Wagner also considers whether solar geoengineering may become a “green moral hazard” that would discourage adoption of other essential climate solutions, as well as the possibility of an “inverse moral hazard” effect that may actually hasten emissions reductions due to fears about its potential negative side effects.

Addressing the prospective dangers of solar geoengineering, Wagner cites all the concerns from Kolbert’s book plus a few others. He points out that solar geoengineering cannot solve the problem of ocean acidification––another reason why emissions reductions, renewables, and carbon capture should be nonnegotiable. One critical issue is the inconsistent effects that solar geoengineering may exert on particular geographic areas, especially in regards to rainfall and agriculture:

Regional solar geoengineering could wreak havoc on rainfall patterns and other weather phenomena…There is some evidence of how Pinatubo has changed regional climates. One particular area of concern: reduced precipitation. And it’s hard to find precipitation phenomena more important than the African and Asian monsoons. Billions of people are directly affected. No monsoon, no food…[However], appropriate solar geoengineering done moderately, modestly, and managed well, [may bring] monsoon conditions closer to pre-industrial levels. (36-40)

One of the strongest aspects of Wagner’s book is how he imagines different ways we may start using solar geoengineering in the near future. Due to the technology’s relatively low cost, there’s a “free-driver problem”: “It’s not about motivating people to act, it’s about stopping too much action” (16). Among the possibilities are situations such as the one in Termination Shock, where a single billionaire sees himself “acting on behalf of humanity, out of a desire to fill a void left by governments’ reluctance” (24). There are plenty of ways, Wagner tells us, for the “deployment decision [to be] entirely out of the hands of elected officials” (109-10).

On the issue of termination shock, Wagner says that concerns about a sudden cancellation or sabotage of an ongoing solar geoengineering program are likely overblown. However, he worries about termination shock for another, perhaps more disconcerting scenario:

What if, after years of a gradual ramp-up in a carefully monitored deployment system, scientists suddenly unearthed a major problem that has heretofore remained undiscovered? The proverbial warning lights go off. Pulling back seems like the most sensible choice, but doing so would trigger the specter of termination shock…It’s easy to see how termination shock may indeed be a real problem. (61-2)

In general, Wagner displays a healthy concern for the thorny question of “who decides?” when it comes to designing and executing a solar geoengineering program. There are no “correct” answers here, just a continual flow of questions and ethical calculations analyzing not only the damage solar geoengineering could do (and to whom), but also the benefits it might confer if used responsibly.

Getting back to Stephenson, I give him a middling but passing grade when it comes to transparency about the risks of solar geoengineering. He acknowledges that solar geoengineering doesn’t solve the root cause of climate change, and one of the story’s main conflicts revolves around the question of how it may impact the monsoon in Punjab, India’s breadbasket. No “sulfur bullets” here.

Still, Stephenson doesn’t spend much time considering the long list of legitimate safety concerns that can be found in the climate literature, and he focuses a lot on how cheap and effective it is (e.g. did you know that sulfur is a byproduct of processing sour crude oil, and also that just a handful of it can neutralize the global warming caused by burning an entire boxcar of pure carbon?). Throughout the novel, we encounter numerous pro-geoengineering perspectives and comparatively few anti-geoengineering ones. It seems fair to conclude, therefore, that Stephenson would be in favor of solar geoengineering if forced to take a side. However, for reasons I’ll lay out in the next section, Termination Shock invites a wide range of interpretations, and should not be understood as a unequivocal act of advocacy for solar geoengineering.

IV. Humanist Heroes or Climate Cowboys? (Major Spoilers)

Termination Shock is the only novel I’ve ever finished reading one day and started rereading the following day. I did this mainly because, given the novel’s length and complexity, I was sure that I’d missed some important details the first time around. What I didn’t anticipate was the discovery of a markedly different story on my second read-through. But that’s the nature of double takes––the truth of the matter remains invisible right up until the moment when it becomes glaringly obvious.

My goal in this section is to argue that the events and characters in Termination Shock are ambiguous enough to accommodate a wide range of narrative interpretability. We’ll look at two interpretive frameworks––Humanist Heroes and Climate Cowboys––which represent extremes at opposite ends of a spectrum. I’ll present two divergent summaries of the novel, each of which will be supported by analyses of the book’s five main characters. To make sure we’re all on the same page, I’ll first provide neutral, “just the facts” descriptions of each character:

Teddy Roosevelt Schmidt (T.R.)

Born in Papua New Guinea to American parents, T.R. inherits Brazos Mining, a mineral extraction company cofounded by his great-grandfather. He also inherits a significant investment in Brazos RoDuSh––a joint venture between Brazos Mining and Royal Dutch Shell that mines copper in Papua New Guinea. T.R. uses this wealth to create T.R. Mick’s, a chain of American restaurants and gas stations, and also to purchase a modest portfolio of Houston real estate. In his spare time, T.R. acquires a PhD in probability and statistics. When we meet him, T.R. has become fed up with the world’s unwillingness to do anything serious about climate change, and in response has built “Pina2bo,” the world’s first solar geoengineering facility in West Texas. During the story, T.R. manages Pina2bo and collaborates with other characters to start building and operating similar facilities in Albania and Papua New Guinea.

Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia (Saskia)

Saskia is Queen of the Netherlands, a direct descendent of the House of Orange-Nassau. Due to her role as a constitutional monarch, Saskia is primarily a cultural icon and symbol of Dutch tradition. Like T.R., Saskia inherited significant oil and mineral interests, as her family was one of the original investors in Royal Dutch Shell. Saskia is also a licensed pilot, widow, and mother of Princess Charlotte (Lotte). When we meet her, she has been invited to Texas by T.R. to tour the newly-minted Pina2bo facility as part of a coterie of leaders from countries threatened by sea level rise. During the story, Saskia manages her affairs of state, develops casual romantic relationships with a couple characters (including Rufus Grant), and abdicates the throne after becoming the victim of a Chinese disinformation campaign spearheaded by a series of deepfakes. Shortly thereafter, Saskia gets recruited by a group of international elites to become “Queen of the Netherworld,” an unofficial ambassador who will advocate for the interests of peoples and nations that are suffering from climate change.

Willem Castelein (Willem)

Willem’s family history is too complex to easily summarize, but he comes from a mixture of Dutch, Indonesian, and Chinese heritage. He grew up in Chicago, holds dual Dutch and American citizenship, and is gay. In high school, he visited the Netherlands for the first time and decided to move there. He then went on to graduate school at Oxford, where he earned a PhD in foreign relations. He spent several decades serving in the Dutch parliament, and then began working for the royal family. When we meet him, Willem is running logistics and public relations for Saskia. During the story, Willem assists her with various projects, uncovers a sinister string of covert Chinese plots, and witnesses the Chinese takeover of T.R.’s new Pina2bo facility in Papua New Guinea. He ends the novel by deciding to stay in Papua in order to “keep an eye on” China’s new geoengineering acquisition (604).

Rufus Grant (Rufus)

Rufus also has an eclectic lineage, “an ancestry that included Black, white, Mexican, Osage, Korean, and Comanche” (14). After spending the first stage of his life serving as a mechanic in the US military, Rufus gets married and decides to farm a Texas plot owned by his wife’s family. On the farm, his young daughter is killed by a giant wild hog named Snout. Subsequently, Rufus’s marriage falls apart, and he swears revenge on Snout. When we meet him, he has started a new career as a professional wild hog hunter, using drones to track down and eliminate hogs for whoever’s willing to pay. During the story, Rufus finds and kills Snout, and in doing so encounters Saskia and her aides. He then helps them out of a difficult situation and accompanies them on T.R.’s Pina2bo tour. He and Saskia develop a casual romantic connection before she heads home to the Netherlands. His quest for revenge fulfilled, Rufus is then hired by T.R. as a drone security specialist, and makes a new home for himself at the ranch where Pina2bo is located. On T.R. and Saskia’s suggestion, Rufus teams up with some professional falconers to train golden eagles to attack and destroy any drones that might threaten Pina2bo. In the novel’s final act, Rufus utilizes his ingenuity and technical expertise to successfully defend Pina2bo from an act of Climate Peacekeeping launched by the Indian military.

Deep Singh (Laks)

Laks is a member of the Sikh religion who grew up in British Columbia, Canada. As a bright and athletic young man, he developed a talent for fishing, snowboarding, and a traditional form of Sikh martial arts called Gatka. When we meet him, India has been struck by a new COVID variant, so his family encourages him to travel there to help and explore his family’s ancestral homelands. During the story, Laks makes his way to Punjab, where he devotes himself to improving his Gatka skills. After gaining a reputation among the Punjabi locals, one of them suggests that he sojourn to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the border between India and China––the only place where he can try his hand at “real full-contact gatka” (200). Having recently learned of China’s abominable treatment of Uighur and Tibetan minorities with whom he feels a kinship, Laks travels to the LAC with a crew of friends. He performs admirably there, and quickly climbs the LAC’s “Meta-Ranking Leader Board” under the nickname “Big Fish.” This attracts the attention of Major Raju from the Indian military, who starts supporting Laks and his team from the sidelines with equipment and tactical advice. But Laks’s new career is cut short when he gets blasted by a Chinese radiation weapon that leaves him severely disabled. He wakes up in “Cyberabad,” an Indian biotech facility in Hyderabad where they not only heal him but also upgrade his perception and proprioception. In exchange, the Indian military asks Laks to commit to an undisclosed mission, which we eventually learn is to sabotage Pina2bo due to fears that solar geoengineering will interfere with the Punjab’s monsoon. In the final act, Laks nearly succeeds but is stopped at the last minute by a combination of his own conscience, a few bullets from Rufus, and a rattlesnake bite.

Humanist Heroes

Plot Summary: It’s the late 2040s. The world has done little to curb carbon emissions, and a combination of increased temperatures, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events are making life more and more difficult for people all over the globe. But fear not! T.R. Schmidt––a brilliant business entrepreneur who also happens to have a PhD in probability and statistics––has decided to give humanity a collective kick in the ass by unilaterally initiating a solar geoengineering project in West Texas. Despite some confusion, miscommunication, and geopolitical growing pains, T.R.’s bold action shocks the world into realizing that geoengineering is an invaluable technology for lengthening the timeline to address the root cause of climate change. Due primarily to concerns about possible environmental side effects of long-term geoengineering, nations begin to form new alliances in order to quickly develop and implement emissions reductions, renewables, and carbon capture, along with learning to use geoengineering to “tune” global temperatures and weather in the meantime. As the book ends, immediate climate catastrophes are being actively mitigated, and humanity is one step closer to a carbon-neutral future.

In this interpretation, Stephenson’s characters are best understood as humanist heroes––people willing to responsibly take big risks in order to put humanity on a path to sustainable and effective climate management.

T.R.

When viewed as a humanist hero, T.R. is a positive embodiment of the proactionary principle. “Someone out there is gonna take some kind of action,” he tells Saskia, “while we wait on our butts and have learned conversations…And I just hate being that guy” (695). For T.R., the stark reality is that we engineered ourselves into this problem, and it’s gotten so bad that the only option now is to engineer our way out of it. He also observes that climate change is an inherently stochastic problem, and unfortunately, “People can’t think statistically. People are hardwired to think in terms of narratives” (166). We can’t wait for everyone to agree on the same story regarding what to do about climate change; rather, we need to immediately begin ameliorating the problem with our best scientific tools and adapt as we go. T.R. doesn’t posit solar geoengineering as the only tool we ought to use, but practically it’s the only one fast and cheap enough for a single wealthy person to start making an impact quickly. So he pulls the trigger, hoping the rest of the world will take note and either help out or start implementing alternative solutions. When India’s attempt to sabotage Pina2bo forces T.R. to reflect on his mistakes, he wisely admits to Saskia that he needs her help navigating the choppy geopolitical waters into which he has hastily plunged.

Saskia

When viewed as a humanist hero, Saskia is the best possible evolution of the European monarchic tradition. While Queen of the Netherlands, she respects the constitutional government and works hard to prioritize the good of her country. She is highly intelligent, educated, determined, and listens to others while always reserving the right to form and assert her own opinion. She’s also a realist who knows when to quit, as evidenced by her abdication of the throne after her political reputation is successfully compromised by Chinese deepfakes. Given the opportunity to choose her next steps, Saskia eschews a life of post-royal luxury and vows to “go down fighting in the front lines” of the climate struggle (489). She’s reluctant at first when encouraged by a group of international leaders to assume the mantle of Queen of the Netherworld––”a whole planet-spanning archipelago of threatened nether-places”––but eventually agrees because she knows it’s her best path to making a positive difference (492). Stephenson compares Saskia to Ceres, “the goddess of growth and fertility,” indicating that the Netherworld will prosper under her able stewardship (496). Her refined and diplomatic communication style is perfectly suited to managing “cruft of a geopolitical sort,” which she promptly proves by being the first person in the entire book to force T.R. to reflect on and admit the mistakes he has made with Pina2bo’s unilateral implementation (519). “You can’t just admit you need me and pretend that makes a difference,” she insists. “You have to listen” (697). T.R. humbly agrees, and Saskia checks off the first of what will surely be many victories as Queen of the Netherworld.

Willem

When viewed as a humanist hero, Willem represents the adept management of behind-the-scenes logistics that make the world a safer and stabler place. He’s a hybrid of eastern and western genetics, perspectives, and values, able to code-switch as needed to build mutual understanding between different countries and cultures. He’s also an effective investigator, able to stay one step ahead of a Chinese plot to install him in a powerful position within the Dutch government in hopes of increasing their geopolitical leverage. Willem cultivates an amusing and informative relationship with Bo, a Chinese intelligence officer who pops up throughout the novel to dish out political wisdom and ominous warnings. This gives him insight into China’s attitude toward solar geoengineering and Climate Peacekeeping, including a tip about India’s imminent attempt to sabotage the Pina2bo facility in Texas. Willem’s decision to stay in Papua New Guinea after the Chinese takeover signals that his influence will moderate China’s decisions regarding if and how to deploy their own solar geoengineering program; it also ensures that Saskia will have a direct line to the Chinese, which bodes well for her successful management of Netherworld affairs.

Rufus

When viewed as a humanist hero, Rufus is an idealized personification of the American melting pot. He’s smart, strong, resourceful, honest, and easygoing. He’s also extremely loyal, though not in a mindless or obsequious fashion. When Pina2bo is struck by an EMP at the beginning of India’s Climate Peacekeeping mission, Rufus immediately gets to work orchestrating a low-tech defense of the facility. He is motivated by duty to his employer (T.R.), by affection for Saskia (whom he rightly suspects may be in danger), and by a general desire to take action rather than passively wait to see what happens.

Like Saskia, Stephenson gives Rufus a mythological analog. Upon deciding to ride to Saskia and Pina2bo’s aid, Rufus likens himself to Hector, first prince of Troy: “Someone got to be Hector in this Iliad…Someone gotta play defense” (653). With the help of the anti-drone eagles and their handlers, Rufus undertakes a daring shootout that culminates in him stopping Laks just moments before he can destroy Pina2bo. Happily, it is not Rufus’s fate to die at the hands of Achilles and be dragged around the walls of Troy. He instead embodies a version of Hector from earlier in the epic poem, one able to successfully protect his homeland from foreign invaders:

Hektor, skilled in war,
would fit his shoulders under the bull’s-hide shield,
and watching for whizzing arrows, thudding spears.
Aye, though he knew the tide of battle turned,
he kept his discipline and saved his friends. (The Iliad, Book 16, l. 417-21)

Laks

When viewed as a humanist hero, Laks is a noble defender of global minorities and agrarians who are likely to suffer from irresponsible uses of solar geoengineering. His physical prowess, desire for excellence, and religious ethics motivate him to push the boundaries of his martial art, and along the way he discovers a mission much greater than himself: climate justice. As Laks rises to prominence as one of the world’s elite gatka fighters, Stephenson compares him to Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings:

Laks was Aragorn, part man and part elf, equally capable of hanging out with Lord Elrond at the high table of Imladris or slamming down pints in a tavern in Bree. When not standing next to his modern backpack he looked absolutely like a Punjabi Sikh, and so was assumed to be just that by locals and Westerners alike. When he started talking, most would peg him as American, though people in the know could guess from his articulation and certain vowel sounds that he was Canadian. (276)

Like Aragorn, Laks forms a multiethnic sangat (fellowship) with “a Tolkien-compliant head count of nine” bhais (brothers), and sets out to vanquish the enemies threatening his vulnerable homeland (286). His first foray happens at the Line of Actual Control, but after his injury and rehabilitation in Cyberabad, he takes on Pina2bo––a much more formidable and consequential foe. Although Laks becomes a kind of antagonist from the perspectives of the other main characters, his values and virtues remain solidly humanist. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the final moments of Laks’s life. As he approaches Pina2bo with a weapon that will permanently disable it, he notices that at least one person is hiding inside the gun’s shaft:

Whatever this device on Laks’s back was, he was about to drop it down a hole where people were taking shelter. He stopped. This wasn’t part of the plan. Or was it? People weren’t supposed to be down there. (691)

This moment of conscience is what gives Rufus a clean shot to take Laks down. Laks’s death is rightfully treated as a tragedy by Indians and Americans alike, with care taken to honor his Sikh heritage and “show proper respect for the young man’s remains” in a fashion befitting a true hero (701). For the world, Laks’s personal sacrifice will come to signify both the risk and futility of aggressive acts of Climate Peacekeeping, nudging leaders toward nonviolent, diplomatic approaches to the management of solar geoengineering.

Climate Cowboys

Plot Summary: It’s the late 2040s. The world has done little to curb carbon emissions, and a combination of increased temperatures, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events are making life more and more difficult for people all over the globe. Into this picture sidles T.R. Schmidt, a Texas billionaire who inherited vast wealth and then increased it by creating a chain of massive strip-mall gas stations that cover America like cancerous lesions. Having recently developed a narcissistic savior complex, T.R. decides to unilaterally build and initiate the world’s first solar geoengineering experiment, primarily in order to preserve his market share of Houston real estate, which will be hugely devalued if sea level rise continues unabated. Due to a staggering dearth of geopolitical savvy and cynicism about the public sector, T.R. underestimates the reactive potential of nations that either feel threatened by his project or would prefer to take control of it for their own purposes. As the book ends, we’ve witnessed a botched attempt by India to sabotage the original Pina2bo, along with China’s successful usurpation of the Papua New Guinea facility. It’s reasonable to expect that these are just the first shots in an unavoidable and catastrophic climate war––the springing of a multipolar trap that will destroy humanity’s last chance to peacefully address the climate problem.

In this interpretation, Stephenson’s characters are best understood as climate cowboys––people pursuing their narrow self-interest or delusions of grandeur at the expense of the public good.

T.R.

When viewed as a climate cowboy, T.R. is one version of what David Victor has called the “Greenfinger scenario”––a lone billionaire with the temerity to think he’s the answer to humanity’s climate woes. T.R.’s slinging The Biggest Gun in the World with a “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude that imperils the entire planet. He downplays the scope of potential problems that solar geoengineering might cause, and only shares his plans with people who are highly motivated to agree with him. He doesn’t coordinate with governments, starts building additional geoengineering facilities before there’s enough time to properly assess Pina2bo’s impact, and foolishly believes that computer-based climate models will allow him to regulate our hypercomplex and poorly-understood global ecosystem. “We gotta terraform Earth before we get distracted by Mars,” he claims, as if we have some sensible and safe plan for how to successfully do that (178). T.R. wants powerful systems of climate control, but doesn’t care about the threat they may pose in the wrong hands, as shown in this exchange with Willem:

“‘Bad things’ can mean a drought, flood, a heat wave, a cold snap. Bad things tend to be localized in time and space. Harder to predict. But we can predict them to some extent. And the more sites we have operational, the more knobs and levers we have on the dashboard, so to speak. So instead of just blundering around we are managing the situation to maximize the good and minimize the bad.”

“And who is ‘we’ in this case?”

“Whoever controls the knobs and levers, obviously.”

“How long do you expect you’ll be allowed to control them? What if someone else decides they want the knobs and levers for their own?”

T.R.’s phone had buzzed, and he had put on reading glasses. He looked at Willem over the lenses. “My granddad built a mine in Cuba. Castro took it away from him. Does that mean he shouldn’t have built it?” (552)

Shortly after this conversation, China’s military takes control of T.R.’s new Pina2bo facility in Papua New Guinea––probably the novel’s most alarming geopolitical event. Overall, T.R. talks a good game about saving lives, but his climate crusade is really fueled by a toxic combination of his hubristic ego, personal financial interests, and lack of foresight regarding how his actions are likely to play out on the world stage.

Saskia

When viewed as a climate cowboy, Saskia is an awkward anachronism, a historical holdover flailing to remain relevant in a world with immense problems that she lacks the power to solve. Saskia’s monarchic mentality dictates that hyper-powerful individuals will always dominate the game of global influence, so she doesn’t take collective or democratic solutions seriously. She is seduced by the Queen of the Netherworld title primarily because it plays into her inbred vanity, conveniently overlooking the fact that it comes with no legitimate geopolitical clout. The elites propping her up––which include a petrostate-financed Saudi Prince and an ancient Venetian family that wants to secede from Italy––are using her as an appealing mouthpiece for their self-interested climate agendas. She is getting into bed with people she won’t be able to control, as shown in this encounter with the Saudi Prince Fahd:

“The second wave [of geoengineering] will be about tuning the distribution of the veil so as to achieve the results…”

Saskia looked him in the eye. She got the idea he was about to conclude the sentence with “we want” but after the briefest of hesitations he said “that are most beneficial.” (527)

Despite this obvious red flag, Saskia allows Fahd to buy her off with a hydrogen-powered jet that she can use to traipse around the planet performing climate advocacy while the people of the Netherworld continue to suffer. The promise of collaboration she extracts from T.R. is neither legally binding nor necessarily sincere, leaving Saskia with little practical hope of achieving her new ambitions. Returning to her mythological analog, Stephenson doesn’t miss the opportunity to point out that “crops withered and died at the bidding of Ceres” (496).

Willem

When viewed as a climate cowboy, Willem represents the ineffectual efforts of the western world to keep up with Chinese geopolitical dominance. Bo, the Chinese intelligence agent, spends the entire novel toying with Willem, strategically feeding him bits of information about operations Willem has no chance whatsoever of foiling. Without these clues, Willem would have no idea that the Chinese are responsible for several of the novel’s key events, such as the deepfake campaign against Saskia and the artificial rogue wave that destroys one of the largest moving structures humans have ever built. Bo is subtly grooming Willem to become a puppet who can explain and legitimize China’s behavior to his western colleagues under the illusion that playing this role will allow him to moderate Chinese decision-making. Bo imbues Willem with an undeserved sense of self-importance, driving his decision to stay in Papua New Guinea and preventing him from realizing that, in doing so, he’s playing right into Bo’s hands.

Rufus

When viewed as a climate cowboy, Rufus is a well-intentioned American citizen whose commendable values and considerable talents get co-opted by T.R.’s ill-fated climate crusade. During Rufus’s quest to take revenge on Snout, a genetics professor warns him about “going full Ahab,” which piques his interest in the novel Moby-Dick (24). Upon reading it for himself, Rufus rejects the comparison to Captain Ahab in favor of identification with the more diverse and intrepid harpooneers:

Ahab didn’t show up until pretty far into the book. He didn’t out himself as an obsessed maniac until some little while after that. And then, of course, it was completely obvious why Dr. Rutledge had drawn a parallel between Rufus and Ahab. But, for Rufus, the analogy didn’t really “take” because by that point in the novel he had already become interested in the harpooneers: the tattooed cannibal Queequeg, the “unmixed Indian” Tashtego, and the “gigantic, coal-black negro-savage” Daggo. The most interesting thing about these characters was that they all made more money––a larger share of the ship’s profits––and enjoyed higher rank and status than anyone else on the Pequod save Ahab and the three mates…Guys who were good at chucking the spear made bank. (25-6)

Rufus’s assumption of this macho, soldier of fortune persona blinds him to the reality of T.R.’s recklessness, just as the harpooneers in Moby-Dick become victims of Ahab’s madness. So Rufus becomes a useful cog in T.R.’s corporate machine––just another skilled pair of hands helping to plunder Earth’s ecosystems for a new era’s extractivist energy titans. Rufus’s defeat of Laks is merely a pyrrhic victory that will intensify global scrutiny of solar geoengineering and escalate climate conflict.

Laks

When viewed as a climate cowboy, Laks is an unfortunate pawn in a global struggle that he doesn’t truly comprehend. Squaring off against Rufus-as-Hector, Laks’s mythological analog is Achilles––the best warrior of a generation who squanders his unmatched talent fighting an unworthy war. In this framing, India (represented by Major Raju) is Agamemnon, the overzealous warlord leveraging a weak pretense to further his personal fortunes. After all, Pina2bo hasn’t yet been operating long enough to conclusively impact Punjab’s monsoon, and T.R.’s push to set up additional sites in other locations is guided by climate models showing that it’s possible to offset the worst case scenarios. But India either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about these factors, and instead rushes into battle expecting Laks to guarantee a swift and decisive victory.

Before Achilles left for Troy, his mother Thetis famously offered him a choice: stay, live, and be forgotten, or go, die, and be remembered forever. Laks’s Thetis is his Uncle Dharmender, who, having some vague idea of what Laks is about to do, invites him to reconsider his mission:

“During your fifteen minutes of fame last year…we were proud, for sure. But there was some concern that we have seen this movie before and it is not always one that has a happy ending for the man in the turban…They want us to follow orders and put ourselves in harm’s way. On their behalf. ‘Oh look, those weirdos turn out to be useful to have around.’ We are useful, in other words, for going to the front lines and getting killed. So they are happy to overlook the turbans and so on.” (559)

Like Achilles, Laks ignores his parent-figure’s warning, choosing grit and glory over peace and obscurity. And like Achilles, Laks is ultimately brought low by a leg injury:

Halfway to the head frame, Laks had an insight about how overreliance on technology could lull you into a dangerous complacency. Sadly, what triggered this realization was his looking down to see that a diamondback rattlesnake had plunged its fangs into his right leg just above the knee. (688)

This wound, along with Laks’s humanist moment of conscience, leads to his demise. He will surely be remembered, but only as the first in a long line of casualties who will fall in the climate wars to come.

V. Conclusion

Termination Shock‘s narrative ambiguity doesn’t weaken its impact or send mixed messages; on the contrary, it invites us to accept and investigate the ethical complexity that pervades our collective climate problem. Neither the Humanist Heroes nor the Climate Cowboys interpretation represents the “true meaning” of the novel, because both are extreme reflections of the complicated world we live in, a world containing myriad coexisting truths and options for action. I personally think the Humanist Heroes interpretation is the more obvious one, and perhaps enjoys a bit more textual support, but hopefully I provided enough evidence to convince you that the Climate Cowboys interpretation is worth taking seriously. At any rate, the point is that the novel is replete with opportunities for readers to experience a literary double take, a radical revision of meaning triggered by a rapid frame shift.

I want to end by addressing the question of why it’s desirable to engage with works of climate fiction like Termination Shock in addition to scientific studies and works of nonfiction. In other words, when trying to solve a real-world problem like climate change, what does climate fiction bring to the table that’s special?

One simple answer is that climate fiction is just a lot more fun and accessible compared to scientific studies and nonfiction books, and will therefore attract more readers to elevate and diversify the conversation. I think that’s true, but there’s a further answer I find more compelling. I believe that climate fiction is an indispensable tool for approaching what Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects.” Hyperobjects are ”entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place.” Climate change is a paradigmatic example of a hyperobject, a problem of such immense scope and ecological complexity that we struggle to agree on how to properly analyze and define it, let alone solve it.

The grokking of hyperobjects requires not just collection and analysis of vast amounts of data about how the world is structured, but also degrees of mental flexibility and creativity not previously expected of any human generation. Books like Termination Shock provide a workout for our mental models and personal biases, inviting us to turn a critical eye toward our own perspectives and become better acquainted with opposing ones. Using the language of Julia Galef, fiction can nudge us out of “soldier mindset” and into “scout mindset,” which “allows you to recognize when you were wrong, to seek out your blind spots, to test your assumptions and change course.” When we drop into scout mindset, we can comfortably consider lots of viewpoints without worrying about having to identify and defend the “right” one.

Climate fiction is an effective facilitator of scout mindset because it carves out public space for the deliberative activity that American philosopher and psychologist John Dewey called “Dramatic Rehearsal”:

Deliberation is a dramatic rehearsal (in imagination) of various competing possible lines of action…Deliberation is an experiment in finding out what the various lines of possible action are really like. It is an experience in making various combinations of selected elements of habits and impulses, to see what the resultant action would be like if it were entered upon. But the trial is in imagination, not in overt fact. The experiment is carried on by tentative rehearsals in thought which do not affect physical facts outside the body. Thought runs ahead and foresees outcomes, and thereby avoids having to await the instruction of actual failure and disaster. An act overtly tried out is irretrievable, its consequences cannot be blotted out. An act tried out in imagination is not final or fatal. It is retrievable. (Human Nature and Conduct, 190)

The simulation of futuristic narratives that feel plausible while remaining wholly “retrievable” allows us to deliberate about real-world possibilities without suffering real-world consequences. Climate fiction can’t resolve the many vexing coordination problems posed by climate change, but it can help ensure that the best ideas and arguments make it into the debate. This is the crucial work that Ada Palmer referred to when she asserted that “Science fiction fights our ethical battles before we have to do them, and is one of the things that makes humanity now more humane and ethically prepared for the speed of change we face than we have ever been before” (Singularity.fm podcast, 2:18:02). Termination Shock goes a long way in this regard, and for that reason alone I think it should be considered Stephenson’s most important novel to date.

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