Monday, January 24, 2022

Queen of the Netherworld

Like many readers, I've noted a trend over the last couple of decades where the future depicted in sci-fi novels draws closer and closer to the present. Dystopias and cyberpunk novels were set a century or more in the future; lately, those genres are often set a decade or less away. It can feel like we're approaching the singularity, with real-world tech and politics drawing closer to a static "future" that is receding more slowly than we are advancing.



Termination Shock fits within that trend. Set sometime in the 2030s, its global conflicts and technological advances seem just a small hop away from today's experiences. It isn't the first time Neal Stephenson has worked in the near-present, of course: he's been doing that since the start with The Big U and Zodiac, through to near-future tales like REAMDE. But those weren't really science-fiction-y in the way that Termination Shock is.


The quick summary of Termination Shock is that it's a novel about climate change. Not a sudden shocking event like the lunar catastrophe in Seveneves, but what we've been reading in the newspaper for decades: slowly increasing temperatures, melting ice caps, and rising sea levels. This touches off an existential crisis for the large number of humans living near an inconsistent "sea level": Houston, Venice, Singapore, The Netherlands, Marshall Islands and more.

At the same time that the Earth's climate is deteriorating, its governments are decaying as well. The United States bears the brunt of this: it is a global laughingstock, unable to govern itself, unreliable and untrustworthy to other countries. Democracy is still alive and vibrant in constitutional monarchies like the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, but is globally on the decline, with a hegemonic China projecting influence and a nationalist India flexing its muscle. While TS seems to be in a separate timeline, you can also imagine it as a small step from our present into the future of Snow Crash's microstates.

Some of those microstates are devolved ancient city-states, such as the City of London and Venice. Others are new, most notably the Flying S Range in West Texas. Its proprietor, the eccentric billionaire T. R. Schmidt (aka T. R. McHooligan) doesn't even bother to declare independence from the US: he hires a massive security apparatus that functions as a de-facto army, buys and repairs a derelict freight line for infrastructure, and starts firing salvos of sulfur into the Earth's atmosphere, utterly confident (and correctly so) that the dysfunctional national government won't notice what he's doing or mount a coherent response to him if they do.

Why is he doing this? Well, to stop the rising sea levels. One clever thing that both Neal and TR do is turn away from the overwhelming immensity of global climate change, and choose to focus on a particular threat that demands a response: the rising oceans, which threaten to inundate Houston and cause billions of dollars in damage and lost property. Ejecting sulfur into the outer atmosphere scatters the incoming rays from the sun, redirecting some of them away from the earth's surface, thereby lowering global temperatures. He's replicating the natural process that occurs in massive volcanic eruptions, which have always had a cooling effect on the planet afterward.

While this is a book about climate change, Neal seems determined to avoid the "environmentalist" label. One particularly curious element is the universal derision directed towards the Greens in the book. I would think that their long tradition of activism would position them to be the heroes, but instead they're somewhere between adversaries and nonentities. Apparently this is because of the Greens' antipathy towards geoengineering projects. I don't know enough about the movement to say if that's realistic or not, but while reading this book I did wonder if the whole thing is a elaborate exercise in reverse psychology to recruit conservatives to the environmental cause. "No, no, please don't stop global warming! The Greens will hate that! You'll own the left so hard!"


Greens aside, one thing I really appreciated is that this book has a lot of adversaries, but not villains. On the macro level, the end of the book has a big showdown between China and India. India's actions seem "bad" on the surface, just because they're messing with more of the characters we've been following; but we also know that they have extremely good reasons for their actions (cooling temperatures interfere with the monsoons that provide water to the Punjab and food to all of India). Bo seems like a sinister presence throughout the book, showing up unexpectedly to verbally spar with Willem and even apparently engineer a massive catastrophe to destroy the Maeslantkering. By the end, though, it seems like his actions have mostly been for the good, as unnerving as they are: it drives the acceptance of action to combat climate change and, arguably, save the human species from ruin.

On a more micro level, two of the many protagonists of the novel are Red and Laks. Each of them have personal quests, master a craft, grow and evolve, collaborate with other people, join a higher cause. Both also seem to just be really great people who you'd like to hang out with. And yet the novel ends with the two of them fatally confronting one another. It's sad and inevitable, not thrilling and cathartic like, say, taking down El in Fall or Abdullah Jones in REAMDE.

People usually mention two things when they talk about Neal Stephenson: his nerdy digressions and his abrupt endings. Both of those are on good display here, but more controlled than normal. The tangents here are generally (though not always) germane to the main plot: we learn a ton about the Netherlands' engineering works before we see how they are threatened; there's a great and long yarn about German settlers in Texas setting off a chain of events leading to fierce marauding feral hogs, and a long digression about air conditioners, all setting up a fantastically bloody meet-cute. I did have some moments of wondering "When are we going to get to the fireworks factory?!" during T. R.'s long-delayed tour into West Texas, but the journey is entertaining.

And the ending is... pretty fine. As with his last two books there's a bit of a shift in the last third of the book with a jump forward in time and a shift in tone, but it isn't nearly as disruptive as the earlier ones. I think he just wanted to skip over some boring bits. Very roughly speaking, the first third of the novel explains the stakes, the middle third shows what's being done, and the final third shows who's trying to stop it. The conflict feels a little arbitrary; it could have climaxed in Braazos just as easily as Pina2Bo, and it feels a bit shaggy-dog-y to bring Laks from the Himalayas down to West Texas. But it's a fun, relatively tight plot. On the one hand it's a seemingly random place to end the story, without much information at all about what's going on with The Line or other sites; but we can also see the trajectory things are heading in, with a hopefully-somewhat-chastened TR willing to collaborate and India recognizing the importance of the project.

I somehow haven't talked about Saskia yet! She's great. She was my favorite character in this book, and one of the more enjoyable protagonists from his novels. I honestly didn't even know that the Netherlands still had a monarchy; I wiki'd a lot of stuff while reading this book, even more than usual. There's a ton I like about Saskia, from her practical skills to her level-headed judgment to her woman-of-a-certain-age approach to sex, but what I most appreciated was probably her somewhat-ironic position as the biggest advocate for democracy in the book. Everyone else is a loner or seeking power or both. Saskia is institutionally positioned as a kind of foe of democracy, but she is unhesitating in her support of peoples' right to collectively make decisions to govern themselves, which is a rare bit of sunshine in the often-grim future of this book.


Termination Shock was a great read. It feels more put-together than most of Neal's other books (which I love dearly): it still has some of the rambling nerdy sidetracks that are a hallmark of his writing, but it seems a bit more focused than I'm used to. I do wonder if that's related to the present danger that the book confronts: not some hypothetical dystopia that may rise in the future, but the mundane suffering we experience now that gets worse each year. It's definitely not a polemic, and it's surprisingly hard to pin down Neal's political thoughts on the matter, but it carries its own sense of urgency and importance with it. While still being an exciting and intriguing read that will send its readers down countless wikipedia rabbit holes!

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