“Termination Shock,” the latest novel from Neal Stephenson, opens on a Texas day in which it’s too hot for planes to take flight.
While that may seem like a prediction for a warming future, it’s actually a problem that can occur during heatwaves today. Stephenson claims that it happened once, when he was flying out from Burbank Airport. (If you’re curious, google “too hot to fly” and you’ll find stories about the phenomenon in recent years.)
“It’s super annoying when you’re a passenger on that plane, and then the next day you’ve forgotten about it, maybe. But there are a whole lot of things like that – like you could have a heatwave in your city or a big rainstorm that floods your house,” Stephenson says by phone from a recent book tour stop. “We tend to process it mentally as this weird thing that happened. But if you take a more global view, it’s all part of a very large and slow pattern of climate change that we all need to be more aware of.”
“Termination Shock” is Stephenson’s climate-change opus, coming in at over 700 pages and bringing together characters spread across a world in need of a solution for an environmental crisis that experts have seen coming for decades. However, the solution might have unintended consequences.
The novel’s title stems from a conference that Stephenson attended. “People were using the word ‘termination shock’ to refer to a hypothetical situation that could occur if we intervened in the climate,” he says. “If we build a machine to somehow counteract the effects of climate change and we turned it on and we ran it for a while and then we turned it off, then there would be a kind of snapback effect that is referred to as ‘termination shock.’”
While “Termination Shock” is speculative fiction set just a handful of years in the future, it is very much about our present. That’s what makes the book such an unnerving read. Stephenson claims that this is intentional.
“I could have written a climate change book set 50 years in the future with lots of scary disasters and things, but anyone’s natural impulse on reading that is to say, ‘Wow, 50 years from now, things are going to be bad and scary,’” he says. “It seems to bring greater immediacy if the setting of the book is maybe a little bit in the future, but still close enough where it feels like the world that we’re living in today.”
Stephenson, who is credited with coining the term ‘metaverse’ in his 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” started writing “Termination Shock” in late 2019 and finished it in the spring of this year. It was because of the pandemic that Stephenson was able write such a large, detailed book in such a short amount of time. “Normally, I would probably take longer and spend a lot of time traveling around and doing more research,” he says. “In this particular case, I was basically locked down at home and a lot of other things that had been distracting me had all kind of gone away. So, I just sat there and cranked it out.” (On his website, Stephenson A remarkable bibliography is available for insight into his research for “Termination Shock.”)
While climate change is the immediate crisis in “Termination Shock,” COVID still looms in this near-future world. Stephenson knew that the story would be part of his book from the moment the pandemic began. He started writing the book just before COVID-19 was announced.
“I began writing it in because it seemed really strange to have a story set a few years in the future where nobody ever talked about COVID,” he says.
It took some time to determine how much space COVID would take up in the story. “I went back and reread some of what I had written and I began to feel like I had overdone it a little bit,” he says. “Belaboring that in a book isn’t doing the reader any favors, so I ended up with what I hope is a balanced approach where I’m not ignoring the fact that it happened. It’s a thing that has impacted the lives of some of my characters in different ways, in a way that I think is realistic and representative of the lived experience of a lot of people today, but hopefully, I’m not just being boring about it.”
While “Termination Shock” involves the intertwined crises of the pandemic and climate change, Stephenson says these are two separate situations with different possible solutions.
“In the case of the pandemic, that actually is a situation where, because of the way the virus spreads from one person to another in a kind of statistical, random way, individual behavior is everything,” says Stephenson.
“In the case of climate change, I think it’s a little different,” he says. “To be sure, we all drive cars and heat our homes and do things that generate CO2. On that level, we’re all partially responsible, but it’s not just about the CO2 that you and I produce today. It’s also about the CO2 that’s been produced over the last 200 years during the course of the whole industrial revolution. That’s a bigger part of the problem and it’s a problem that we, unfortunately, have to deal with, even though it’s one that we inherited.”
Stephenson points out that there is a common narrative that affects our efforts to combat climate changes. “I think that there’s a certain tendency, particularly in the West, for people to have a narrative in their head, or a moral arc, that is about sin and redemption where the assumption tends to be that if bad things are happening it’s because we’ve sinned – as individuals, we’ve done bad things,” he says. “So, the correct response is to stop sinning, to repent, and to be somehow redeemed. That’s great as a personal story arc, but it doesn’t always work as a technical solution to a problem.”
With climate change, individual actions alone aren’t the solution to the problems in store for the planet. “We need to decouple that kind of story from what really needs to happen next, which is we need to do things on a scale that is much larger than what individual humans can do alone,” he says. “We need to build carbon capture technologies to clean the air back up that are going to be the biggest engineering projects in human history, so there is a real hard limit on how much individual action can really move the needle on that front.”