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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Termination Shock

Neal Stephenson

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To purchase Termination Shock

Title: Termination Shock
Author: Neal Stephenson
Genre: Novel
Written: 2021
Length: 706 pages
Availability: Termination Shock - US
Termination Shock - UK
Termination Shock - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a solid read, and particularly good in its foundations

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 31/12/2021 Lisa Tuttle
Locus . 12/2021 Adrienne Martini
The NY Times Book Rev. . 19/12/2021 Omar El Akkad
Sunday Times . 21/11/2021 Robert Collins
The Times . 10/11/2021 Simon Ings
The Washington Post . 23/11/2021 Paul Di Filippo

  From the Reviews:
  • "At its best, his style creates an immersive depth, but sometimes it goes too far (.....) But such moments are the exception in an absorbing speculative fiction about our climate crisis." - Lisa Tuttle, The Guardian

  • "Termination Shock is about a lot of things, perhaps the most central of which is the intersection of hubris and technology, that place where the Anthropocene’s prettiest chimeras reside. (...) (T)he first half of Termination Shock can be a slog. There’s just so much character development to get through, so much technological and geopolitical groundwork to lay. (...) Once all the pieces are in place, the action picks up and the full force of everything Stephenson spent hundreds of pages constructing becomes clear. What feels at first like a largely unrelated side plot (...) comes into focus after a satisfying if highly unlikely (even by the standards of speculative fiction) series of twists. (...) The result is not so much a novel of ideas as a novel of concepts." - Omar El Akkad, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Stephenson offers stimulating contrarian views on a number of topics -- the drawbacks of solar panels, for example -- and jovial satire, mainly at the expense of McHooligan and Texas hype. He even finds time to indulge in some sophisticated “Animal House” humor (if that’s not a paradoxical description) that allows Stephenson to riff on the theme of Saskia’s love life, a delicate balancing act for a queen. Such silliness aside, Termination Shock deals brilliantly and innovatively with our era’s most pressing existential matter -- while delivering stratospheric gigatons of carefully engineered delight." - Paul Di Filippo, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Termination Shock is set in the fairly near future. The world has now seen COVID-19, COVID-23, and COVID-27, and testing procedures are much more widespread and common now. Mostly, things are much like in the present-day (though there are a lot more drones buzzing about) -- but the effects of climate change have become more pronounced and so, for example, cooling earthsuits have basically become a necessity when venturing outside in parts of the world -- like much of Texas. There have also been secondary effects -- like the proliferation of feral hogs, to the extent that: "These pigs were an unstoppable plague, to the point where they were actually taking back Texas from the human race".
       The Dutch monarch is also a different one from the present-day holder of the position. Here she is Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia -- Saskia, to those close to her -- a forty-five-year-old widow with a teenage daughter, Lotte, and an efficient and professional support staff. The novel opens with Saskia arriving in Texas in a small private plane, and immediately facing some of the consequences of a rapidly warming world: they can't land, as planned, in Houston because the air is too hot (they could land, but the refueled plane would be too heavy to take off again until the heat wave breaks) and so they are detoured to Waco -- where they smash into a pack of feral hogs on the runway. The semi-crash-landing then also introduces Saskia and her small entourage to Rufus, a local who, after the tragic death of his daughter, had become a hog-hunter-for-hire.
       The incident finally allows Rufus to bag the biggest, baddest hog of them all, called Snout, which also affords him some closure. Conveniently, then, the queen and her entourage, in need of some assistance, can use his local knowledge and expertise to get where they are going -- which is to a get-together with billionaire-mogul T.R.Schmidt, who had made his fortune in "family-themed strip mall restaurants", a chain now call T.R.Mick's.
       T.R. had invited a select group to unveil a project he's been working on for a while. Those in attendance include members of one of Venice's oldest families, the lord mayor of the City of London, a high official from Singapore -- all, like her majesty, important figures from areas that, like Houston, are extremely vulnerable to flooding from a rising sea level (and, also, well-endowed, financially speaking).
       What T.R. has done is built 'the Biggest Gun in the World'. It is truly huge. It's located on T.R.'s vast holdings, in the Chihuahuan Desert, hugging the Rio Grande -- i.e. right on the border to Mexico. The whole property is called the Flying S Ranch, and the gun is part of what he calls the Pina2bo complex. The reference is, of course, to:

Pinatubo was the name of a volcano in the Philippines that had exploded in 1991. It had blasted fifteen million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. The result had been a couple of years' beautiful sunsets and reduced global temperatures.
       T.R.'s ambition is nothing less than to shoot tons of sulfur into the atmosphere in a gigantic feat of geoengineering, cooling the planet much as the fallout from Pinatubo had. This is feasible because: "sulfur has leverage like you wouldn't believe". A small amount suffices to neutralize -- "in terms of its effect on global temperature" -- a much larger amount of carbon. Efforts to remove carbon from the atmosphere would have to be orders of magnitude larger than counteracting its effects in the way T.R. plans -- and his plan has the added advantage of having essentially immediate results.
       But, of course, those results play out unequally across the globe -- and what's good for some may not work out as well for others. So, for example, it seems likely that different scenarios would come with different costs and benefits for, say, India and China: a net positive for one likely would be a net negative for the other.
       Stephenson takes his time with the build-up to his story. Not all that much really happens for the first half of the novel -- the hard and messy plane-landing it opens with is about the most exciting event -- but Termination Shock doesn't feel slow here. Stephenson shows a sure touch in building up his story, and if the first half is mostly spent in constructing that foundation, introducing the significant characters as well as the central issue -- the possibility (shown to be very real here) of humans very quickly affecting a new change to the climate (and, significantly, this being undertaken by (essentially) individuals rather than governments) -- it's all pretty engaging and interesting, too. Yes, there's a bit much about getting around, in various forms, in this novel (one of Stephenson's obsessions that's also found in quite a few of his other books) -- the characters move around a lot, by the most various means: planes (the queen is a licensed pilot), trains, sea-vessels, horses, drones, on foot, snorkeling, etc. -- and a side-line about the queen considering possible sex-partners (complete with text-banter with her daughter on the subject) can feel a bit strained, but on the whole this build-up moves along nicely entertainingly. Stephenson is particularly good at weaving in information, whether about royal protocol, global-scale geoengineering, or sulfur-fuel-powered engines without it feeling too much just like an information dump.
       There is also a seemingly entirely separate storyline running alongside the main story here, chapters that focus on Canadian-born Sikh Deep Singh, who goes by the nickname 'Laks'. Stephenson chronicles his path, which eventually leads him to India, where he travels to the Punjab, where his family is from (and which is, of course, the monsoon-dependent breadbasket of India). There he continues to practice gatka -- a local martial art -- which he is both good at and takes pretty seriously. A bit at sea, he eventually drifts to an unlikely place where he can put his martial arts-training to use: the disputed Chinese-Indian border.
       Stephenson gloms onto the bizarre situation along the Indian-Chinese border that resulted after the 1962 war between the two -- specifically, the 'Line of Actual Control' between them, which isn't a hard-and-fast border but rather shifts as each side tries to push into the others'. The key here is that the two sides have agreed to play by the same unusual rules: no shooting, for example. Instead, combat -- and there is increasingly more of it -- is of the rock-throwing, stick or bat wielding, and hand to hand sort. Just the thing for Laks to get involved with. And he does, with great success, earning him another nickname -- Big Fish.
       Big Fish is ultimately knocked out of the Line of Actual Control-game by nefarious means -- microwaved by the Chinese, or something along those lines -- but the Indians still have some use for him, after he's been nursed back to health. And it's no surprise that eventually -- late in the book -- he's bound for Texas, on a secret (Indian) government mission.
       Readers may have been asking themselves from the get-go: "What's termination shock ?" and it is pretty much exactly at the novel's halfway point (page 353) that the term and question first comes up. Basically, Rufus (who asks the question) is told: "It boils down to asking what the consequences might be of shutting the system off after it's been running for a while". This would seem to be relevant, because after T.R. shows the queen and the others his big project, he almost immediately starts it up -- and one of his concerns is how long he can keep going before the government -- or others -- try to shut him down. (Among the amusing aspects of Termination Shock is the almost complete irrelevance of the American government, which Stephenson has more or less written off; the country has reached a state of political dysfunction here which means it can accomplish very little -- but the sheer size of the country (and its wealth) still allow for grand visions and projects such as T.R.'s that would be unthinkable in other countries.)
       T.R. had invited this small group in no small part to plant the seed of expanding his project -- which would be more effective if sulfur is shot into the skies from various points on the globe, not just that single one -- and he is quite effective. Some really get behind it, and soon there are similar sites going up elsewhere -- though not the Netherlands, which isn't a good fit (the sonic booms of the projectiles too disruptive in the heavily populated areas). Stephenson takes readers to a few more out of the way and unusual spots, in something of a race between the forces supportive of the project and those who want to stop it. But ultimately it all comes back down to Texas, the book leading to a final showdown of sorts with the main characters -- Saskia, T.R., Rufus, and Laks -- all on site.
       This thriller-turn is reasonably suspenseful -- not least in its mix of reliance on both the very basic and some very modern technology, as in the use of drones, and the use of eagles to disable them. Still, for all the well-handled tension, this part of the novel feels almost anticlimactic, a smaller-scale showdown (which, admittedly, would have serious repercussions if it were successful) while the big picture, of what is happening with the world's climate, is left way in the background. For a novel about large-scale geoengineering, Stephenson doesn't seem to pursue the subject much beyond the detailed logistics of getting it started and going, and some of the geopolitics involved.
       Termination Shock does pack a lot in, and there are some genuinely exciting moments. There are some great bits showing the consequences of global warming, such as an unlikely-sounding disaster that hits the Dutch shores -- complete with the novel's most unsettling moment, when someone observes that something bad seems to be happening, explaining that it apparently is ...: "Something about foam" --, and Stephenson is very good on the technology, from the drones to the elaborate Dutch system to keep the water out to the Biggest Gun in the World. There's a great stretch of ingenious undermining of the status quo, first with, essentially, the harnessing of a storm to breach the Netherlands' defenses and then some very effective deepfakes, but with so many far-flung parts of the story to follow, a lot does get a bit lost along the way (such as Saskia's daughter, soon thrust into a new role but then hardly mentioned). And there is oddly little real discussion of the potential consequences of this kind of geoengineering -- background mentions of what's happening and some of the official reactions give some sense of the scale, but there's practically no actual debate about it, in any form. Stephenson mostly just has these things happen -- enough to spin a pretty decent set of stories around it, but not really adequately addressing what is, after all, the very central issue.
       Termination Shock is a good read. In some ways, the slower first half is the more enjoyable part; Stephenson has it all measured right here, a good balance between background information being filled in and on-the-ground events, leading to T.R.'s big project. The much busier second half has a lot more action but doesn't feel as grounded; the episodes are good, but more like dots on a map than really connected -- a variety of flare-ups, of different sorts.
       Stephenson relies very much on individuals, operating at very different scales but ultimately very much in (solo) control. Several are underlings of various sorts -- Rufus winds up answering to T.R. for example -- but still able to act largely independently. So also, there are basically no corporate boards or governments to really answer to here, or to rein them in, and where organizations figure -- such as, eventually, the Indian state -- the bulk of that remains in the shadows, with only a few representatives leading the way. The only character who is truly constrained by her position is Saskia, as queen -- and Stephenson nicely presents how she is hemmed in -- but, unsurprisingly, even she undoes those bonds soon enough. The individuals -- especially the ones in positions of power -- all have a notably strong support-system, which works almost like a machine to see that things run smoothly; Stephenson might have little faith in many forms of organization (governmental and corporate), but in these practically everyone is a real pro -- which doesn't seem quite true to life, where one suspects (and experience suggests) things are generally considerably messier.
       Termination Shock is a limited look at large-scale geoengineering -- strong on parts of it, like what is feasible, less so then is spinning out the different forms of fallout (including political and social) -- but certainly an enjoyable enough ride, a solid long read that doesn't flag, even if it doesn't take advantage of all its potential, character- and story-wise.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 December 2021

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Termination Shock: Reviews: Neal Stephenson: Other Books by Neal Stephenson under Review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Neal Stephenson was born in 1959. After his novel about academia, The Big U, he wrote "the Eco-thriller" Zodiac and then began writing true science fiction, with which he has had great success.

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© 2021-2022 the complete review

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