Books

Neal Stephenson Predicted the Metaverse. His New Book Imagines Something Even Stranger.

Is Termination Shock a prediction, a warning, or a prescription?

A feral hog, a volcano, airplanes, a rocketship.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

A maestro of the dramatic opener, Neal Stephenson began his 2015 novel, Seveneves, with the line “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” That’s a hard act to follow, but he gives it the old college try in his latest, Termination Shock, heralded, when first announced, as the celebrated science-fiction author “finally” taking on the subject of global warning. Termination Shock begins with the queen of the Netherlands piloting a business jet in an emergency landing at the Waco airport, a maneuver that goes terribly wrong when her plane’s landing gear collides with a herd of feral hogs that, chased by an oversize alligator, swarm the airstrip.

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Like a lot of plot twists in Termination Shock, this scenario is not as outlandish as it seems. Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia, a fictional character, is apparently the daughter of the real-life King Willem-Alexander, who in 2017 revealed that he had been moonlighting as a commercial airline pilot for more than 20 years. (He said that he found it a “relaxing” hobby.) Saskia, as the queen—who is one of the novel’s central characters—calls herself, has inherited a taste for this pastime from her father. As for the feral swine, they are partly an allusion to a viral tweet defending private ownership of assault rifles in the event that “30-50 feral hogs” run into a yard in which small children are playing. The internet found this argument hilarious, but feral hogs are in fact a dangerous and destructive invasive species in many parts of the U.S. The novel’s second central character, Rufus, a former farmer turned professional hog exterminator, knows this all too well.

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It’s the near future, about a decade from now, and the temperature in Texas routinely exceeds 113 degrees, requiring Rufus Grant, a person of complex racial background and an official member of the Comanche tribe, to wear an “earthsuit” if venturing out in the middle of the day. Saskia’s plane maims the massive alpha hog that Rufus has been hunting, Ahab-style, for years, and while he gets to finish off the beast, he suddenly finds himself without a purpose. He volunteers to help the Dutch monarch and her entourage meet up with a Houston billionaire who has called a select group of foreign dignitaries together for a secret demonstration in the Chihuahuan Desert. Turns out that T.R. Schmidt, made rich by a chain of mall-like highway rest stops, has a scheme to fire payloads of molten sulfur into the stratosphere to reduce global temperatures. And if that sounds crazy to you, be aware that this has been done several times in the past, just not by humans. T.R.’s project is named Pina2bo, after Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, a volcano whose eruption in 1991 caused a .9-degree temperature drop worldwide during the following year.

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This is, no doubt, a lot for any reader to compass. But despite the hectic summary I’ve provided, Termination Shock proceeds sedately, perhaps a bit too sedately at first, after its action-packed beginning. Only very gradually does Stephenson reveal the nature of T.R.’s plan, and while every element of the novel is driven by the problem of climate change, the effects of that change don’t seem especially severe yet, except in Texas. It’s the politics of the crisis, rather than its logistics, that have captured Stephenson’s interest. As in 1999’s Cryptonomicon, he’s fascinated by the performativeness of public life, particularly for Saskia, who, as a constitutional monarch with little real power, nevertheless wields a great deal of symbolic nationalist power, as long as she is careful never to appear to want to do so. When she’s photographed unloading relief supplies or reminding Dutch citizens to keep an ax in their attic in the event of a flood, she’s beloved. But when unknown parties post a deepfake video in which the queen appears to be commenting directly on environmental policy, her reign is imperiled.

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So why, then, does T.R. Schmidt invite Saskia to tour Pina2bo? The other guests hail from Singapore, Venice, and London, all cities sited below sea level, as are much of the Netherlands and Houston. None of these people represent a major international power, but all have a keen, urgent interest in a climate change effect that’s very difficult to remedy locally. All of T.R.’s guests, he reckons, might be especially receptive to drastic measures that circumvent the stalled efforts of world leaders to keep the waters from rising any further. By the end of the novel, they’re framing themselves as a new coalition, the Netherworld.

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Stephenson’s fiction has never shown much—or any, really—faith in the efficacy of national governments. The characters in Termination Shock all seem to take an equally dim view of the agenda of mainstream environmental parties. They dismiss the Greens, a significant political force in Saskia’s kingdom, for such DOA policy goals as trying to “get China and India to stop burning shit tomorrow and crash their economies for the sake of Mother Earth.” What if, this novel asks, individuals with the daring and wherewithal to do something decisive about the problem simply went ahead and did it? Compounding the attitude that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission is the titular phenomenon of “termination shock”: the uncertainty, as one character puts it, of “what the consequences might be of shutting the system off after it’s been running for a while.” Once T.R. starts shooting sulfur into the sky every several minutes, no one knows what catastrophes might result should he stop.

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As a counterpoint to the geopolitical intrigues of the novel’s main storyline, Stephenson occasional drops in chapters about the adventures of Deep Singh, a strapping Canadian Sikh who travels to his family’s homeland in the Punjab to study gatka, a balletic martial art form. This leads Singh to the Line of Actual Control, a disputed border area between India and China where a treaty prohibits either side from using guns or explosives to secure territory, and so combatants fight with rocks and sticks. It’s a largely pointless struggle over bits of an icy wasteland at such high altitude that most people need to use supplemental oxygen to do anything strenuous. This is, as a documentarian filming the clashes explains to Rufus, “performative war,” with “zero tactical value,” but useful as a form of propaganda. In Termination Shock, individual bands of volunteer fighters become YouTube stars and brand themselves with signature uniforms. Singh, nicknamed “Big Fish,” attracts the adulation of many fans as well as the Indian army, which recruits him for the showiest mission of all.

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The Line of Actual Control with its sticks-and-stones combatants? That’s a real thing, although as far as I can tell, the celebrification of the fighters there is Stephenson’s invention. But who knows? It could happen. Stephenson has a reputation for anticipating technological developments like Bitcoin (1999’s Cryptonomicon) and an immersive virtual-reality version of the internet he dubbed “the metaverse” in 1992’s Snow Crash. (Recently, Stephenson found it necessary to clarify that he had nothing to do with Facebook’s plans to create just that—presumably without the computer virus that causes brain damage in Snow Crash.) This adds an eerie valence to Stephenson’s fiction, at least when it’s not about the moon exploding. You find yourself wondering if any of this might actually happen. Stephenson’s onetime connection to Blue Origin, the private space travel company founded by Jeff Bezos, fosters the impression that he just might have inside dope on billionaires like T.R., men hubristic enough to take climate matters into their own hands. Stephenson’s novels, stuffed with wonky, DIY details about apparatuses and processes, typically valorize engineers who make things work, rather than leaders and other people wranglers.

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So is Termination Shock a cautionary tale or a call to extragovernmental arms? That’s hard to say. One of the novel’s most appealing central characters, Willem Castelein, is a smooth, Indo-Dutch adviser to the queen, married to a Portuguese husband. In one scene, he thanks, in her own language, a restaurant owner in Papua New Guinea for staying open late to serve dinner to T.R. and him, remarking “on the astonishing beauty of the dishes’ presentation.” “That’s what you do, ain’t it?” T.R. asks, with a hint of disdain. “What?” Willem replies, “Talk to people and make them feel seen and appreciated?” This is exactly what T.R. has failed to do before firing off his big gun, specifically with the Chinese and India, whose monsoon—and the essential harvest it waters—has been delayed as a result. Consequently, the brash Texan’s projects come under many ingenious forms of physical and cyber attack.

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Unlike the impending apocalypse Stephenson depicted in Seveneves, a disaster that unites the planet, the climate crisis is a complex system in which every possible remedy produces winners and losers. The latter can be expected to fight back. T.R. can get away with his shenanigans because the America of Termination Shock is a “basket case and global laughingstock” without the will to stop him. Rufus blames this on a form of extreme individualism he identifies with the Comanches—an ethos that is only effective up to a point. The threat confronting the planet is irredeemably political, a job for diplomats every bit as much as for engineers. Stephenson seems more bemused by this than anything else. This makes Termination Shock, despite the thrilling action sequence involving drones, eagles, and rattlesnakes that serves as its climax, feel a bit inconclusive. There’s no indication that it’s the first novel in a series, but it feels like one all the same. And I want to know how it ends.

Termination Shock

By Neal Stephenson. William Morrow and Co.