In recent months I’ve read two science fiction novels centering around climate change. The first, which I wrote about in an earlier blog post, was Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, while the second is Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock (just published this month; I will be hosting Neal on behalf of American Purpose on Nov. 19—please sign up.) The value of these books lies less for the way they imagine a future warming world, than for their depiction of the politics of that future. Of the two, Termination Shock is the far better book, not just because it lacks the didactic, hectoring tone of the Robinson volume, but because it raises genuinely interesting issues about the geopolitics of a warming world.
As I noted previously, The Ministry for the Future begins with a massive heat wave in India in the mid-21st century that kills 20 million people in a week, an event sufficiently staggering that it finally prods governments around the world to take climate change seriously. While there are some dramatic responses in the book, like the kidnapping of the Davos crowd and assassinations of oil executives, the book imagines what is in a way the best possible future outcomes. The eco-terrorist campaign and attacks on airliners do not trigger massive repression (people, it appears, don’t mind giving up air travel); five million people march spontaneously on Beijing and compel the CCP to speed up the energy transition; the crisis becomes the occasion to implement universal basic income around the world with no adverse consequences for the economy apart from a six-month recession; and the various attempts at geo-engineering all work as planned and produce no unanticipated effects.
The latter point is where Termination Shock veers off in a very different direction. The novel is premised on “snapback”—a moment posited by some in the environmental movement when conservatives can no longer deny that catastrophic human-caused warming is happening. But rather than climbing aboard the liberal consensus around the need for mitigation of fossil fuel use, they immediately jump to ambitious geo-engineering schemes to protect themselves from the immediate effects of climate change. In particular, one wealthy Texas billionaire named T.R. McHooligan sets up a series of gigantic cannons on his ranch along the Rio Grande that shoot huge quantities of sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, which reflect sunlight back into outer space and leads to a dramatic cooling of surface temperatures.
This is where the book gets interesting. Many environmentalists abhor geo-engineering because it relieves only the symptoms and not the underlying causes of global warming. Moreover, they warn that geo-engineering constitutes a huge science experiment that could go disastrously wrong. This is in fact what happens in Termination Shock: T.R.’s sulphur dioxide cannons do indeed reverse warming and stop sea-level rise, which is good for low-lying areas like the Netherlands, Venice, or Houston, and leads to increased agricultural productivity in China. On the other hand, it leads to the failure of the monsoon in India, and the potential starvation of hundreds of millions of people there. In Stephenson’s scenario, one hyper-empowered individual is able to set off a chain of events that reorders world politics, and the world’s players take notice. The government of India, in particular, is not willing to sit by passively and see this happen, so it takes action—well, you have to read the book to see what comes next.
As writers of fiction, there is no comparison between Robinson and Stephenson. The former’s characters are mainly vehicles for pushing ideas; The Ministry’s protagonist is a colorless Irish bureaucrat who doesn’t even bring herself to go to bed with the dirigible captain the author sets her up with. Stephenson’s world is populated, by contrast, by an incredible menagerie ranging from the Black-White-Mexican-Osage-Comanche Rufus, who earns a living by killing feral hogs with drones and sniper rifles in northern Texas, to the book’s protagonist Princess Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia, Queen of the Netherlands, who has an interest in preventing another gigantic flood like the one that ravaged her country in 1954. (This improbable couple does, by contrast, manage to have sex with one another by the end of the book.)
Stephenson is an incredibly meticulous writer who researches every detail of the subjects he writes about, from the protocols of the Dutch Royal Court to the social media competitions built around the China-India Line of Actual Control in the Himalayas. This applies as well to the geo-engineering project he is describing, about which you learn a great deal.
Neal Stephenson has to rank as one of the defining writers of his generation. His first big hit, Snow Crash (1992), described a disintegrating America in which one needed visas and passports to pass from one LA “burbclave” like New South Africa, where all the racists lived, to Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong, where the Hong Kong Chinese had ended up, linked only by their access to thirty-minute pizza delivery overseen by the mafia. He is the inventor of the “metaverse,” a term now being appropriated by Facebook (ahem, Meta) as it tries to reinvent itself as something other than a hated social media company.
Termination Shock is about the coming world of planetary geopolitics induced by climate change, in which the ability to influence the weather becomes a weapon and countries realign not according to ideology but by how many feet above sea level they are. Given the accuracy of the way he predicted things three decades ago, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in 2050 or so we are living in a world that looks much more like the conflictual one he describes, rather than the one governed by dull, responsible international bureaucrats along the lines of Kim Stanley Robinson. Either of those worlds would, of course, be better than the future described in Stephenson’s Seveneves, in which a break-up of the moon rains boloids on the earth and reduces the human population to the offspring of the seven women who succeed in getting off its surface on a rocket. But hey, that’s just science fiction.
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