Review - Termination Shock

:date: 2022-03-21 18:41 :tags:

My short review for the impatient: Neal Stephenson's latest book Termination Shock seems more reserved than some of his well-known works but it is a thoughtful, well-constructed story about a topic that may turn out to be far more important to our species than what nerds usually focus on.

That topic is geoengineering but before looking closer at that, I'll quickly run through my fiction scoring matrix.

This book is pretty new, from 2021, and on page 351 Covid-19 is mentioned as well as other recent political events. On page 355 Covid is mentioned again and one of the main characters is what the CDC (shyly) and I (boldly) call an "R" ("recovered" in what were formerly uncontroversial epidemiological models). What I found fascinating is that this character has lost his sense of smell even after otherwise recovering; but in the story he gets some slight restoration of his ability to smell things, but only important things that might represent danger, e.g. smoke. What's strange about that is that I actually had olfactory hallucinations of smoke  —  specifically  —  last year for a few months. It seems fine now but very weird for sure. So strong bonus points for covering a detail like that with such eerie accuracy.

On page 158 we learn exactly what genus of billionaire one of the main characters is ("ten billion"). I can't help but think Neal's penchant for writing about billionaires comes from some of his fans who make researching that demographic a bit too easy. Or worse, who own the world's largest bookstore.

But on page 178 the billionaire character changes the mood slightly with, "[Some engineers are] happy working on shit that's actually getting built, even if it ain't going to Mars with some fucking billionaire. We gotta terraform Earth before we get distracted by Mars is my philosophy."

I'm wondering if that philosophy might reflect that of the entire book. This certainly has very precisely been my position with respect to all nonsensical Mars colonization chatter. But there did seem to be an emphasis on specifically pursuing tractable feats which can actually be accomplished.

As with most Stephenson books, this one was filled with cultural curiosities from around the globe. The "sport" of gatka is featured and I got to learn what that is. This is on brand because Neal is always very interested in exotic ways people can hit each other with sticks. He's kind of right in the sense that we're probably hardwired to take such events pretty seriously.

I think for me what was most interesting was the fact that I personally knew a lot of the book's locations pretty well. While some of that was nice (the Netherlands, Lago di Como, etc), there was, unfortunately, a lot of Houston, Texas. There was much detail about the rivers, lakes, and bayous of East Texas exactly like ones I've canoed, swum, and even scuba dived in. I once lived right next to the White Oak Bayou, a major tributary of the waterway the story spends a lot of time on, and I know that kind of scenery all too well. I also know this kind of scenery described on page 339: "He was an Anglo Texan, but apparently not the sort who hated nonwhite folk  —  or if he was he did a good job of hiding it..." My first thought when reading that was, ok, that still needs to be spelled out I guess. Noted.

Some of the tech was weirdly personal too. On page 417 a map is mentioned of dots in the ocean that turn out to be "weather buoys". There is a good reason I demonstrate such a map in my SVG notes. As someone who once was in charge of scooping up all of the data from thousands of weather buoys (technically "drifters"), that kind of felt personal too. But Stephenson covers a lot of ground; he probably talks about some coincidentally idiosyncratic thing from your life too.

Finally, let's look at the big tech topics. First is drone madness. This story features a lot of Deus Ex Drone action. Which is fine. We can vaguely take it as given that drones are neat and do surprisingly clever things. But my feeling about the whole topic is summed up on page 670: "[Important character] was in a quite ambivalent frame of mind about the whole drone thing. On the one hand, this whole operation would have been unthinkable without them. On the other hand, batteries." Exactly.

I think drones are a lot like 3d printers in that people are quite excited for the wrong reasons about the wrong things. (With 3d printers, the real interesting development is cheap motion control.) With drones, I think the amazing development is really the incredible power densities we can get with all portable electric systems today. The complex but obvious integration of a lot of other standard components completes the almost magical-seeming abilities of drones. So a lot of drone magic. Which is fine.

The main tech showcase and really the core of the book's theme is geoengineering  —  specifically trying to throw sulfur into the stratosphere to somehow mitigate/neutralize the excess carbon our planet's climate is struggling with. The idea would be to simulate volcanoes which have done this and cooled the planet. Is this a good idea? The book doesn't take a clear position on the matter other than it probably should at least be thought about by science fiction authors. Certainly a central theme of the book was that this kind of thing is controversial.

I'm no good with this kind of chemistry but my first thought on hearing the proposed solution was to wonder if sulfur was one of the causes of acid rain  —  Wikipedia tells me that sulfur dioxide sure is and that seems somehow relevant. But again, I'm no expert.

I have to give Neal credit though for writing a perfectly professional novel about this topic and giving it some attention. As we continue to screw up the climate, we may need some kind of drastic measures while we wait for our species' collapsing fertility to cure the problem.