In 'Termination Shock,' Neal Stephenson Finally Takes on Global Warming

The renowned author says his genre should inspire solutions. In his new novel, Termination Shock, he tackles our most existential crisis.

His bushy beard is saltier now than in his old author photos, but Neal Stephenson still pairs it with a characteristic, neatly shaved (and, not to get too phrenological about it, large) pate. So he’s easy to spot, even at the bar of a packed Seattle bistro. We’ve arranged to meet here to talk about his latest novel, number 17 over nearly four decades of wildly popular, cinder-block-sized sci-fi thrillers. That was the plan, anyway, but even as we say our hellos, it’s clear that two simultaneous disasters have enveloped us as surely as the swirling rush of tourists at lunchtime.

Disaster number one: You can practically smell the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 massing microscopically. This was back in late July, just after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had said that everyone, vaccinated or no, should go back to wearing masks inside. Yet I can see the full faces of everyone in this crowd, including Stephenson’s, whose frown reflects my own. We are both unhappy about the prospect of breathing a stranger’s air from across the narrow divide of a two-top.

Then there’s disaster number two. Outside, where aerosolized virus would likely flitter up and away instead of down into our respiratory system, it’s 88 degrees, too hot to sit in the sun. We humans have burned too much carbon, is the problem, and now it’s in the atmosphere, messing stuff up. The restaurant’s meager terrace seating has few awnings, and the only noticeable shadow over the city is a metaphorical one. A few weeks ago the jet stream went rogue and caused a “heat dome” that gave Seattle triple-digit temperatures, hotter than anything in the past 50 years. More than 700 people in the Northwest died.

So it’s too virological to eat inside, too climatological to go out. It’s a quandary. Eventually we prevail on the server to drag a table under a shady spot outside and also bring some beer. Disasters unaverted, apocalypse sort of lived with. Just like real life, because what can anyone do, really?

That is the question. It’s also the reason I’m here with Stephenson—to talk about apocalypses, and to talk about how to talk about apocalypses. So many ends of the world are stacked on approach, and nobody in charge seems to be doing much about any of them. In Stephenson’s new book—Termination Shock, out in November—someone does.

Arguably no sci-fi writer has the specific combination of vision, reach, and ardent fandom that Stephenson does. At 61, he is, at least, the premiere chronicler of the foundation myths of Silicon Valley and its adjacent culture—of its high self-regard, of disruptive innovation, of the world that nerds built.

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Illustration: RICARDO TOMÁS

That’s not to say Stephenson is a fanbro. His breakout book, Snow Crash, was a maybe-parodic, certainly funny take on cyberpunk, the subgenre that brought mid-20th-century noir and late-20th-century computing into science fiction. Stephenson has written far-out sci-fi about parallel worlds (Anathem) and postapocalyptic humanity (Seveneves) as well as a bunch of techno-thrillers, but he’s probably best known for his mid-2000s Baroque Cycle—three hefty volumes that tell an Enlightenment-era adventure story about the invention of modern industry, technology, and the scientific method. They’re comprehensive and ambitious or, as nonfans might have it, just very, very long.

All the while, he’s been thinking about apocalypses. From 1999 to 2006, Stephenson worked as a member of the technical staff at Jeff Bezos’ private space rocket company, Blue Origin. A three-year stint at Intellectual Ventures Lab, the R&D arm of the science investment firm started by Microsoft Research founder Nathan Myhrvold, involved some climate-change-related research. (Stephenson also spent six years as the “chief futurist” at the augmented reality company Magic Leap.) But then he read journalist Oliver Morton’s 2015 book The Planet Remade, about solving the problem of climate change with scientific and technological trickery on a planetary scale. That idea made Stephenson think there might be a novel there. “Nothing else matters in comparison. It’s going to be the issue for 100 years,” Stephenson says. “I’m a guy who found a niche writing fiction about technical and scientific topics. It seemed odd to me that I should get to the end of my career and never take a whack at it.”

In Termination Shock, a Texas oil billionaire builds the world’s biggest gun to launch sulfur into the atmosphere to cool the planet. That’s called solar geoengineering, a controversial solution that no one has ever tried in real life. The science and the political implications are heady. But as Stephenson says, “How do you make it an entertaining book?”

His solution, for starters, is to make large-scale solar geoengineering an inciting event. In the book, someone has already begun, someone with lots of power but no accountability. You know, a billionaire. But Stephenson’s specific rogue billionaire isn’t some post-divorce Silicon Valley hobbyist. He’s a pragmatic but adventurous oil man with property in hurricane-threatened Houston. (The oil and mining people Stephenson knows are happy to adopt useful Silicon Valley tech, he says, while quietly ignoring the nominally sexier stuff. “I’ve been to conferences with oil people who, I wouldn’t say they’re dismissive, but they’re slightly frustrated by how little people know of their industry,” he says.) And once that guy starts launching all that sulfur into the atmosphere, he asks for help from a bunch of rich, technologically sophisticated folks from other places also suffering from the effects of climate change, like the wealthy descendants of the doges of Venice and the queen of the Netherlands (a “science fictional country,” Stephenson says), who gets into a plane crash and meets a feral-pig-hunting, drone-building weapons expert while Chinese spies compete for their own geoengineering tech as an Indian-Canadian stickfighting cyborg … well, look, it’s very, I’m going to say it, Stephensonian. If that’s your cup of tea, this is the venti. With boba.

This isn’t one of those climate books where small-town college professors get sad. It’s genre, which, as the critic Fredric Jameson said, makes a contract with the reader that promises things will happen. “I would hope that this whole world seems plausible without being pure, hopeless disaster porn,” Stephenson says. Coming up with mechanisms, both narrative and actual, where human ingenuity solves existential problems, “that’s a place where science fiction writers have a tool kit.”

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“I would hope that this whole world seems plausible without being pure, hopeless disaster porn,” Stephenson says.

Photograph: KYLE JOHNSON

Throughout his journey to the center of the genre, Stephenson has often stitched extended technical interludes into his novels. They’re moments where the action freezes and characters walk downstage to break the fourth wall for a Long Now Seminar—on anything from the history of monetary theory to the physics of a chain whirling in zero gravity. Stephenson’s protagonists are often hackers—modern trickster avatars who are, conveniently, good at thinking about and explaining science. (He was born in Fort Meade, Maryland, to a pedagogical family: His father, David, was a professor of electrical engineering and the son of a physicist, while his mother, Janet, was a biochemist and daughter of a biochemist. Stephenson got a degree in geography with a minor in physics from Boston University.) I think the real art in these asides is in timing. Just before the lectures get boring, Stephenson cuts away to narrative—sword fights, sex scenes, emotional drama. It’s lectures and crises at 120 beats per minute.

In that spirit, then, a technical interlude:

The energy of the sun makes Earth a warm, wet world, the only place anyone knows of in the universe capable of supporting human or any life. But humans burn carbon-containing matter to get energy, because that’s how we can do fun stuff like drive cars and move cargo fast and make electricity. And here’s an indisputable chemical truth: Burning hydrocarbons makes carbon dioxide.

Excess CO2 makes the thin envelope of breathable gas around Earth too good at retaining heat, and it doesn’t take more than a degree or two up or down to throw the entire system out of whack. The oceans get warmer, supercharging hurricanes. Before long, entire species of animals and plants go extinct. Diseases spread. Wars happen. Endangered populations flee. The relatively small area of the planet where humans can live most comfortably shrinks. Some places on Earth become uninhabitable.

Yet even knowing all that, in 2018 human activities emitted more than 33 billion metric tons of CO2. That number went up more in 2018 than it had in five years. We’re backsliding toward Armageddon, enrobed in fumes.

People could cut greenhouse gas emissions—switch to renewable energy for electricity, design cities to be more walkable and bikeable and transit-able, build more energy-efficient buildings. Levy carbon taxes. Stop extracting fossil fuels. None of that is happening at the scale it needs to.

People could try to claw back CO2 with agricultural practices that keep more carbon in the ground. Trees absorb carbon as they grow, but you’d need to plant more than a trillion to make a difference, and you can’t just plant trees everywhere. Giant machines that 222222draw in CO2 and sequester it somewhere—at the bottom of the ocean, in a cave, or converted into carbon-containing stuff like concrete, polymers, even booze—are a good idea, and in fact the largest facility for sucking up carbon opened in September, in Iceland. It pulls a meager 4,000 tons of CO2 per year at most, and “carbon capture and sequestration” technologies have a history of failing to achieve their lofty goals.

So when that isn’t enough? If greenhouse gas emissions are warming Earth, you change the emissions, sure, but maybe you also change the Earth. That’s geoengineering, and people have been talking about it—by other names—since Cold Warriors started trading ideas for weaponizing weather control technologies in the 1950s. It’s devising ways for the atmosphere or the ocean to trap less heat, so as to make the planet more habitable again. Think of it as terraforming, which is just geoengineering when you do it on another planet. Or, rather, geoengineering is what you do when you have de-terraformed Earth, and you want to terraform it back.

People have come up with a lot of schemes for doing that. Giant space mirrors, maybe? But here’s the most relevant one. In the 1970s a Russian climatologist named Mikhail Budyko suggested that aerosolized particles injected into the stratosphere, between 7 and 31 miles straight up, would reflect solar energy back outward. Really it was a 2006 article by a Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist named Paul Crutzen that made the modern case. Like many other scientists, Crutzen—famous for helping coin the terms Anthropocene (to describe our current, human-influenced epoch) and nuclear winter (the freezing darkness that comes after a nuclear war fills the atmosphere with fine particles of ash and person-soot)—knew that the world was heating up. He’d also noticed that the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 had pumped enough ash into the sky to cool Earth by half a degree Celsius for a year.

So you can see where this is headed. Crutzen proposed using balloons or artillery guns to put burning sulfur into the stratosphere, where it would turn into sulfur dioxide, and the chemistry of the atmosphere would grind it into particles smaller than a micrometer, just the right size to reflect energy back without appreciably darkening the sky. Crutzen thought all you’d need was 1 or 2 metric tons of sulfur a year, costing maybe $25 billion to $50 billion—a bargain when you consider the costs of climate change. (You could probably also use exotic stuff like titanium dioxide or synthetic diamond, but that’s not what happens in Termination Shock.) “Also, in comparison,” Crutzen wrote, “current annual global military expenditures approach US$1,000 billion, almost half in the USA.” Hidden in an article about cooling the planet, a sick burn.

The problems with this idea could fill a book—and, indeed, they have. It might not work, for one thing. Models differ on that, and the whole idea is so kooky that experiments are rare and inconclusive (or failures). And then there’s the moral hazard of it all: Even if solar engineering could more than counteract CO2-caused warming, humans tend to use that kind of success as an excuse to just do more of whatever bad thing they’ve fixed. Just to make things more complicated, lessening the effects of climate change in one place might also make them worse in others, and those places might take offense at your efforts. And you need to prepare for the fact that once you start, you can’t stop, or those bad outcomes might get worse everywhere. Calling a halt would be another disaster. That’s a termination shock.

For the past three decades, on and off, I’ve written about climate change and its effects. Through it all, I’d have described myself as a Star Trek-scale optimist about science and its ability to uplift humanity. I thought that science-hero sci-fi was inspirational, and dystopian sci-fi was a warning. I believe in positive political action. I think that in times of disaster, people help each other.

Or, at least, I’ve always thought I thought that.

But a few weeks ago, at dinner, a conversation with my teenage son went awry. I was trying to talk to him about possible college plans, and he wouldn’t engage. I pushed. We gotta get started, I explained. Applications. Money. Campus visits.

And he said, “Frankly, I just feel sort of nihilistic about it.”

I followed up. About what?

Well, it turned out—the whole thing, really. College, jobs, the ecosphere, the future. The boomers blasted it all into oblivion while Gen X screwed around on the internet.

Here’s where I blew it. Instead of giving him the we’re-all-in-this-together-change-the-future speech, I said, “Kiddo, I think there’s a chance that when all this shakes out, some people will get to be inside the dome and most people won’t, and I’m just hoping you’ll get inside the dome before they shut the door.”

This was, I want to be clear, me fucking up. He couldn’t figure out how to make his schoolwork matter even to himself, and I basically implied that if he didn’t get good grades he wouldn’t be worth saving after the apocalypse. I don’t even think that! Or I don’t mean to. But after 30 years on the job I’m starting to suspect that shouting “But science!” from the back of the room might not actually be making enough of a difference. I keep typing, but antivaxxers keep anti-ing and carbon emitters keep emitting. What is the point of me? Like the kid said: nihilistic.

Around the world, scientists, politicians, and activists are trying to head off these disasters. I don’t mean to minimize their efforts. But the clock’s ticking here—or maybe has already tocked. Now, typically, when I feel like science fact is failing to get the world out of a jam, I might turn to science fiction. Yes, sure an entire subgenre revolves around technological and social solutions (it’s called solarpunk). But in some of the best-known climate fiction, time simply runs out. It’s telling the story, retrospectively, of how we are screwing up right now. See, for instance, the modern dystopian classics of Octavia E. Butler, Margaret Atwood, Paolo Bacigalupi.

You couldn’t find a broad enough brush to tar all of modern sci-fi with—there’s a reason the adjectival form of genre is generic. But if you think the world today seems like something out of an apocalyptic science fiction novel, whether you know it or not you might in fact be referring to Bacigalupi’s apocalyptic science fiction. It can be rough sledding, or it would if he wrote about a future where it still snowed. Bacigalupi’s books The Windup Girl and The Water Knife use the same techno-thriller tool kit as Termination Shock to lay out dystopias set after the ecosystem goes kablooey. In The Water Knife, vicious agents of city governments murder people for water rights in a drought-beset American Southwest, where the wealthy live in private arcologies and the poor pee into filtration bags that extract potable H2O. And as I thought about my door-of-the-dome mistake, I began to suspect that I had internalized Bacigalupi not as a warning but as prophecy.

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Illustration: RICARDO TOMÁS

The research literature on hope-versus-despair in the psychology of climate response is extensive and contradictory, but one influential survey of nearly 90 readers showed that The Water Knife rendered political progressives as nihilistic as my son and gave centrists and conservatives apparent permission to think only of themselves, to do what had to be done to survive. To make it inside the dome.

I’ve written about Bacigalupi’s dystopias, too. So I dug out his email and pinged him. He agreed to talk; why, I asked him, didn’t his books offer any hope that someone might try to save the future? “I went after it from as many different angles as I knew how to do,” Bacigalupi said. “I write my fears, mostly. I write my anxieties, mostly.” That grim reality did even more of a number on him than on me. A Hugo and Nebula award winner, Bacigalupi hasn’t published a novel since 2018. He has begun working on a new series at last, he tells me. Fantasy. No arcologies or pee bags.

Climate fiction doesn’t have to be fatalistic, obviously. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 book The Ministry for the Future, someone tries geoengineering—in the near future, after 20 million people die in a “wet bulb” heat event in India, the government there uses its air force to start putting sulfur into the air, two Pinatubo’s worth. It’s little more than a side note in the book, which is really about all the other ways to fight climate change. There’s ecoterrorism, and technocrats who create a new carbon-based banking infrastructure. The book, like some of Robinson’s others, is explicitly about saving the planet by creating a collectivist utopia. I dug out Robinson’s number, too, and called to ask him about that. After teasing me about indulging the temptation of comparing two very different but still reasonably optimistic climate novels, he told me that a Big Science Gun can’t point toward the future. “You can’t have a single great man, a single billionaire,” Robinson said. “That isn’t the way things happen, and it’s not going to happen that way.” There’s too much to be done, and too many things to do.

That’s obviously right, but the myth of the hero galloping to the rescue—a thing that actually happens in Termination Shock, by the way—gets more and more compelling the closer the metaphoric meteor gets. I could use a little hope, no matter how unrealistic. “At this point, in our kind of society, you pretty much need to get a lot of really rich motherfuckers who don’t have anything better to do than blast themselves into space to start thinking, ‘There’s some wicked hard problems we can solve with tech and investment,’” Bacigalupi says. “Having a god like Neal Stephenson take that on is probably really helpful. I’ve read this guy since Snow Crash, and I think he’s a fucking genius. So thank God he’s taking this on and ideally giving them a model for being functional and useful components of society.”

They might even listen. Stephenson’s books can be sharply critical of the tech world’s avarice and political blind spots, but people with Silicon Valley-ish tendencies adore him nonetheless. Google cofounder Sergey Brin has called Snow Crash one of his favorite novels, and one of the inventors of Google Earth cites its fictional digital universe, the Metaverse, as an inspiration. (It’s no accident that Facebook and Microsoft call their iterations of virtual reality a metaverse, nor that the CEO of Pokémon Go creator Niantic has written that his company is building something better than a metaverse.) John Carmack, a cofounder of Id Software, has said Stephenson is one of his favorite authors, and Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos is reportedly a fan too. Investor Peter Thiel said Stephenson’s The Diamond Age is one of his favorite books; Microsoft founder Bill Gates said Seveneves “rekindled” his love of science fiction. Gates posted an interview with Stephenson on his blog.

Over lunch, roughly when we’d started considering dessert, I asked Stephenson how that reception feels. He seemed a little chagrined—and he told me a story that made me think he wasn’t sure those guys were in on the joke. When he was writing Snow Crash, Stephenson said, he was living in the Washington, DC, area. Riding the Metro, he’d see mid-level bureaucrat types headed to the Pentagon reading Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. Even though nobody boiled pots like Clancy, those military-industrial complexifiers—who almost certainly knew better—felt like they were learning something from “those things that annoy literary readers, like, ‘Here’s a graf about the performance characteristics of the F/A-18,’” Stephenson says. “It’s a utilitarian view of what fiction is supposed to do for its readers that is alien to literary types.”

That might be why Stephenson demurs at the suggestion that he’s doing anything other than writing something plausible—that he might be (as I am perhaps hoping, just a little) offering a big fictional engine to power some Silicon Valley dream machine. I get it. Maybe it’d sound pretentious for a modern novelist to say, flat out, that they hoped to inspire social change with their art. But I push back anyway. This is sci-fi, after all. “Examine change” is written into the base code, right? Rotate the story to see it from a different angle, maybe warn against bad outcomes? “To the extent fiction can have a social impact—and I don’t think that’s the purpose of fiction, by the way, but since you asked—telling a plausible story about how things could develop over the next couple of decades might help,” Stephenson says. “I’m drawn to any kind of scenario where it feels like, here’s a plan, here’s a thing we can do that can be implemented without restructuring society from the ground up.” And it’s the kind of people who engage intensely with his work, the people who that work is about—“people of an engineering mindset, or a roll-up-the-sleeves, problem-solving mindset,” as Stephenson puts it—who are more drawn to those kinds of plans.

He thinks that someone, or some country, is going to try solar geoengineering. Climate change is too big a problem, and geoengineering “is a cheap, easy-to-implement, flawed, controversial approach that sooner or later someone is going to implement,” he says. But he denies that he’s pitching a Big Science Billionaire as any kind of solution. It’s just a novel. Said billionaire “just does it, without any regulation,” Stephenson says, laughing a bit at his own narrative juke. “That’s a bit of a straw man, by design. It’s a what-if.”

Still, Stephenson’s identification of geoengineering as a Big Vision could have real significance. His superscience this time isn’t a metaverse or a space colony. It’s engineering to address an imminent threat. After a few years of unrelenting wildfires, hurricanes, disease outbreaks, and other natural disasters linked directly or indirectly to climate change, the idea that the world’s preeminent technologists might take up the cause where policymakers seem to have failed is almost hopeful.

It’s a big fictional ask, Stephenson says, but no weirder than, say, Isaac Asimov’s immutable behavioral laws for robots. It’s the kind of preposterousness that makes people wish they could be the heroes, even if our brains tell us the real work will probably involve meetings with Robinson’s bankers too. The difference between a novel and a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is that a novel has to take big narrative swings—Stephenson has been advocating for a decade that science fiction embrace its Golden Age techno-optimism, but as inspiration, not polemic. It has to be entertaining, and it can’t be propaganda. “One thing that immediately pulls people out of a book is any suggestion that it’s an ax-grinder,” he says.

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Illustration: RICARDO TOMÁS

In reality, science-hero or whitepaper is a false choice. One of the most vocal researchers on solar geoengineering (and lots of other important climate change technology and policy) is a Harvard physicist named David Keith. He knows Stephenson and doesn’t think there’s an either-or. “I completely reject your distinction,” Keith says. “The idea that some ideas are policy and some are technical doesn’t withstand the first two lectures of a class. No amount of inventing technologies will solve our problem without strong policy, but policy alone can’t bring emissions to zero.”

Asking billionaires to save the world is never a good idea, but even today, they aren’t exactly uninterested. Elon Musk has a solar power company and an electric car company. Laurene Powell Jobs is investing $3.5 billion in helping communities affected by climate change. Silicon Valley titans help fund Keith’s programs. “In going around and pitching this, I’ve heard everything from very considered views about the politics and the environment to somebody in an office on Sand Hill Road saying, ‘We should just invest in this and take over,’” Keith says. “There’s a big spectrum.”

To my shame, I imposed dystopia on my kid not just as a worry but as a philosophy. That’s some moloch-worshipping bullshit right there, unworthy of a Star Trek fan. Talking to Stephenson helped me figure a way out. What I finally said to my kid was this: Work toward Robinson’s utopian, multi-solution world, but don’t be surprised by the parched dystopia of Bacigalupi. And maybe Stephenson’s Big Swinging Science isn’t a goal, but the illumination of a path. Genre’s contract with the reader is our contract with each other too: Take action. Make things happen. The dichotomy isn’t between giant space guns and bureaucracy; it’s between those two things and despair, and dystopia. Saving the world won’t actually be an action adventure. But the solution might be to gear up for an action adventure anyway.

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