Shocking, in a good way – Neal Stephenson’s latest

You may have noticed from this blog that I quite like the big beasts of the US descendant-of-cyberpunk meme. William Gibson is more literary; Neal Stephenson more in your face. I couldn’t get on with Agency, from Gibson, but I very much enjoyed Stephenson’s Termination Shock.

If all novelists have to pen a climate change novel, the issue is how to do it while retaining your own voice. See below for my take on how brilliantly Kim Stanley Robinson has done this.

And Stephenson too. As befits his style, the book is about vigorous geoengineering approaches to climate. I was unsurprised to see lovely Oliver Morton, a reasoned enthusiast for this technology, among the thanked.

First things first. You’ll be glad or worried to know that Stephenson’s enthusiasm for firearms is undimmed. Plenty are used here, along with sticks, stones and a range of more advanced weapons. So too is his love of the “bizjet,” with the things plentifully on hand for the cast’s travel needs. (All cyberpunk has some means of guaranteeing indefinite resources to the players.) And as ever, he writes at leisure, unafraid to break up a sentence or a whole chapter with a ramble into some unfamiliar terrain. How he does this without losing the plot, I don’t know. But maybe he writes the bones of the tale and then goes back to embellish them.

However, the great man’s keenness on liquid metal, ideally gold, is less visible this time out. Instead he has grown fascinated by big, big, big engineering – flood control in particular.

Even more than usual with this genre, there are more settings than a Bond movie – various US states, India, Venice, the Netherlands, Papua, Canada, Albania…). But as with anything sf-related, the question is whether the author can create any characters I care about.

And he can – a vast number including the Queen of the Netherlands, whose sex life is a theme, a boar-hunter, a Sikh patriot, a Texan service-area billionaire, and a gallimaufry of others from hither and yon – Venice, Saudi, City of London….

Drawbacks? For a man of action – at least on paper – Stephenson needs to work on his action scenes, such as the mega one at the climactic end. But then, where else could you get a crash course on the fauna of the US South, the chemistry of sulphur and the politics of the Himalayas, all built in to a novel you’ll read and enjoy?

But on that theme, someone who knows as much science as Stephenson does ought not to be caught out by stuff I did in chemistry at age 15. Reacting water and sulphur dioxide yields sulphurous acid, not sulphuric. Adding the extra oxygen atom was a triumph of 19th century chemical engineering that the author would enjoy reading about.

Maybe best to leave it there, although the title itself runs the risk of what Stephenson would term spoiler issues. Mind you, that was also true of SevenEves.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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