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Neal Stephenson's 'Shock' Doctrine
By Alyssa Ages | Sep 17, 2021
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photo credit: Brady Hall
Neal Stephenson
Climate change is real. It’s going to be devastating. It already is devastating, but it’s only getting warmed up,” says author Neal Stephenson, speaking from his home in Seattle on an especially hot day.
Global warming is at the heart of the 61-year-old science fiction author’s new novel, Termination Shock (Morrow, Nov.). The techno thriller is set in the not-too-distant future, when the effects of climate change—roaming droves of feral pigs, superstorms, global pandemics—have become so devastating that something drastic has to be done, immediately. Eccentric billionaire T.R. Schmidt, owner of a monstrously successful chain of truck stop restaurants, believes he’s just the man for the job. So, in an attempt to mitigate the problem, he builds a giant gun to shoot the cache of sulfur he’s been hoarding into space. That’s when things get weird.
Other characters in the book, with their own subplots, include the largely ineffectual but determined Queen of the Netherlands and her entourage, a father bent on avenging the death of his daughter at the jaws of a giant hog, and a young Indian-Canadian fighter defending the border of his homeland with a stick. Throw in a dizzyingly dense litany of facts and figures about global warming, monarchies, and geopolitics and the novel is classic Stephenson: fiercely intelligent, weird, darkly witty, and boldly speculative.
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In the nearly four decades since he released his first novel, Stephenson has become one of the most revered science fiction writers of his time. He has published 13 novels, half of which each weigh in at nearly 1,000 pages. He’s also built a reputation as a harbinger of technological change. His 1992 novel Snow Crash imagined a universe—the metaverse—that looks a lot like our internet today. Cryptonomicon (1999) is often credited with sketching the basis for cryptocurrency. Amazon named its new set of virtual and augmented reality tools after a language Stephenson invented, and the creator of Google Earth cites him as an inspiration. The author’s mused on cryogenics, voice-recognition software, and artificial intelligence.
Tech prophet isn’t a moniker Stephenson is particularly comfortable with. “There’s been a two-way exchange of ideas between science fiction and engineering for a long time,” he says. “So there’s nothing new there.” Instead, he prefers the notion that science fiction has the power to introduce concepts that are open to interpretation and could eventually lead to real-world outcomes.
For Termination Shock, though, Stephenson wanted to do more than predict a possible future: he wanted to shed light on an almost certain one—a future in which climate change has devastated the planet. Speaking just days after the UN released a report validating the novel’s premise—that humans are indisputably to blame for climate change and are also the only ones who can stop it—the author explained why writing about this topic felt so pressing.
“Climate change is going to lead to war,” he says. “It’s going to lead to refugee movements on a huge scale, and to mass extinctions, and all kinds of other disasters. These are all real possibilities that I think need to be kind of dragged out into the open and made part of our conversation.”
To ensure Termination Shock would have its intended impact, Stephenson chose the novel’s setting carefully. If it feels like the dystopia depicted could just as easily be tomorrow as a century into the future, that’s by design. Stephenson aims to set his stories in a sweet spot that feels futuristic yet contemporary.
“You’ve gotta get a little bit of a chronological distance from the present day in order to get the story started and give yourself some breathing room,” he says, “so that you’re not just describing how the world is on the day that you wrote the book. On the other hand, if there’s too much distance, too much disengagement from the present-day reality that it doesn’t feel grounded in the world that we live in, you can kind of lose some connections. It’s always a little bit of a balancing act.”
Stephenson’s ability to walk that line, along with his accomplished hand at creating intricate, sprawling plots that engage with big ideas and heady themes, is what consistently draws readers into his works. “He does what any good writer should do, regardless of genre: he makes you think, and touches your heart as well as your brain,” says his longtime editor at William Morrow, Jennifer Brehl. “Neal can build a story around really major philosophical, technological, and cultural questions that might scare off other writers. And he’s able to tackle these questions and really engage the reader.”
It might come as a surprise then that writing wasn’t his original career plan. Stephenson, whose parents were, respectively, an engineer and a scientist, pursued a physics major in college before switching to geography. After graduating and having trouble finding work, he turned to writing. His first novel, The Big U (1984), is about life on the campus of a fictional mega-university. The Big U and his second novel, Zodiac (1988), didn’t make much of a splash, but his third work, Snow Crash, was a bestseller.
Since then, Stephenson has been a perennial bestseller. Beginning with 1999’s Cyrptonomicon, all of the 11 books he has published with William Morrow to date have been bestsellers, including Quicksilver (2003), System of the World (2004), Reamde (2011), Seveneves (2015), and Fall (2019).
Then there is Stephenson’s extracurricular career. He consulted for Jeff Bezos’s spaceflight company, Blue Origin, from 1999 to 2006. He’s also worked with the tech company Intellectual Ventures Labs, and the augmented reality startup Magic Leap.
Stephenson’s growing profile in the tech world also, as it happens, helps his fiction. Offering corporations speculative ideas about the future of technology gives him insights into the here and now. To add to his understanding, he travels to engineering and tech conferences and, when possible, immerses himself in the locales where his novels are set. Though a strong knowledge of the subject of each novel is important, he explains, his primary focus is always the story. It’s the best way he knows to communicate complex topics in ways that feel compelling.
“The first job of a novelist is to entertain readers,” Stephenson says. “I’m always looking for a way to provide that entertainment value that will keep people engaged in the story and interested in the characters and turning the pages.”
With Termination Shock, Stephenson was faced with another balancing act. He had to juggle the overwhelming notion that we’ve essentially destroyed the planet beyond repair, while presenting a possible solution. To do so, he had to find a way to address, for the layperson, the potential benefits of using the solar geo-engineering technology discussed in the book. He wanted to distill the theoretical benefits of actually engaging that technology, and the potentially dire consequences of halting it.
As with all of the complex subjects Stephenson tackles, he was up for the challenge. “We’re in this predicament with climate change: it’s such a vast topic that it’s hard even for experts to wrap their heads around,” he says. “So to the extent that I can raise some questions and tell some stories around it, in a hopefully approachable way, maybe that has some value.”
Alyssa Ages is a journalist in Toronto. Her forthcoming book, The Secrets of Giants (Avery), is about the life-changing impact of physical strength.
A version of this article appeared in the 09/20/2021 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Shock Doctrine
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