Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson

ML
8 min readDec 21, 2022

What crazy things will people do to combat rising temperatures? A book suggestion for the holidays

Termination Shock is the latest addition to Neal Stephenson’s oeuvre of futuristic escapades. The centerpiece of the book is climate politics, with a strong dose of Great Man Theory. If a climate change novel doesn’t appeal to you, be assured the book is less about climate change than it is about modern day solutionism and political intrigue.

Stephenson asks, “what if one rich guy just went and tried to fix rising temperatures? Can a Great Man do it alone?”

Political intrigue: Game of Thrones was less about “winter” than it is about groups of humans pursuing their own interests

Brinkmanship: Or, How to Use Bureaucracy to Your Advantage

While the title sounds like a creative reference to the world ending (“terminating”), “termination shock” is actually a hypothetical scientific term describing the shock to Earth (and its inhabitants) if a method of climate control were abruptly terminated. A sudden rise in temperature could be orders of magnitude more fatal than a slow upward creep.

In the book, the chosen method of reducing sweltering global temperatures is called “solar geoengineering.” This involves large-scale geologic engineering that reflects away the sun’s rays before it has a chance to reach Earth. Stephenson specifically chooses to spray sulfur particles into the atmosphere, creating a reddish patina of sunscreen for the planet. But what is good for one geographic region is bad for another. Lowering temperatures at different rates in different parts of the world can lead to major weather disturbances, including too much rain, and too little rain — either of which can lead to death, famine, and a host of other deadly effects.

Given the awkward tradeoffs inherent to this solution, oil-industry billionaire T.R. Schmidt knows it’s impossible to expect governments to take decision action. He deploys a cunning mix of rogue action and brinkmanship in order to get what he wants, which is to make parts of the planet (his parts) cooler.

Relying on the fact that governments are unlikely to catch on to him until it is too late, he embarks on his unilateral geoengineering efforts. “Termination shock” is a figurative weapon that he forges in secret, when governments will have no choice but to admit that letting him continue is better than making him stop.

Political Jiujitsu: the Art of Jury-Rigging

At the heart of many works of speculative fiction is a frustration with the way things are going. Putting Termination Shock in context, the menagerie of climate coalitions have variously failed to meet their climate change goals, or even come to an agreement on what should be done. Neal presents a thought experiment: what if one guy, sick of all this dilly-dallying, decides “I’m going to fix it”?

This guy, T.R. Schmidt, happens to be Texan, so, as one would have it, he builds the biggest gun the world has seen, and, of course, fires it. Repeatedly. Essentially, he builds a man-made volcano at the Texas-Mexico border, and each eruption sends up a rocket with tons of sulfur.

What was his political strategy, to get away with this? He convened officers and royalty from a small handful of geographic interests (not just nations), including The Netherlands, London, Singapore and Venice. All these face great threats in the form of rising sea levels from melting ice caps.

But all of them combined isn’t *actually* going to give him the international blessing he needs to pull something like that off. Conspicuously, he leaves out large countries that would benefit from cooler temperatures. Why? Large, democratic countries would be bogged down by bureaucracy and the project would be held back. Large, undemocratic countries may not be bogged down by bureaucracy, but they may be stymied by analysis paralysis when calculating the complicated effects of lower temperatures across all of their lands, not just their coastal land (he cites China).

In contrast, these small, low-lying nations or micro-states faced an existential threat in the form of rising sea levels, are run by technocratic governments (expertise-based decision making over democracy), and have money to deploy. While this small group won’t give him international blessing, they bring a veneer of credibility, as well as money and connections to build similar volcanoes in other parts of the world (such as Albania and Papua New Guinea). I found this political jiu-jitsu most impressive.

Stephenson also explores how different nations, excluded from the conversation, react to the goings-on. China and India feature prominently. China plays a surprisingly sinister role, represented by a tedious agent endowed with Panopticon-like access to information and remorseless saboteur sensibilities. India’s representative, a Canadian-born Indian martial artist specializing in stick fighting, becomes the unwitting savior-cum-guerilla of the whole scheme. Neal manages to weave into the story real life but lesser-known regional conflicts like the India-China border dispute, with its euphemistically named “Line of Actual Control.” Neal demonstrates his polymath abilities once again.

Great Men

One thing that has to be asked is: Texas. Rich guy. Climate. Rockets. Brazen.

ARE WE TALKING ABOUT ELON? I’ll be damned if Neal wasn’t playing with that thought.

But can Iron Man *and* T.R. Schmidt both be fashioned upon Elon? Iron Man is an all-round mensch, assuming you can get past his brusqueness and extreme rationality. T.R. Schmidt, however, feels more like a savior-villain who has the right intentions but doesn’t mind killing thousands of people along the way.

This is where Stephenson invokes the question of the Great Man Theory (“GMT”). The GMT is a theory from the 19th century that history is largely the result of “great men,” men who due to superior intellect, courage, or leadership, end up playing a decisive role in history.

Is T.R. Schmidt one of such Great Men?

Why do we, as a society, put strongmen and great men on pedestals, giving them the authority to decide for vast numbers of people?

In the case of T.R. Schmidt, he knowingly makes a decision that results in fatal weather events halfway around the world. In the case of Elon, who recently banned journalists critical of him from Twitter, and then banned any user that posted links to alternative social media sites (including the widely respected venture capitalist Paul Graham), he makes dangerously self-interested and short-sighted decisions on content moderation, revealing a man drunk with power and low on self-control.

For other examples of “Great Men” who were anything but, look no further than the charlatans exposed in crypto this year — not just the fraud-ridden Sam Bankman-Fried, but also the CEOs of previously venerated crypto behemoths like Terra and Three Arrows Capital.

The Great Man Theory presents leaders as heroes that were able to rise against the odds against challenges while inspiring legions of followers. This is true of the “Great Men” cited above. But the Theory also suggests that their power shouldn’t be questioned due to their singular abilities. The “Great Men” mentioned certainly tried to create this environment, and look where we ended up.

When we swoon in the face of people who act like gods, we participate actively in collective delusion. And when people around us get hurt, we are anything but guiltless.

Nerd Stuff

But we are nerds, so enough philosophy for now.

The nerd stuff is littered throughout the book, like the explanation of how “earthsuits” worked (cooling suits we humans end up having to wear because It’s Just Too Hot” — as someone who recently spent the summer in Austin, I can imagine such a scenario). Or, how a main character hot wires electronics after they get knocked out by an EMP.

Here’s a snippet where Neal describes how the earthsuit works. It consists mainly of a refrigeration system that Einstein and Szilard invented 90 years ago, taking advantage of electromagnetism and thermodynamics. This system was out-competed by Freon (cheaper), the Great Depression, as well as the rise of the Nazism — both inventors were Jewish. But at the end of the 2000s, when we realized Freon was a horrible greenhouse gas and we started looking for alternative options, researchers at a German university built a working model of their design.

The Einstein-Szilard refrigerator
The Einstein-Szilard refrigerator, simplified modern day schematic

“More than one type of Me-Frigerator was in the kit. One of them was optimized for conditions where direct intense sunlight was the primary threat… It was built around a technology that had been invented and patented a hundred years ago by none other than Albert Einstein, teaming up with a future A-bomb physicist named Leo Szilard. It didn’t have moving parts, other than some valves. It was just a particular configuration of plumbing containing certain fluids.”

“One part of it just happened to get cold when another part of it was exposed to heat. You didn’t need a motor to drive a compressor or any of that. It just worked, provided you could open the valves and make one part of it hot. And that last was pretty easy in the desert sun, especially when there were new blacker-than-black light-absorbing materials and certain other innovations that Einstein hadn’t known about.”

“During the first century of its existence, Einstein’s invention had not seen very much practical use because it was less efficient than other ways of making things cold. But more recently, researchers had been spiffing it up with an eye to using it in developing countries where heat, in the form of sun and fire, was easier to get than reliable electricity.”

There we have it — science fiction, climate change, political games and an observation of the men of our times. Keen to dive in? Here’s a link to the book: https://amzn.to/3hIcs92. Enjoy!

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ML

I do business things and nerd things. Also crypto things. Twitter: @michlai007