One man - visionary billionaire restaurant chain magnate T. R. Schmidt, Ph.D. - has a Big Idea for reversing global warming, a master plan perhaps best described as "elemental." But will it work? And just as important, what are the consequences for the planet and all of humanity should it be applied?
Schmidt’s sulfur gun, and his decision to use it as the centerpiece of his unilateral geoengineering experiment, is the unifying thread in a story that features everything from Venetian nationalism to martial arts melees at the Indian-Chinese border. The characters who populate Stephenson’s fractured world are equally far-flung, and to his credit, the author gives the central ones elaborate pasts that could easily feel like notes cribbed from a series of unrelated Wikipedia articles, but don’t. There’s a density to these people, anchored firmly to the historical and geographical minutiae with which Stephenson is so often concerned. In fact, the back stories are the source of some of the book’s most emotionally resonant moments. As absurd as the rest of this sentence is going to sound, there is something profound in the grief of a veteran trying to hunt down the massive feral hog that ate his daughter. You don’t get this sort of thing too often in a lot of Stephenson’s work, and as is the case here, it’s all wrapped up in the sheer oddness of concept that permeates almost every other part of the scene. But when the author allows himself to center human emotion, he frequently does it quite well ... Partly as a result of all this density, though, the first half of Termination Shock can be a slog. There’s just so much character development to get through, so much technological and geopolitical groundwork to lay. It’s almost a necessity, given how sprawling and detailed a world the story demands. Stephenson is one of speculative fiction’s most meticulous architects, and here he’s got sheets and sheets of blueprint. If you’re one of the many readers who enjoy his novels for precisely this reason, rejoice — few writers do this stuff better. There’s a roughly 20-page section early on that explains exactly how the giant sulfur gun works, and I found it fascinating as a work of both imagination and pedantry. But there are also a couple of drawn-out scenes in which multiple characters speak almost exclusively in exposition and, at the end, one of those characters helpfully sums up all the key concepts discussed ... There are also more minor gears that don’t quite connect ... Throughout the book, but especially as it nears its climax, the drones that fly in and out of so many scenes feel overused, their myriad capabilities bordering on deus ex machina territory ... One of Stephenson’s greatest talents is his ability to utilize size and scope, the spatial intensity of things ... manages to pull off a rare trick, at once wildly imaginative and grounded, and readers who go in for this world-building will likely leave with a heightened concern for all the ways in which we are actively making the planet inhospitable. Like T. R. Schmidt’s sulfur gun, this novel is both a response to a deeply broken reality, and an attempt to alter it.
... an effective ecological thriller, which looks to foment meaningful change for humanity as we face the greatest threat to our existence since the unleashing of the atomic bomb ... Termination Shock’s strength lies less in the plausibility of the World’s Biggest Gun being constructed than in the inherent instability in doing nothing—climate refugees will, of course, soon be forced out of low-lying areas around the world, and the U.S., China, and India, as the leading producers of CO2, cannot pretend they will not be affected by population migrations, extinction events, and the loss of food-producing regions like the Punjab and ‘Ameristan' ... Those looking for an SF work in the vein of Anathem, The Diamond Age, or Cryptonomicon may be disappointed as Termination Shock is only obliquely an example of Stephenson’s great gifts for speculative fiction ... a compelling read for this period of Stephenson’s career, in line with other recent works of climate fiction, though one wonders what, if anything, a few science fiction writers can do to influence real-world leaders whose incomes depend on doing nothing about climate change.
... proceeds sedately, perhaps a bit too sedately at first, after its action-packed beginning. Only very gradually does Stephenson reveal the nature of T.R.’s plan, and while every element of the novel is driven by the problem of climate change, the effects of that change don’t seem especially severe yet, except in Texas. It’s the politics of the crisis, rather than its logistics, that have captured Stephenson’s interest ... despite the thrilling action sequence involving drones, eagles, and rattlesnakes that serves as its climax, feel a bit inconclusive. There’s no indication that it’s the first novel in a series, but it feels like one all the same. And I want to know how it ends.