By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Stephensen had me at the feral hogs, Snout being the name of the feral hog introduced here. Page 16 of Termination Shock (TS):
Snout was a cutesy name for a monster, but Adele had been a girly girl, with cute names for everything. When she had started calling him that, she of course hadn’t known that one day Snout was going to eat her.
In those days, some five years ago, Snout had merely been one piglet in a herd of feral swine that came and went across the stretch of central Texas where Rufus and his lady, Mariel, were trying to make a go of it on fifty acres. Snout had been easily identifiable to little Adele because of a distinctive pattern of spots on his nose, and, later, because he was bigger than the others.
The reason Snout was bigger—as Rufus and Mariel found out too late —was that Adele had got in the habit of feeding him. Snout, no idiot, had got in the habit of coming around to be fed.
Rufus blamed the situation on Charlotte’s Web, a work of fantasy literature to which Mariel—as always with the best and purest of intentions —had introduced Adele before she was ready for it. Though to be fair there was a lot of related material on YouTube tending to support the dangerous and wrong idea that swine were cute, not anthropophagous, and could be trusted. From time to time a moral panic would arise concerning the sort of online content to which unsuspecting children were being algorithmically exposed, but it was always something to do with sex, violence, or politics. All important in their way, but mostly preoccupations of city dwellers.
Things might have turned out differently if Rufus had been able to shelter Adele from juvenile pig-related content during that formative year when she had learned her ABCs and Snout had grown from a newborn piglet—basically an exposed fetus—to a monstrous boar weighing twice as much as Rufus, who had once played linebacker. Sometimes at breakfast Adele would complain that in the middle of the night she had been awakened by gunshots in the neighborhood. Rufus would lock eyes with Mariel across the table and Mariel would say “It must have been hunters,” which was not technically a lie. It had been Rufus, out at three in the morning with an infrared scope, blowing away feral hogs. And if it wasn’t Rufus, it was one of the neighbors doing the same thing for the same reason.
This is gruesome, and funny, and kinetic, and gun-humpy, and cartoonishly violent, with humor so dry as to be parched, like so much of Stephenson’s fiction. Rufus is one of several protagonists, the others being the Queen of the Netherlands, truckstop chain baron and oil bidness squillionaire T.R. Schmidt, Laks, a young Sikh, and a ginormous supporting cast of entouragistes, corporate droids, Eurotrash, employees and service people, falconers, and so forth. If I sound a little vague here, it’s because I don’t feel the need to be more precise. For whatever reason, I don’t remember any of characters the way I do Y.T., Hiro Protaganist (come on), or Uncle Enzo, from Snow Crash, or Randall Lawrence Waterhouse and Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe from Cryptonomicon. Frustratingly for me, I can’t explain why this is; and I should be able to, being a former English major. At this point, I should emphasize that TS is what they call a “rollicking good read,” and worth your time; I blasted through all
seven million 700 pages, half before going to sleep in the morning, and the other half after waking up in the afternoon, and I very rarely do that. If nothing else, TS is immersive.
But where exactly is one immersed? Well, in a built world. And here again my nebulous sense of frustration besets me. The world of TS, exactly like the world of William Gibson’s Jackpot Trilogy, is set in the near future, the mid-Twentieth Century. Yet I find Gibson’s world infinitely more persuasive (not to mention being a better model of the social systems we confront). I suppose I prefer Gibson’s milieu of
trashy working class whites, mercs, intelligence operatives, public relations executives, and Russian mobsters to Stephenson’s milieu of rich folks and their various service providers. I also prefer Gibson’s exposition of the central premise of his work, which takes the form of a public relations executive from the future explaining the Jackpot while speaking through a Walmart-level robot (a “Wheelie Boy”), to Stephenson’s, where T.R. Schmidt lovingly expounds the workings of the “Biggest Gun in the World.” Is that a failure in world-building? I don’t know. Nebulous, as I keep saying.
The “Biggest Gun in the World” (Stephenson probably has a MILSPEC-style acronym for it, but I don’t remember) is a gun that shoots sulfur into the air on a regular schedule, thereby cooling the atmosphere, and solving our climate problems. In other words, geo-engineering. In some circles, this is well-proven tech. The wee problem is that having made, well, the entire Earth dependent on human machinery, what happens when the machine stops? What happens if T.R. Schmidt throws the switch to Off — or somebody throws it for him?At this point, I just realized that I don’t have to include the obligatory, high-level plot summary. You just read it.
I’ve also realized, as you no doubt have as well, that I’m not going to do anything like a close reading of TS. However, in the course of my useless research (reviews here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here; more serious analysis here, here, and here), I finally floundered through to understanding my nebulous sense of disquiet with TS: I’m not sure Stephenson is fully in control of his register in TS; in particular, not in control of the English major’s best friend: Irony. And after this absurdly convoluted, Luis Tiant-like wind-up, I will briefly define irony, and show why it’s an especially appropriate form of rhetoric for our times. I will then give an example of an ironic, real-world outcome in the field of geoengineering, and compare this to the irony of Stephenson’s somewhat deflating denouement.
My OED has several definitions of irony, but this is the relevant one:
irony [noun] /ˈʌɪrəni/ noun. e16. [ORIGIN: Latin ironia, Greek eirōneia simulated ignorance, from eirōn dissembler: see -y3.]
3. Discrepancy between the expected and the actual state of affairs; a state of affairs that seems deliberately contrary to what is expected and is often wryly amusing. m17.
A rhetorical form that draws attention to the discrepancy between the actual and the expected is peculiarly appropriate for the present day, described by Stephenson himself in an interview with Grim Dark (!!) magazine:
[STEPHENSON:] The world’s reaction to COVID–which unfolded as I was writing this book–showed us that it’s impossible to get many people to believe in the existence of a disease that is placing them and their loved ones in immediate danger and causing hundreds of thousands of people to drop dead all around them. Trying to communicate about human-caused climate change is far more difficult than that, given that the consequences are mostly far away and detectable only by scientific instruments and statistical analysis. It would be difficult to get people to understand these facts even if social media weren’t pouring highly optimized disinformation into their heads.
Talk about a “discrepancy between the actual and the expected”!
(“A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break.”) Here is an example of irony in real, material life. The maritime shipping industry, with the best of intentions — some might say this was rare for them — initiated changes in ship’s fuel with the goal of reducing sulfur in the air (the opposite of what T.R. hoped to achieve with Biggest Gun in the World). And they succeeded! From 2022:
A global standard limiting sulfur in ship fuel reduced artificial “ship track” clouds to record-low levels in 2020. Pandemic-related disruptions played a secondary role.
Ship tracks, the polluted marine clouds that trail ocean-crossing vessels, are a signature of modern trade. Like ghostly fingerprints, they trace shipping lanes around the globe, from the North Pacific to the Mediterranean Sea. But in 2020, satellite observations showed fewer of those pollution fingerprints.
Drawing on nearly two decades of satellite imagery, researchers found that the number of ship tracks fell significantly after a new fuel regulation went into effect. A global standard implemented in 2020 by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) – requiring an 86% reduction in fuel sulfur content – likely reduced ship track formation. COVID-19-related trade disruptions also played a small role in the reduction
Unfortunately, their success in reducing sulfur emisssions made global warming worse. Fewer clouds, more sunlight. From 2023:
If this trend continues that could mean that the Northern Hemisphere mid latitudes (where many of us live) will warm much more rapidly.
It could also impact global and regional weather systems, like the monsoons.
More extreme weather is likely. pic.twitter.com/7JhUEEMBfr
— Leon Simons (@LeonSimons8) March 8, 2023
That’s both a termination shock, and a “discrepancy between the actual and the expected,” although I’m not sure that the shipping executives are experiencing wry amusement, any more than climate scientists are. This unexpected outcome is an exact parallel to the central premise of TS: In essence, by cleaning the sulfur out of their fuel, they threw the switch to Off on T.R. Schmidt’s Big Sulfur-Shooting Gun.
And now to the irony of TS, which operates at the meta-narrative level (i.e., is not expressed by characters in the plot). The irony is this: The switch on T.R. Schmidt’s Big Sulfur-Shooting Gun is thrown to Off (through a series of unfortunate events it would take too long to describe). And what happens? NOTHING! The book ends! There is no “termination shock”! Given the book’s title, I’d say that too is a “discrepancy between the actual and the expected.”d
Now, to be fair, the book doesn’t exactly end when T.R. Schmidt’s Big Sulfur-Shooting Gun falls silent; there’s a coda where all the good rich folks and their service providers chat about what comes next. I don’t think the word “learning” was used but it might well have been. Stephenson in his interview frames TS’s approach:
The answer to that problem is to show realistic characters having realistic arguments about it–which is what would actually happen!
As a rhetorical technique, this form of irony — [insert punting sound here] — is called epitrope:
A figure in which one turns things over to one’s hearers, either pathetically, ironically, or in such a way as to suggest a proof of something without having to state it…. Epitrope can be either biting in its irony, or flattering in its deference.
I guess when I blast through 700 pages in a book called Termination Shock, and then no shock appears — unless you consider the coda shocking — I feel a bit of a letdown.
But let me now employ epitrope myself. Readers, am I being fair to Stephenson? And what do you think of geoengineering?
 Stephenson has done an awful lot of reading for TS, and seems compelled to share it all with us, albeit in his own inimitable style. But some of his sharing doesn’t pass the packthread test. From a review on Reddit:
As a Dutch person, there is some extra fun in assessing how well Stephenson read up on his main character, who happens to be the queen of the Netherlands. At times he is remarkably well researched, at others he is hilariously wrong (Allow me to digress here. The queen lives in Huis ten Bosch, which Stephenson describes as ‘’surrounded by ancient forest”. It’s in the middle of the Hague. It’s a park. He’s clearly not been there, but you wonder how he made the mistake. I googled it, and the first hit describes the park as having ‘’eeuwenoude bomen” (ancient, literally, ‘centuries-old’ trees. Probably two centuries at most, and no-one in their right mind in the Netherlands would describe that as ‘ancient forest’, but you just know Stephenson fell for that).
 Irony is often mistaken for sarcasm, but they are distinct. Irony is not personal, and not meant to be cutting.
 One’s reaction may not be limited to “wry amusement,” of course.