The Ironies of Neal Stephenson: Thoughts on His Thriller, Termination Shock

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?[1] 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[2] 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”![3]

(“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:

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?


[1] 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).

[2] Irony is often mistaken for sarcasm, but they are distinct. Irony is not personal, and not meant to be cutting.

[3] One’s reaction may not be limited to “wry amusement,” of course.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Energy markets, Environment, Global warming, Globalization, Guest Post on by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Taki

    I found this book to be the one that makes me finally stop buying his books as a knee-jerk response, though it’s been coming. I thought it was poorly written, and I thought that the politics he espouses in it (which he keeps espousing across many books) about both climate policy and how things will be solved are head-scratching.

    In respect to the writing, his dialog and humans (including aspects like gender issues which he doesn’t even touch and sexuality) feel as if it’s still the 80s. It’s one thing when he’s writing far future or the past, but when this is supposed to be the 15 or so years from now it comes off not just completely tone deaf for missing so much of humanity among his cast but shows a complete laziness to put in any needed work (that’s my most optimistic reasoning for him). Plus the klunky-af data dumps

    In respect to his continued opinion that only the best-and-brightest (disproportionately “successful” business people and members of royalty in many if not most of his books) are the only way to get necessary results is just grotesque and so clearly off the mark. I forget which “genius” center he’s ensconced himself in, but damn, dude, get out of your weird monarcho-libertarian bubble.

    I’d like to offer a book that for me does a much better job all around on the subject of impending climate doom and what might be done in response (especially in terms of geoengineering but also including real world strategies such as eco-terrorism/heroism depending on your take of what he describes… personal jets should not exist and that the people who keep them flying them given what is obvious should fear for their safety is not a radical take to me at this point in time) and that is The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson.

    Granted more of a pastiche effort jumping characters, places and times, but far more openly thoughtful on the subject. When he engages in occasional data dumps at times, they’re not 2-digit page-long digressions each time. But he really tackles the possibilities, not just from a scientific stance but theorizing how our political and social institutions might play a part. And above all, Thompson recognizes that the select few are the impediment, not the place where the solution will be coming from with magical technological potions. Finally, and most baffling to me, despite not sugar-coating anything Robinson’s attempts at plotting possible trajectories in response to a scenario that he admits won’t be improving any time soon feels both grounded in reality and yet also giving of some optimism to me and to other friends who were/are huge Stephenson fans who also read both these books and reacted similarly to me in this regard.

    All of this clearly is my opinion, and only asserted as my opinion. But man, has Stephenson taken progressively greater drops in quality and interest for me over the past decade-plus in breadth and depth. I read Termination Shock a few months before Ministry, for what it’s worth.

    1. RoadDoggie

      Thanks Taki, I am about to go out to the mailbox to grab Ministry, can’t wait to start it now.

    2. Mike Mc

      Agree 100 percent. The Ministry for the Future is a challenging read – KSR’s fictive style requires the reader to pay attention – but incredibly rewarding. I need to read more of his earlier work though I enjoyed 2312 a lot.

      Stephenson’s last engaging novel was Reamde. I bought Fall/Dodge In Hell which frankly was all over the map, and while entertaining, seemed like two or even three novels jammed into one big mess.

      His earlier works brought him fame (and hopefully fortune) but now he’s either coasting or just winging it.

      Full disclosure – began reading sci fi in the mid to late 1960s; had at one point nearly everything Robert A. Heinlein published, as well as Asimov and others.

      1. ChrisPacific

        I didn’t like Reamde as a book, even though it was quite readable and I finished it. He’s still an excellent writer and I thought a lot of the passages and the characters were fantastic (the long-suffering manager in the intelligence services, for example) but it just seemed to lack a point, or a coherent narrative. The ‘bad guys’ were only in the book at all because of an accident of circumstance, and most of the rest of it just seemed to revolve around them being stereotypically evil. That he decided to make their leader an erudite black Welshman just made the whole thing even less believable. If we’re supposed to be impressed by him, why is his group muddling around all the time without a plan beyond being evil?

        He’s so good at the observational passages and the humor that I can forgive him a lot (even a book I thought was bad was still fun to read) but I do think he suffers for want of something to say much of the time.

        1. some guy

          I once met someone in real life who described himself as being half Black and half Welsh. To the untrained eye ( like mine) he would have ( did ) appear to be Black. I can’t remember if he said his mother was Afro-African or Afro-American, but his father was Welsh.

          He attributed his love of drinking and fighting to his father.

          The strongest evidence that something is possible is if it has happened, so I am prepared to believe in the possibility of a Black Welshman.

          1. ChrisPacific

            I have no problem believing in that either, but the context was problematic in this case. Much like I have no issue believing in Islamic extremists, but might have great difficulty accepting a fictional world in which one was a US senator (for example). At a minimum I’d expect some explanation for it that was relevant to the story.

          2. PM

            The South Wales ports were the hub for the Caribbean banana trade, back in the day, and a major point of entry for Afro-Carribean immigrants (pre-Windrush). Consequently there are a lot of black/Welsh people in that part of the world – the most famous example is probably Dame Shirley Bassey.

            Beyond that, however, and speaking from personal experience, a former colleague, born in Jamaica to Afro-Caribbean parents, was raised and educated in Wales, and consequently speaks better Welsh than I (whose family goes back to at least the 18th century).

          3. GramSci

            My great grandfather-in-law led a colorful life as an English sailor. Henry Peters was from Cornwall, but Welsh/Celtic on his mother’s side. After the british Navy began interdicting slavers, Henry began to operate an inn-cum-Napoleon museum on St. Helena. After his first wife died he married a freed slave Helena. Henry and Selena eventually found their way to Boston. My wife’s family regularly remembered several ‘Black Irish’ uncles.

    3. Aaron

      I second Ministry for the Future. Bought it on a whim last summer because I found Robinsons Mars Trilogy such a gripping read. Robinson has a very realistic view on the limits and dangers of technology, space travel and geoengineering included. Plus the opening scene in India is so f**ing visceral that it may be able to penetrate the minds of people suck with their heads in the sand.

    4. Joe Well

      Big contrast between Ministry of the Future and TS: India plays a pivotal role in both, but in the MoF, they are the ones shooting sulfur into the air to the consternation of the world, while in the second, they are the ones stopping the shooting of sulfur into the air.

      Other contrasts:

      1. MoF is barely a novel at all, more like a series of essays in fictional form with some plot for a support.

      2. The UN plays an implausibly enormous role in MoF. The jet set plays that implausible role in TS.

      3. In, TS, the US has become an implausibly failed state unable to secure itself from invasion in just 14 years from now.

      4. Both fail to consider the possibility of actual violent revolutions. This is a very PMC-y world.

      5. Both are written by wildly revered American senior citizen (ok, Stephenson is only 63 but still) men who did an admirable job of connecting with the broader world of today, but still their love for royalty and the UN feels anachronistic.

      1. c_heale

        Have to say about Ministry, the protagonists are underwritten and weak. It’s more of an ideas book than anything else. I feel it could have done with another round of editing and some more protagonist characters to carry the story along.

        Am reading The Waterknife – although a basic thriller, it has some strengths that MotF doesn’t have, especiall the chararacters.

  2. Socal Rhino

    I remained a fan of Stephenson until Seven Eves. Seems to me he’s increasingly bought into the Silicon Valley worldview and lost some vital quality. Not really tempted to open this one, I’m more likely to reread the Baroque Cycle again.

    1. John

      I am pleased that others reread the Baroque Cycle. Rereading Cryptonomicon is also a great idea. I liked portions of Termination Shock, but to me it is not as satisfying as his earlier novels. The recent reports of the rapid spread of feral hogs makes one wonder if/when that runway collision will actually occur.

      The reduction is SO2 emissions looks like a mistake if one wants to keep temperature rise as low as possible “as we strive for more permanent solutions.” I have little to no faith that there will be such at least until the important people are discommoded. Of course, that won’t happen until it is too late for us “deplorables.”

  3. RoadDoggie

    So I just finished up Seven Eves last month. Will you do a review of that? It’s… weird? I guess weird is a good way to describe my feelings of it.

    Same kind of gist to what I think you’re describing here, except when it was written technology leaders were popularly seen as geniuses(not opportunist capitalists) and Stevenson was an optimist. It makes for a really weird experience reading it now 3 years into ‘rona while I watch sea surface temperature hit new highs.

    It also finished on a weird note, with what felt like another two books worth of story left to be told, untold. I assume that’s intentional and just how he is writing now? But I remember reading Snow Crash and The Diamond Age when I was young and not feeling at all like I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    Anyway, thats my long winded way of saying, thanks for the review. Sounds like a Neal Stevenson book, which means I will also tear through it rapidly like you did. I’ll put it on order and read it after I get done with Ministry for the Future.

    1. Joe Well

      Seveneves was two books in one, and the second book was so totally different from the first, a whole different sub-genre of SF, I just could not get past the first few pages.

      But the Hillary Clinton character was amazing, one of Stephenson’s best bits of satire.

  4. aleph_0

    I felt similarly reading Diamond Age. To me, the book just ends while in motion. Not in a particularly ironic way, or anything. It felt like a chapter was missing from the end. It felt like there’s an implication brought by what he’s exploring that he doesn’t want to or can’t face, somehow. I get a similar vibe from what you’re saying here.

    I stopped reading him after that, even though I do adore Snow Crash. I heard good things about the Baroque Cycle, but I never got around to it.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > an implication brought by what he’s exploring that he doesn’t want to or can’t face, somehow. I get a similar vibe from what you’re saying here.

      Yes. I’m an English major! I should be able to put something together about any book (and especially one about an author with whose work I am familiar). And yet TS really frustrated me, so something is really off….

  5. ambrit

    I read it last year and found it a “ripping yarn.”
    It struck me as more of a picquaresque novel. The whole did not become more than the sum of the parts.
    If “Termination Shock” had been paired with “The Ministry For The Future,” we might have had something marvelous. Both deal with subversive movements trying to literally save the world. It actually hearkens back to the Heinlein type of ‘Rugged Individualist’ (who happens to be totally dependent on some nebulous rich f—) making his or her way in the wicked fallen world. Where is the civic engagement here? The problems being faced are societal in scope and yet we are expected to suspend our disbelief enough to accept that some hardy individuals can solve such world encompassing problems. As I said earlier, the parts do not add up to a coherent whole.
    I guess we are Doomed. (Cue ominous music.)

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Where is the civic engagement here? The problems being faced are societal in scope and yet we are expected to suspend our disbelief enough to accept that some hardy individuals can solve such world encompassing problems. As I said earlier, the parts do not add up to a coherent whole.

      Perhaps that the source of my “nebulous sense of frustration”: I am no longer willing to suspend my disbelief for the sort of fictional payoff that Stephenson can deliver. Hard to get the correct register if your project has the wrong scope entirely.

      LeGuin’s The Dispossessed is at least partly “clifi” when you think about the discrepancy between Urras (well-watered, fertile) and Annarres (near desert). And the book ends with epitrope in a coda, as Shevek returns to face his people, outcome unknown. However, before the coda, Shevek has provoked a revolution on Urras. That revolution is missing from TS.

      1. ambrit

        Good point about the “nebulous” nature of the general reader’s engagement with a didactic novel.
        I say didactic here with the observation that these recent examples of the SciFiers Art (SFA) twist the usual expository nature of Science Fiction, as in “Houston, we have a problem,” into a didactic nature, “Houston, here’s how we solve the problem.”
        The earlier, explanatory SciFi style, (pronounced as per Frank Herbert, “Cee Fee,”) could be as densely written and plotted or as loosely done as the writer’s art and technique can handle. The latter, ‘Save the Wails’ style has stricter standards. To come across as possible, or worthy of that “willing suspension of disbelief,” the means, methods, and institutional capacities of the protagonists must be up to the task set in the plot.
        Secondarily, using the theory that “Simple is better” in literature, (with some notable exceptions, such as Henry James, Philip K Dick, or Thomas Pynchon,) economy of plot runs counter to these basic “World is in Serious Danger” narratives. Going a step further, and somewhat in defense of Gibson, Stephenson, et. al., one can argue that such a wide ranging subject necessarily implies a chaos theory style of writing. There can be simply too much happening in the imaginary world to allow for a manageable book. At this point, I think that a good writer would sit back and pare the work back to a major sub-plot element. Think, “The Adventures of Gwendoline at the End of the World: The Topless Racetrack.”
        Still, that’s my Neverending Story, and I’m sticking to it.
        Be safe, when and where ever you may be in the book.

        1. John

          Other than as story tellers, I think of Herbert, LeGuin, Robinson, Gibson, Stephenson, and even Callenbach of Ecotopia as on the order of criers in the wilderness. It is an old genre. I recall a story of a man who invents a roofing material, tiles of some sort that satisfy most needs for energy with the result that he is pursued by all the power producers because his invention puts them out of business,(I do not recall the denouement.) Here wwe are and those whose “rice bowls” are endangered do whatever they can to slow down, if not stop, change.

          1. ambrit

            The Ealing Studios 1951 film “The Man in the White Suit” does that theme to perfection. In it Alec Guinness is a “boffin” who invents a fabric that stays clean and wears forever. Hijinks ensue.
            A real life version of the theme is the story of the Louisiana man who invented the guillotine carburetor. It was much more efficient than the older style butterfly carburetor. The manufacturers of the older style machine paid him handsomely for the patent, and it was not seen again for the life of the patent. Alas, Google has become so truly execerable that I cannot find a link to my Robber Baron thesis.
            The Cynic in me asks if this could be a “back door” means of ‘dumbing down’ the population sufficiently to allow for “Rule From Above?”
            Anyway, the Ealing film is worth a look. It hails from when Cynicism was alive and well in Western culture.
            Stay safe, (but I don’t have to tell you that, you already do your best to so do.)

  6. Jeremy Grimm

    I feel like a fifth century Roman daily looking apprehensively past the city gates. The fanciful world of Gibson in the Peripheral — I still have not been able to attempt Agency — hardly represents the future I see looking past the gate — nano-tech miracles seem very farfetched to me. I have not yet read Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Ministry For The Future” but it is on my list. After reading this post I doubt I will bother with Stephenson’s latest.

    To me the future looks more like the future in the movie “the Road”, utterly grim but without the cannibalism and without the happy civilized refuge at the end. I suppose sci-fi without gee whiz new technologies would seem rather dull … but I believe these times call for speculative fiction that more closely adheres to some sense of the possible and real. We face very hard times and I am afraid that miracles will be in very short supply.

  7. bassmule

    The Baroque Trilogy is still awesome. The mixing of colonial American English with Silicon Valley lingua franca is still hilarious.

  8. VT Digger

    His libertarianism lets him down every time. Too wordy, and vaguely racist for my taste. (Seven eves, Diamond age, Anathem)

    The Geddy Lee of sci-fi authors.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > His libertarianism lets him down every time.

      Perhaps that was played out in Snow Crash and Cryptnomicon, and now imprisons rather than liberates him, stylistically and thematically, and he doesn’t know it.

      1. Late Introvert

        Interesting. I have only read those two, and the latter was where I decided I did not need more books by him. It was too Wired for me?

  9. Ghost in the Machine

    The result of shipping reducing sulfur is not unexpected. Here is a NOVA program called Dimming the Sun, required for a climate class I took last year. Sorry I don’t provide a link, that invariably results in my post not making it.

    Dimming the Sun
    NOVA reports on the discovery that the amount of sunlight reaching Earth is dropping – a big surprise given international concern over global warming. Less sunlight might hardly seem to matter when our planet is stewing in greenhouse gases, but the discovery of global dimming has led some scientists to claim that the earth’s climate is heating up much faster than most previous predictions.
    Directed by Duncan Copp ; produced by David Sington
    Editors, Horacio Queiro, David Fairhead ; camera, Piet De Vries, Mark Molesworth, Clive North ; original music, Judith Edelman.
    Narrated by Kathryn Walker.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Not sure how to read your comment: “…the discovery of global dimming has led some scientists to claim that the earth’s climate is heating up much faster than most previous predictions.” That does not make sense to me. With or without solar dimming the earth’s climate is heating up. Hansen’s latest informational email: “El Nino and Global Warming Acceleration”, 14 June 2023,
      “…there has been a staggering increase in Earth’s energy imbalance…”
      “About 90% of the change of Earth’s energy imbalance (EEI) is change of the heat content of the ocean…”
      As far as I know, the decrease in insolation — solar dimming — is small in relation to other drivers of the ongoing anthropogenic climate transition.

      And what does Nova’s special have to do with Neal Stephenson’s book?

      1. Ghost in the Machine

        I haven’t read termination shock, but from the comments I have been reading it is about the abrupt cessation of Geo engineered climate mitigation. This is a topic that is of concern to people talking about Geo engineering. It’s a resource intensive endeavor that shields us from the effects of our pollution as long as we keep up a high energy intervention. Global dimming is a result of all of the particulate pollution that we’ve been putting in the atmosphere from things like shipping that has been shielding us from the full effects of the heating resulting from carbon dioxide pollution. Like geoengineering. As that goes away, we will see accelerated heating. We might be seeing that this year actually as a result of new shipping regulations, especially in the N Atlantic. Those who have been trying to highlight the Effects of global dimming are arguing that we will see a kind of “termination shock” as we clean up some of our particulate pollution. I may be misinterpreting NS’s title.

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          My understanding of solar dimming, caused by processes internal to the sun, is what occurs over a very long term and results in the initiation of ice ages. If you will recall, there was concern some years before, that the Earth could be entering a new Ice Age. However, the dimming of insolation was swamped by many other human impacts on the environment. The global dimming from particulate pollution is not the same as solar dimming due to the millennially periodic variations in the sun’s insolation. Particulates are a feature of the Earth’s atmosphere, and though they may block the sun’s energy inflows to the Earth, they have nothing to do with the Sun.

          Geoengineering using particulates to modify how much of the sun’s insolation reaches and affects Earth is NOT global dimming as I understand the usage of that term.

          Yes, there is concern that we could see a significant increase in the temperatures we see as a consequence of reductions in the particulates from dirty burning processes given reductions in the rate of the dirty burning of sulfured diesel and other petroleum products producing particulates. Global dimming is NOT the same as solar dimming.

      2. some guy

        I think the surprise and concern over the solar dimming is because . . . if everything else is working together to heat the Surfacesphere as much as it is even with a dimmed sun, what happens if / when the sun gets undimmed and the incoming sunlight is allowed to increase?

        I read someone speculating somewhere that if we had a global recession deep and long enough to reduce particulate pollution all over the world’s atmosphere, that the rate of retained-heat buildup would start increasing much faster from all the unscreened sunlight reaching the surface.

        I do remember during the Covid Year One vast reduction in Air Travel, that the sunlght seemed stronger to me and others down here at ground level in the month of May.

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          Solar dimming is swamped by the effects of Anthropogenic warming … and cooling, like the ups and downs of particulate pollution as Humankind increases and decreases its use of fossil fuels, most all of which add particulates to the atmosphere in proportion to their use — as well as CO2 and other pollutants. If you are worried about the ups and downs of solar warming as a consequence of the many variables including solar dimming, particulate solar dimming, Air Travel ups and downs, and whatever else I can imagine occupies your concerns … … worry about when the polar ice caps melt in the Summer. That is a much more concerning worry. AND do not forget that the rise of the Oceans is very much related to the increase in water’s volume as the temperature increases.

  10. Jessica

    Unmentioned by our commentariat so far, I recommend Stephenson’s Anathem. The first half is a brilliant examination of the relationship between the folks with special knowledge (in this case, both scientists and mystics) and everyone else. The second half is just entertaining sci-fi, but to me, the first half asks the question “what if the Butlerian jihad goes after not only the thinking machines but also the thinkers who created them”.
    Termination Shock left little impression on me. That’s not a good sign. I loved the Peripheral, but not Agency.
    The Gibson I remember most is a non-fiction interview in which he said that bohemias were experimental laboratories for new lifestyles for the middle-class (i.e. the anti-bohemians). I disliked that intensely, but came to see it as true. In an age in which bohemianism has been Invasion of the Body Snatcher-ed like the political left, where does that leave Gibson?

  11. mb

    Stephenson’s tech-bro libertarianism rubs me the wrong way, but I still read his books. Termination Shock rates far down the list, right next to Dodge in Hell: a few good moments sprinkled into unremarkable stuff. Gibson and Robinson are much better at capturing these themes.

  12. Jessica

    Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is the best presentation of the whole humans living on Mars notion. More than enough details to make it feel believable (even if the science says otherwise). I enjoy that kind of stuff and have been disappointed with KSR putting his considerable talents in the service of “No, we humans can’t do great things. We are overmatched”. (Aurora) I found Ministry for the Future fascinatingly ambiguous. On the one hand, he does successfully portray humanity getting at least something of a handle on climate change. On the other hand, and this seems to often go unremarked, the success against climate change depends almost completely on a wildly successful campaign of terrorism against the elites that the elites basically take sitting down. I understand that choice for a writer. A realistic description of the counter-attack would turn the book from sci-fi into horror, but I found the passivity of the entire global elites very hard to believe. So much so that I basically gave him a pass on his hand-wavium that an end had come to the current attempt to forge India into a more unified nation-state by means of hatred for Muslims and Dalits (roughly 30% of the population).

    1. Ghost in the Machine

      I thought Aurora was a much more realistic assessment on interstellar travel. And even it was probably optimistic. He was criticized for this novel for challenging the ridiculous fantasies of the Silicon Valley types. We have to save the human friendly ecosystems of this planet in which we evolved. There is no escape. Childish fantasies. As George Carlin noted: the Planet will survive just fine. But humans.. maybe not.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        > We have to save the human friendly ecosystems of this planet in which we evolved. There is no escape. Childish fantasies. As George Carlin noted: the Planet will survive just fine. But humans.. maybe not.

        Yes on both counts. I am long on life. Homo sapient life, sadly, is another matter. (Amazonia is an entirely different path that we could take. Not such a bad life….)

        1. ambrit

          The Amazonia option is, shall we say, limiting in it’s very nature. That idea presupposes a manageable population to carrying capacity match. To reach that state, The Jackpot is a necessity, not a theory or an experiment. Here we could go down the Rabbit Hole of ZPG, or The White Plague.

          1. Kouros

            Robert Sawyer, the Canadian writer, has imagined a parallel earth in his Hominid Paralax, with the Neanderthals having won the intelligence/dominance race, but went to an absolute control of the population.

            Houses made in the trunks of ancient trees, eating raw mammoth meat while being chaperoned by individual AIs whispering in each one’s ears while recording every moment of one’s life and dumping it on extremely well protected servers that could be checked (subpoenaed) in extreme circumstances. I love that level of transparency…

          2. some guy

            I have read that the Indigenous Amazonian population was about 6 million or so people before the Great European Germocaust.

  13. Acacia

    Sounds like you may be talking about dramatic irony, as opposed to verbal irony. In any case, thanks much for this review.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > dramatic irony, as opposed to verbal iron

      Yes, I found some typologies of irony, but I was pressed temporally :-) However, the key characteristic — “discrepancy between the actual and the expected” — is common to them all.

      1. Acacia

        There is of course Kierkegaard’s thesis on the concept of irony, but the book I have found most helpful is the slightly obscure The Art of Satire by David Worcester. It includes two meaty chapters on irony, with many examples covering all the standard divisions in literary and narrative form. Available at archive dot org.

  14. playon

    Having read 90% of the books mentioned, I would have to agree with most of the critiques here. The first Stephenson book I ever read was Snow Crash (listened to the audio book version rather than reading it, it was very well done) but everything I’ve read from him since has been a letdown in comparison. Read Termination Shock and several others but nothing stuck with me the way Snow Crash did. For whatever reason I could not get into Cryptonomicon at all and didn’t finish it. I generally prefer William Gibson’s work, I enjoy his idea of humor more than Stephenson’s I suppose. I thought that The Ministry for the Future was a great…

    1. John

      In my opinion, Gibson’s spare writing style is superior to Stephenson’s more detailed and full descriptive method. Baroque Cycle is close to 3,000 pages. Take any two of Gibson’s trilogies and they do not come within a country mile or two of that yet Gibson presents a fully realized world. The reader is left to fill,in the details. That said I am partial to Randall and Randy Waterhouse and their Baroque Cycle forebears. The Shaftoes also breed true across the centuries. That said, when I first picked up The Peripheral, I had moments of thinking was it fiction or had I missed last month’s news. Gibson is a close student of the present, which he then tweaks just a bit.

      I would also bet that he rewrites and edits then rewrites and edits again. His chapters are like successive shot setups in a screen play. Wish I could do that even one-thenth as well as he does.

  15. Kouros

    Geo-engineering?! Haven’t been trying it already for hundreds and hundreds of years? At greater and greater scales. All this Sulphur treatment to cool the planet might as well bring us closer to living on Venus – very hot with acid rains. Who would have thought?!

    Branco Milanovic had recently published an article on wealth inequality. As in the wealth of the rising middle classes in Asia and other parts (i.e. Russia), is eating into the purchasing power of the poorer westerners.

    With everyone clamoring for a better life and the associated car (see The Three Days of the Condor), reducing greenhouse gases seems like an ever vanishing dream after waking up in the morning.

    But maybe we’ll have a self induced Jackpot, through senescence and childless deaths. I really wonder how was living in the 700 AD Rome, in a city reduced 10-20 times in population…. The thing is, Roman mortar has proven more resilient that any modern construction materials…

    However, nature might rebound given one two hundred years of peace. The main question remains. Will we eat the rich, in a last feast, the way Jared Diamond describes some Pacific islanders eating their pigs, because they were not sustainable?

  16. John

    And what do you think of geoengineering? I have not read through all the comments yet. Someone, no doubt, said this already. It is a finger in the dike. Pulling the finger out of the dike leads to termination shock.

    I do not think there is a solution that includes the continuation of our industrial civilization and closing that down points to a large reduction in population. The end of the human race? Probably not and the planet will be just fine in the long run. The natural warm and cold cycles are tens and hundreds of thousands of years in length. That is a but much especially for the crowd that thinks in terms of the next quarter.

  17. Joe Well

    The characters in this book were less memorable because it is like a response to all the criticism that his books have become too sprawling and he needs something more tightly plotted. So the characters took a backseat to plot. Also, too many characters for the length of the book, which is a pamphlet by Stephenson’s standards.

  18. John R

    Stephenson certainly knows how to open a novel with a bang (esp. Seven Eves & the moon “event”), and then I have to fortify myself to get through the remaining 900+ pages. Nonetheless he’s one of my favorite sci-fi writers, with Cryptonomicon at the top. The Fall also had a great opening in the first few chapters and I like the topics it engages with, but I couldn’t finish it. (This American Life aired a great story on early cryogenics efforts in the US in an episode titled, “Mistakes Were Made.”)

    My creative writing friends and I are split on the merits of another speculative sci-fi writer, Paolo Baciga. I thought his depiction of Western US water shortages in The Water Knife was very good, and The Windup Girl is an impressive world-building effort IMO.

    Thanks for the Ministry of the Future rec; I listened to KSR’s Aurora on a 16-hour drive between Florida & Texas, and I loved his depiction of the precarity of life on a generational starship.

  19. Fastball

    Setting aside the book and the author, the only way to safely address climate change is by removing CO2 from the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels. And removing too much is itself unsafe. There are a variety of ways to achieve this.

    My way would be to bioengineer a plant or a microbe that would do it for us by increasing CO2 uptake by an order of magnitude, converting the CO2 into calcium carbonate, but which would die when CO2 levels were too low to sustain it. The amount of calcium required for such an effort would be astounding but that is a discussion for another day.

    IMO, industrial non biological geoengineering is mind bogglingly unsafe. Every method is unsafe.

    Keep in mind, geoengineering is TERRAFORMING by another word. When you try to terraform a world like Mars, you are starting with an essentially dead planet. If you make a catastrophic mistake, that is a catastrophe for science. When you try to terraform the earth, one sufficiently serious mistake and you destroy all life on the planet.

  20. MFB

    Haven’t read the book, but it has seemed to me that Stephenson’s trajectory was downwards from Snow Crash — books got longer and longer with too much dire geeky nonsense and massive assumptions about how the world worked which I didn’t share.

    The Ministry for the Future is basically boosterist liberalism, which is a bit off-putting because what I’ve always liked about Robinson was his Marxism. I don’t think the world is going to be saved by the Indian Air Force — I’ve done the math and they can’t get enough sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to make a difference.. Also Robinson has kept enough of his Marxism to believe that a class will save us, but unfortunately he’s decided it will be the ruling class. I see little sign of that. Aurora is a long farewell note to technological developmentalism — but rather well done and in my opinion up there with the Mars trilogy.

    If it wasn’t going to be taken over by gangsters who will use it as a way to steal money from the rest of us while accelerating the destruction of the ecosphere, geoengineering might be something worth thinking about. As it is, geoengineering is simply a flag which denotes “Kill anyone who supports this evil!”.

    By the way, for a novel which combines a hideous dystopian future with a horrible moral message about the future of humanity in a cyborged world where nature has been obliterated, I’d recomment Adam Roberts’ Purgatory Mount.

  21. Flibbitygibbit

    I read REAMDE. It was bollocks. Gun worshipping nonsense, with Canada being treated with the same pseudo expertise as presumably the Netherlands is in his latest tome. In REAMDE, a British agent from Hong Kong gets special treatment in Canada because Commonwealth. Yeah, sure. All the Asians are hot babes and all the Muslims are terrorist rapists.

    It took ~200 years of industrial revolution to geo-engineer (ie wreck) our climate.
    Shooting SO2 bombs into the sky is going to cause unexpected consequences. For one thing it’s poisonous.
    And blaming global warming on the reduction of sulfur in bunker C oil is preposterous.

    Eco-modernism is fine in sci-fi, but who exactly is going to stop warring long enough to devote the resources to build that giant space umbrella in time to save the planet?

Comments are closed.