Deniable plausibility

I’ve been on a mission recently to catch up with the output of two of my favourite writers, Kim Stanley Robinson and Neal Stephenson. With Termination Shock, Stephenson makes a foray into territory more usually to be associated with Robinson—which is to say that the book is a piece of near-future climate fiction. Like Robinson’s most recent, The Ministry For The Future, it looks at the use of sulphur dioxide in climate engineering, features characters both close to and far from the decision making involved, and sets parts of its action in South Asia. However, it is very much a Neal Stephenson book, which means that it lacks the stern ethical core of a Robinson novel, swapping it out for a slathering of monumentally self-indulgent fun. Unlikely characters with unlikely interests and unlikely personal habits abound, ranging from a reigning monarch to a wild boar hunter on a mission of vengeance.

Its near-future setting means that the story takes place in a very recognisable world, but it is one in which Stephenson is free to imagine the application in technology of ideas that are very much theoretical (or at most aspirational) at present. For example, developments in mathematics and in processing power may well lead to the use of explosives in ways that exploit harmonic resonance, summing the wavefronts of blasts from a large number of minor detonations to create massive damage—Stephenson deploys this theoretical possibility gleefully. In fact, this kind of swarm technology is a recurring theme in the book, in which drones also play a major part, and could be related to its thematic content. Although particular powerful or audacious people do particular dramatic or impactful things, I think it’s fair to say that no character’s agency extends to driving the events that unfold in Stephenson’s typically rococo plot: instead the big picture is an emergent property of many overlapping interests, none of which is unequivocally served by the events that proceed from their interventions.

Although there are a variety of technological goodies in play, for the most part they could be excised without fundamentally undermining the narrative. There is, for example, a kind of cybernetically enhanced super-spy in the story, but he could as well be a fairly run-of-the-mill type saboteur—his high-tech aspects are largely there for their entertainment value. So if I was in the business of assigning the books I read to a strict taxonomy, I’d classify this as more of a near-future technothriller than as science fiction or cli-fi (as the cool kids are apparently calling climate fiction now). If there is a really speculative element to the novel, it is asking what kinds of things are likely to be done with the technologies that are currently on the horizon, rather than asking a big SF question along the lines of ‘if X was totally different, then what?’

Stephenson’s answers are plausible ones. Plausibility is an interesting value when considered in relation to any of Stephenson’s work: here, as elsewhere, the book is very plausible in close-up. Its characters are well drawn, and believably idiosyncratic; its technologies are exactly what people are currently trying to develop; its politics are firmly grounded in the politics we see in the news every day; it is meticulously well-researched in terms of the culture and geography of the places in which it is set. But as is usually the case, the overarching structure is completely bonkers, the plot a precarious contrivance that would be far too elaborate to survive the vagaries of real-world causality, and far too enjoyable for the reader to be ‘taken seriously’. I do not believe that Stephenson ever wishes to be ‘taken seriously’; there is far too great an element of wish-fulfilment in all of his writing. In this respect he’s like the late, lamented Iain (M.) Banks, who seemed to start every novel with an unspoken ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…?’ So here it is: another riot of invention, techno-fetishism, astute analysis, and intricate plotting. I don’t think this will enter the canon of Stephenson’s landmark books, but it’s hugely enjoyable.

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