What’s an author to do? The vocal elements of the Neal Stephenson fan club (by which, I naturally mean the NS subreddit) are fans of works like Anathem, and would really prefer that he just do high-concept Science Fiction. The inevitable risk of that approach, of course, is an author feeling hemmed in and at the mercy of a format they may feel they have nothing more to say about.
Stephenson has never constrained himself to one format – although I won’t deny he has themes – and is as comfortable, it appears in alternative (perhaps I should say enhanced) history as he is in cyberpunk, steampunk, high concept SF or – as here – rip-roaring, fast-paced techno-thrillers.
Approaching this book requires of me a discussion of a previous couple of Stephenson books. REAMDE (sic) is the natural comparison to this one – a globe-trotting wild ride of a thing, with a cast of thousands and various mysterious machinations confounding our many protagonists. It’s fair to say it divides fans, and – as it followed the polished and enigmatic Anathem, is probably still seen as something of a lesser work. The immediate predecessor to Termination Shock was the sprawling and (to these eyes) somewhat unfocussed Fall: or Dodge in Hell, which I think I found unsatisfying precisely because I had enjoyed REAMDE so much – the next chapter in the story of ‘Dodge’ Forthrast was set in two entirely different universes, and perhaps would have been better served as two entirely different books.
So it is with some relief that I can report that this book takes the REAMDE template and applies it to the ongoing and probably too late to fix climate emergency. It does this by stripping things back to a more manageable cast of protagonists, and keeping its eyes – more or less – firmly on the problem in front of them all. It rattles along satisfyingly, and addresses my issues with Fall by keeping the two parts of the story on a clearly predetermined collision course, while obscuring the connection until the last possible moment. The enormous set-piece at the end is therefore almost entirely satisfying as a payoff to both strands, and is much more realistic and under control than the end of REAMDE, which is, frankly, exhausting to read.
There’s an ‘almost’ in that last paragraph, though. I have no idea if this is true, but it seems to me that a lot of the second half of the book was worked back from the finale, with the result that some threads just fade out – on character in particular, who has been a key part of the action so far, simply says “no” when asked if he’s going to the scene of the finale, and that’s the last we hear of him – we’ve just spent a significant amount of time extricating him from danger and setting up the antagonists to his story, and then – well, he’d have complicated things, so we just stop worrying about him.
Abrupt endings are, of course, one of the things Stephenson is famous for, and while the last few books suggest he’s taken that particular criticism on board, he’s still not averse to just chucking things overboard when they stop working. He also cannot help himself from inserting every single piece of research he’s done into the text, whether we want it or not, which does lead to an excess of telling when he could be showing, but that’s what a Neal Stephenson novel looks like, so there’s no point getting upset about that.
So, it’s a bit flabby, with several characters ushered off stage at the end without proper resolutions, and suffers from the usual amounts of tell don’t show. Why does it get such a high score, then?
Mainly because it’s enormous fun. I think sometimes we (and I’m definitely guilty of this) try to peer too hard behind the scenes, and forget to just let go and enjoy the ride. Just like REAMDE, this is a book which doesn’t repay close analysis; it’s intended to entertain you while making its point – in this case that governments will never do anything about the climate emergency, and anyone who tries may well just make things worse. It starts with the Queen of the Netherlands crashing her private jet into a stampede of wild pigs, and builds from there.
Sure, there are parts where the plot flaps around a bit, but it pulls everything together at the end and delivers a proper ending.
I’m probably biased because Neal Stephenson is one of my favourite authors, but there’s a lot to enjoy here, and I can cheerfully overlook any number of Stephenson tropes as long as the ride is fun. I put Fall down with a sense of mild disappointment; there was no danger of that here.