In 'Termination Shock,' Neal Stephenson Finally Takes on Global Warming

By Adam Rogers

Over lunch, roughly when we'd started considering dessert, I asked Stephenson how that reception feels. He seemed a little chagrined—and he told me a story that made me think he wasn't sure those guys were in on the joke. When he was writing Snow Crash, Stephenson said, he was living in the Washington, DC, area. Riding the Metro, he'd see mid-level bureaucrat types headed to the Pentagon reading Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October. Even though nobody boiled pots like Clancy, those military-industrial complexifiers—who almost certainly knew better—felt like they were learning something from “those things that annoy literary readers, like, ‘Here's a graf about the performance characteristics of the F/A-18,’” Stephenson says. “It's a utilitarian view of what fiction is supposed to do for its readers that is alien to literary types.”

That might be why Stephenson demurs at the suggestion that he's doing anything other than writing something plausible—that he might be (as I am perhaps hoping, just a little) offering a big fictional engine to power some Silicon Valley dream machine. I get it. Maybe it'd sound pretentious for a modern novelist to say, flat out, that they hoped to inspire social change with their art. But I push back anyway. This is sci-fi, after all. “Examine change” is written into the base code, right? Rotate the story to see it from a different angle, maybe warn against bad outcomes? “To the extent fiction can have a social impact—and I don't think that's the purpose of fiction, by the way, but since you asked—telling a plausible story about how things could develop over the next couple of decades might help,” Stephenson says. “I'm drawn to any kind of scenario where it feels like, here's a plan, here's a thing we can do that can be implemented without restructuring society from the ground up.” And it's the kind of people who engage intensely with his work, the people who that work is about—“people of an engineering mindset, or a roll-up-the-sleeves, problem-solving mindset,” as Stephenson puts it—who are more drawn to those kinds of plans.

He thinks that someone, or some country, is going to try solar geoengineering. Climate change is too big a problem, and geoengineering “is a cheap, easy-to-implement, flawed, controversial approach that sooner or later someone is going to implement,” he says. But he denies that he's pitching a Big Science Billionaire as any kind of solution. It's just a novel. Said billionaire “just does it, without any regulation,” Stephenson says, laughing a bit at his own narrative juke. “That's a bit of a straw man, by design. It's a what-if.”

Still, Stephenson's identification of geoengineering as a Big Vision could have real significance. His superscience this time isn't a metaverse or a space colony. It's engineering to address an imminent threat. After a few years of unrelenting wildfires, hurricanes, disease outbreaks, and other natural disasters linked directly or indirectly to climate change, the idea that the world's preeminent technologists might take up the cause where policymakers seem to have failed is almost hopeful.

It's a big fictional ask, Stephenson says, but no weirder than, say, Isaac Asimov's immutable behavioral laws for robots. It's the kind of preposterousness that makes people wish they could be the heroes, even if our brains tell us the real work will probably involve meetings with Robinson's bankers too. The difference between a novel and a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is that a novel has to take big narrative swings—Stephenson has been advocating for a decade that science fiction embrace its Golden Age techno-optimism, but as inspiration, not polemic. It has to be entertaining, and it can't be propaganda. “One thing that immediately pulls people out of a book is any suggestion that it's an ax-grinder,” he says.

Illustration: RICARDO TOMÁS

In reality, science-hero or whitepaper is a false choice. One of the most vocal researchers on solar geoengineering (and lots of other important climate change technology and policy) is a Harvard physicist named David Keith. He knows Stephenson and doesn't think there's an either-or. “I completely reject your distinction,” Keith says. “The idea that some ideas are policy and some are technical doesn't withstand the first two lectures of a class. No amount of inventing technologies will solve our problem without strong policy, but policy alone can't bring emissions to zero.”

Asking billionaires to save the world is never a good idea, but even today, they aren't exactly uninterested. Elon Musk has a solar power company and an electric car company. Laurene Powell Jobs is investing $3.5 billion in helping communities affected by climate change. Silicon Valley titans help fund Keith's programs. “In going around and pitching this, I've heard everything from very considered views about the politics and the environment to somebody in an office on Sand Hill Road saying, ‘We should just invest in this and take over,’” Keith says. “There's a big spectrum.”