Adrienne Martini Reviews Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson

Termination Shock, Neal Stephenson (William Morrow 978-006-302805-0, $35.00, 720pp, hc), November 2021.

My response to Neal Stephenson’s work tends to be binary – either I want to shove the title into the hands of everyone I know (like The Baroque Cycle) or I want to hurl it far away from everyone I love (like Fall; or Dodge in Hell). No matter which pole a title circles, I will read every last word, just to see if Stephenson can stick the landing and/or because I’m amused by how he puts sentences together. Gauge your reaction to this review accordingly.

Stephenson’s newest, Termination Shock, falls into the former camp. It’s very, very good, if, like the majority of his recent works, very, very long. The 700+ pages skip right by, though, which is a testament to the power of the story. In Termination Shock, Stephenson snips a piece out of the zeitgeist in order to set the plot in motion. This time, 30-50 feral hogs are involved.

Said hogs cause the Queen of the Netherlands’ plane to crash, which puts her in the orbit of Rufus, a wild pig hunter who has more than a few Ahab-ish qualities. The Queen is on her way to meet with a truck-stop magnate who has a cunning plan to save her country (and others below sea level) from climate change-induced floods. Not everyone is on board with this plan, mind. While it would do a heck of a lot of good for some parts of the world, it would make life in other places actively worse. As you may imagine, this causes some conflict.

What works so well in Termination Shock is Stephenson’s ability to craft believable-enough characters and stick them in crises that could be lurking just around the corner. That describes most good speculative fiction, now that I write it down. Stephenson’s writer brain is full of bits of trivia that seem far too odd to be true but turn out to be. In this book, there’s a whole sub-plot involving a border in India whose definition is still somewhat hazy – and that I’d never learned about. That’s not to say no one knows about it, mind, just that it is exactly the sort of bit of trivia I feel like I would have picked up somewhere and was shocked to discover was true. (And, no, I’m not mentioning it so as not to spoil the surprise.)

Stephenson takes that bit about a boundary and adds just enough whimsy to make the scenarios in this sub-plot into something that could only be his. What Stephenson does well is to multiply those sorts of moments and scatter them across hundreds of pages. When it works, as it does here, his work resonates at its own delicious frequency.

Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.

This review and more like it in the December 2021 issue of Locus.

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