Alongside representatives from low-lying places all around the world, the Queen of the Netherlands is invited to a secret climate conference where an extravagant Texas oil millionaire reveals his plans to save the earth from climate change and rising sea-levels through a giant geo engineering project with a global impact and momentous geopolitical consequences.
First of all, let me say that I think this book has a great premise: it explores the geopolitical implications of global scale geoengineering to counteract climate change only a single generation into our future. That said, while it contains a number of thought-provoking ideas, I think it is let down by its execution somewhat.
This book is remarkable in that it’s middle section is its best. It took me a good eight hours of listening to character introduction and set up, about a third into the book, before the plot started progressing anywhere. While some of that introductory listening was enjoyable, the majority felt entirely superfluous and should probably have been scrapped. Then when the plot gets moving, it progressively moves from plausible to improbable to borderline unbelievable, until by the climax, I was raising eyebrows every other line. I’m not sure how I would have liked the book to end, but this wasn’t it.
The book’s pace is dragged down by Stephenson’s need to describe pretty much everything in detail, whether relevant or not – whether it is character background, the way the big climate device works, a hitchhiking trip to the Himalayas, or the way a certain character stores the spare parts for his drones. It is not that these are all irrelevant, and some of these explanations are interesting vignettes of a world that could be. But Stephenson does not seem to have mastered the art of conveying this kind of information or character depth without breaking the pace of the story.
In addition, the book oozes a need to be relevant: be it literal internet meme references or mentions of Uyghur repression, deepfakes, the storming of the Capitol, or even the Khashoggi killing, the book is constantly showing off how well the writer followed the news the past two years – in ways that seem to make no sense to characters supposedly living some three decades into the future.
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’ 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). What is more, he has his Dutch characters do the very American thing of constantly assessing people, or having them be assessed, by their race – not saying that the Netherlands is never racist, but I feel people with quarter-Indonesian descent are so common here as to be completely unremarkable.
At the end of the day, there are some entertaining scenes and conversation starters in this book, and as a Dutch reader there might be a few more moments of merriment than for readers from elsewhere. But overall I wasn’t particularly impressed with Termination Shock. Especially given its length and how much of a slog the first third of the book was, I would recommend you find something else to read.