So when I picked up Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock, I was at first thinking of it as being in the Reamde mold, a mostly non-SFnal present-day thriller. But the more I read it, the more I realized that in fact, it was doing what Cryptonomicon did way back in the day: Taking society’s present occupations and concerns, lightly extrapolating, and fitting them into an SF adventure story.

So just as Cryptonomicon was really thinking about money and cryptography and open-source software and dot-com startups—basically all stuff you could read about in any issue of Wired—and tying it all into an expedition through the Phillippines, Termination Shock is about feral hogs, climate change, Covid, self-driving cars, social media celebrity—basically all stuff you could read about on Twitter—and tying it into an expedition through the wilds of a declining America.

As it happens, I think that the preoccupations of the ‘90s were more interesting than the preoccupations of today, so the book suffers somewhat in comparison (and of course, it doesn’t have the WW2 timeline in it at all), but still: This is vintage Stephenson in a lot of ways, for better and worse.

One of the “and worse” points is that the characters here are mostly very passive. They do a lot of sight-seeing, just going to places where significant things are occurring but not necessarily doing anything. This inevitably gives the book a bit of a travelogue feeling. But… the things they’re seeing are largely interesting, and for me at least, it works. (There are also, of course, enormous huge digressions—the feral hog thing takes up a surprisingly large section of the book—but if you’re deliberately reading Stephenson, I assume that’s a plus for you.)

It’s probably over-selling it to say that this is Stephenson back to his prime, but it’s definitely a solid step up from Fall. Recommended to fans of Stephenson.


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