Neal Stephenson and “Termination Shock”: Highlights of an Author Event

Stephen Lee
5 min readNov 22, 2021

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I attended a great event featuring author Neal Stephenson and organized by Anderson’s Book Shop, and I wanted to share some highlights for those of you who might be interested (I used to be a reporter and took some handwritten notes during the talk).

The November 21, 2021 event began with a roughly 30-minute presentation in which Neal Stephenson discussed research and ideas that informed his new book, Termination Shock, which explores a big idea for reversing global warming in the not-too-distant future.

He began by discussing volcanic eruptions that led to climate change in the form of global cooling that disrupted. Specifically, he mentioned:

He cited the political effects of climate change (particularly global cooling) over time, citing the Roman empire and the Vikings, as well as George R.R. Martin for a fictional example (and the phrase “winter is coming”).

He discussed concerns about modern politics, noting the ongoing problems with getting Covid under control. Specifically regarding climate change, he discussed how recent negotiations over limiting carbon emissions will just reduce the rate of increase of carbon, and how “net zero” emissions will hold the amount of carbon at a level far above the levels from the 19th century.

He discussed “wet bulb disasters,” conditions of high temperature and high humidity that will make it difficult if not impossible to be outside. He cited Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, which opens with a wet bulb disaster involving death on a massive scale.

He said that carbon-capture technology has to be built on a massive scale, and that we have to do this fast. He said that the good news was that 100 years from now, the problem will be solved. The bad news, he said, is that it will take decades to solve the problem and that we will suffer multiple disasters first.

Given all this, he questioned whether geoengineering ideas that might seem dangerous now may seem dangerous when dealing with disasters resulting in mass fatalities. “Danger is always relative,” he said, describing how jumping out of a speeding car is dangerous but less so than staying in the car as it goes off a cliff. He then discussed his thoughts on how one particular geoengineering idea would play out politically in real-life, which he said sounded like a great setup for what became his new book.

He also discussed the Long Now Foundation, which is developing a clock that will go for 10,000 years and the problem of how climate change might make it difficult for the clock to synchronize with the sun — the clock is being designed to go three years without sunlight if necessary. And he highlighted the work done by the Comanche Nation Ethno-Ornithological Initiative, which has some connection to the new book.

Neal Stephenson then took questions for about half an hour.

Someone asked him about Facebook’s “metaverse,” given his creating the term in his book Snow Crash back in the early 1990s. He said that he had no connection to Facebook and was surprised by its use of the term. He expressed doubts about whether Facebook was well-suited to develop the metaverse and whether talk about the metaverse was a distraction from other issues.

Someone asked him about the potential for space travel. He said that the massive difficulties in space travel, especially compared to the potential in building near-Earth space colonies using asteroids, made it unlikely that anyone would ever get to another star. The only thing that would motivate interstellar travel, he said, would be religion, something that he praised the Expanse book series for incorporating.

I brought up the Diamond Age, which addressed how to raise a child in a future society, and which meant so much to me that I finished re-reading it in the hospital while waiting for my daughter to be born. I asked him if he had any rules for social media or technology for his kids. He said that his own kids were old enough that they missed a lot of recent technology and would not follow any rules that he might have had. He then discussed research that emphasized the importance of reading for early brain development.

Someone asked what he was working on next. He said that he could not give much details, but his next book likely would be historical in nature, though addressing a different era than his Baroque Cycle books.

Someone asked about his writing technique. He said that one thing that he’s been doing is “parking downhill,” where he finishes for the day not at the end of a chapter, but at a place where he knows exactly where to pick up the next day.

Here are the books that Neal Stephenson specifically mentioned during his talk (along with links to the website for Anderson’s Bookshop in suburban Chicago):

Hope this was helpful! Check out other book events on Neal Stephenson’s tour at https://www.nealstephenson.com/tour.html

For background, I used to be a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and then was a federal prosecutor for 11 years, during which time I used data analysis extensively in bringing white-collar criminal cases, particularly health care fraud cases. My personal website is www.stephenchahnlee.com

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Stephen Lee

Lawyer, former federal prosecutor in Chicago (2008–January 2019), former newspaper reporter. Work site at stephenleelaw.com