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

His bushy beard is saltier now than in his old author photos, but Neal Stephenson still pairs it with a characteristic, neatly shaved (and, not to get too phrenological about it, large) pate. So he's easy to spot, even at the bar of a packed Seattle bistro. We've arranged to meet here to talk about his latest novel, number 17 over nearly four decades of wildly popular, cinder-block-sized sci-fi thrillers. That was the plan, anyway, but even as we say our hellos, it's clear that two simultaneous disasters have enveloped us as surely as the swirling rush of tourists at lunchtime.Disaster number one: You can practically smell the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 massing microscopically. This was back in late July, just after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had said that everyone, vaccinated or no, should go back to wearing masks inside. Yet I can see the full faces of everyone in this crowd, including Stephenson's, whose frown reflects my own. We are both unhappy about the prospect of breathing a stranger's air from across the narrow divide of a two-top.Then there's disaster number two. Outside, where aerosolized virus would likely flitter up and away instead of down into our respiratory system, it's 88 degrees, too hot to sit in the sun. We humans have burned too much carbon, is the problem, and now it's in the atmosphere, messing stuff up. The restaurant's meager terrace seating has few awnings, and the only noticeable shadow over the city is a metaphorical one. A few weeks ago the jet stream went rogue and caused a “heat dome” that gave Seattle triple-digit temperatures, hotter than anything in the past 50 years. More than 700 people in the Northwest died.

So it's too virological to eat inside, too climatological to go out. It's a quandary. Eventually we prevail on the server to drag a table under a shady spot outside and also bring some beer. Disasters unaverted, apocalypse sort of lived with. Just like real life, because what can anyone do, really?

That is the question. It's also the reason I'm here with Stephenson—to talk about apocalypses, and to talk about how to talk about apocalypses. So many ends of the world are stacked on approach, and nobody in charge seems to be doing much about any of them. In Stephenson's new book—Termination Shock, out in November—someone does.Arguably no sci-fi writer has the specific combination of vision, reach, and ardent fandom that Stephenson does. At 61, he is, at least, the premiere chronicler of the foundation myths of Silicon Valley and its adjacent culture—of its high self-regard, of disruptive innovation, of the world that nerds built.

Illustration: RICARDO TOMÁS