‘I am the queen of the Netherlands. I am here on a secret mission to save my country.” Queen Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia – “call me Saskia” – stars in science fiction writer Neil Stephenson’s new book Termination Shock. He turns out to be well aware of Dutch royal customs and makes Saskia a bold action hero.
In the first scene of the book, Queen Saskia lands her plane after a flight from Schiphol Airport in Waco, Texas, because the air in destination Houston turns out to be too warm to land. It’s a first sign that the story is set in a near future where temperatures have risen disastrously. Saskia is invited to Texas to attend the first shot of the sulfur cannon with which a wayward American billionaire will arbitrarily stop global warming.
Being able to fly a business jet is a hobby, explains Stephenson, who she inherited from her late father, along with her title and wealth. This way she can relax, because keeping the machine in the air – and everyone on board – alive requires all her attention. Just like the Netherlands, which, according to Saskia, with its dykes and flood defenses, is also a machine that must be managed well. Her own role in this is limited, certainly officially. “Underemployed,” a Chinese spy calls her in the book.
Queen Saskia is a widow of 45 years, her husband died of Covid after volunteering in a hospital. Her only child, daughter Lotte, is eighteen.
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It is not the first time that an Orange has appeared in a Stephenson book. In his extensive trilogy The Baroque Cycle (2003-2004, 2671 pp), which plays in circles of physicists such as Newton, Leibniz and Christiaan Huygens, Willem III plays a role as an attractive bisexual manipulator with an eye on the British throne. There it remains with rumors and some pushy actions, but in Termination Shock Queen Saskia is granted some passion. Much to the enthusiasm of daughter Lotte, who thinks it is time after the years as a widow. Lotte sends her mother text messages in which she insists on vitamin D – ‘dick’ – as Saskia only understands after some thought. She develops feelings for a woman but chooses a fit forty-year-old American ex-soldier/drone technician with African and Comanche roots. Stephenson decently turns off the light when the act begins.
Royal Dutch Shell
In Termination Shock, the world has heated up so much that a cooling ‘earth suit’ is sometimes essential for survival outside. Not only the climate, but also the nature, witness a plague of feral super pigs in Texas. The main storyline is about American billionaire TR Schmidt – “I’m not one of those tech boys”; oil and commodities worldwide are the source of its wealth – which decides to shoot sulfur into the atmosphere to lower the temperature. Saskia was invited by him to start the project. He wants her support as queen of a country threatened by the sea, and as a major shareholder in Shell, and as a member of the family that gave that company the name Royal Dutch Shell.
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In addition to extensive character development and technical explanation, the geopolitical consequences of ‘climate engineering’ are the main component of the book. For countries such as China and India, the sulfur project is risky: the local weather and monsoons can be disrupted. The technical climate intervention is more favorable for low-lying countries, because the sea level will not rise any further. The billionaire’s unilateral action comes with a dangerous risk: stopping the sulfur cannon after the initial phase will cause unpredictable violent changes in the weather. This is the ‘termination shock’ of the title of the book.
Saskia’s presence in Texas is causing trouble for the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, which is still hesitant to tackle the climate problem. When two climate disasters hit South Holland shortly afterwards, he had to resign and a Wilders-type took over his position (after an opportunistic turn from climate denier to fervent supporter of geo-engineering). Queen Saskia resigns after a deepfake video in which she argues for technical interventions in the climate. Saskia’s daughter Lotte takes over the throne. The ex-queen herself becomes the spokesperson for the low-lying areas on earth threatened by water: ‘Queen of the Netherworld’.
Stephenson knows a lot about the Netherlands (on Instagram is a photo of him during a tour of the Maasvlakte). He is amazed at the complicated role of the head of state in Dutch democracy and Saskia’s duty to always appear normal. Stephenson elaborates on how we make coalition cabinets, knows everything about the driving tour on Prinsjesdag and describes how you can walk from Huis ten Bosch Palace through nature to the beach of Scheveningen. Jap camps in Indonesia also receive long, informative paragraphs, as does the Bersiap that followed.
Neal Stephenson became famous with Snowcrash (1992), pure science fiction in the then new genre of cyberpunk and playing in a game. He coined the word “metaverse” in the book, which, to his surprise, became the inspiration for Facebook’s new company name. He previously published Zodiac (1988) about an extreme environmental movement. Since the 1990s, he has been writing increasingly lengthy novels with sci-fi elements, virtual worlds, time jumps and recurring characters. His work has not been translated into Dutch since Cryptonomicon (1999). (The rights to Termination Shock are still available, the publisher emails.)
In his new novel Stephenson also takes the space for character development, adventurous travelogues and exposés about aircraft engines, the Indian-Chinese border dispute on the Line of Actual Control and the copper mines of New Guinea. But Termination Shock lacks the wide view and depth of The Baroque Cycle and the explanatory passages are sometimes very long. But everything is always excellently researched and compellingly told. Towards the end of the book, there are many chess pieces – engineering, climate disaster, world peace, Saskia – on the board and Stephenson has to rush the lines together, which he succeeds satisfactorily. And Saskia again meets her hero.
Neal Stephenson – Termination Shock (published by HarperCollins, 720 pages, €17.99).
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 27, 2022