Ten years ago, Neal Stephenson published an influential essay titled “Innovation Starvation,” in which he lamented the “general failure of our society to get big things done.” He laid some of the blame at the feet of underperforming science fiction writers who, instead of inspiring citizens and scientists, had turned their backs on optimism and real-world data, traipsing off instead to dillydally in the lands of steampunk, dystopia and pure fantasy.

Since then, Stephenson’s novels have hewed to his ideals, succeeding admirably. His intentions and form are old-school – echoing the work of Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov, among others – but his subject matter and cultural attitudes are utterly au courant. The sheer magnitude of his books has not hindered his success (2019’s “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell” was nearly 900 pages and his newest, “Termination Shock,” is just over 700), because his stories never lag or disappoint. With meticulously rendered action scenes, surprising plot twists, relatable, off-kilter characters and charming dialogue, his books are page-turners. His latest proves no exception.

Our story takes place a decade or so in the future. Life is different but recognizable. Waves of COVID have come and gone, but the global population has become fairly well-protected thanks to such inventions as an app that sizes up a user’s immediate vicinity and recommends appropriate social distancing and masking protocols. Video surveillance cameras offer “Hollywood movie grade” imagery; rich folks use hydrogen-fueled private jets; drones are ubiquitous; and vast parts of Texas are being ceded to feral pigs.

But the major changes are the result of climate degradation. “Earthsuits,” or battery-powered refrigeration garments, are needed in certain parts of the globe. Nations are drowning. Things look bad – until someone decides to try a rogue geoengineering scheme.

That someone is T.R. “McHooligan” Schmidt, a Texas billionaire who functions, much in the manner of Heinlein’s famous D.D. Harriman (“The Man Who Sold the Moon”), as an outlaw version of the “competent man” trope. T.R. hatches a plan to blast gigatons of sulfur into the stratosphere, countering the heat-trapping gases and cooling the planet. To do this, he’s built The Biggest Gun in the World on his property in Texas and plans to push ahead sans permits or government endorsement.

To show the honesty of his intentions, he invites foreign reps from nations in danger of drowning from rising seas to witness the launch of his project. One of these guests is our other main protagonist – the literal queen of the Netherlands, Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia, just Saskia for short. Smart, sober, chafing somewhat from her ceremonial burdens, Saskia is primed for adventure. Her arrival in Texas is a thrilling, near-fatal tragedy, from which she is rescued by a most unlikely shining knight: Rufus “Red” Grant, an ex-soldier and expert feral-hog bounty hunter. These three heroes – alongside a stellar cast of ancillary folks with rich backstories – will convey the bulk of the exciting tale, which is full of diplomacy, shootouts, science, engineering, romance and deadly international intrigue.

Not everyone on the planet is happy with T.R.’s do-gooding – some nations stand to take even greater climate hits in the sulfur-rich future – and his project is a target for terrorism. (If The Biggest Gun in the World shuts down prematurely, the “termination shock” of the title might undo all the good so far.) In that vein, one plot thread concerns a young martial arts expert named Laks, whose early career, though fascinating, seems to bear little connection with our other stories. And yet, slowly and inevitably, the fate of Laks becomes intertwined with the others. He emerges as a truly tragic figure, not a villain, but a man too easily led, shaped by his passions and circumstances. The character is a refreshing reminder that Stephenson does not believe in cliched evildoers, but in parties with varying degrees of ethics and competing worldviews.

Along the way, Stephenson offers stimulating contrarian views on a number of topics – the drawbacks of solar panels, for example – and jovial satire, mainly at the expense of McHooligan and Texas hype. He even finds time to indulge in some sophisticated “Animal House” humor (if that’s not a paradoxical description) that allows Stephenson to riff on the theme of Saskia’s love life, a delicate balancing act for a queen.

Such silliness aside, “Termination Shock” deals brilliantly and innovatively with our era’s most pressing existential matter – while delivering stratospheric gigatons of carefully engineered delight.

Paul Di Filippo is the author of the Steampunk Trilogy, “The Deadly Kiss-Off” and, most recently, “The Summer Thieves.”

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