(2022) Neal Stephenson, Borough Press, £20, hrdbk, 708 pp., ISBN: 978-0-008-40437-6
It is a time-worn canard levelled against science-fiction that it is all tech, no character development. However, the first couple of hundred pages of Stephenson’s latest are all about the characters, with only hints at the technology around which the story is constructed. It begins with Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia, or Saskia for short, a.k.a. Queen of the Netherlands, piloting the royal jet through a crash-landing at Waco, Texas. Why Waco? Because Houston is just too hot for the jet to take off again after being refuelled. Why a crash-landing? Because just as they were touching down, a singular of wild boars crashed through the airport fence and dashed across the runway. Chasing them is Rufus Grant, a.k.a. ‘Red’, part African-American, part Comanche, who has a long-standing personal interest in killing the massive lead boar in particular. This entwining of two threads into one of the major character strands in the book also serves to set the scene: we’re in the not-so-distant future when global warming means ‘earthsuits’ may be needed just to survive outside and the rise in sea-level now constitutes a clear and present danger to many coastal communities.
The other strand is occupied by Deep Singh, a.k.a. ‘Laks’, a young Canadian Sikh who can’t quite settle in any one job, becomes proficient in ‘gatka’, the Punjabi martial art of stick-fighting and after honing his skills in the Punjab, ends up at the Line of Actual Control separating India from China. There soldiers and volunteers from each side engage in skirmishes using only fists, rocks, sticks or in the case of Chinese kung fu groups like the ‘Bonking Heads’ (see what he did there?!), re-purposed plastic water pipes. Part of the joy of reading the first third of the book involves wondering how these two strands – one winding its way through Texas, the other up on the ‘roof of the world’ – are going to be pulled together. But even at this early stage, Stephenson reveals one of the themes of his work, as voiced explicitly by film-maker Pippa, tagging along with Laks and his ‘sangat’, which is that of ‘performative war’, meant to cow and intimidate one’s opponent, an art the Comanches were also, brutally, adept at. Effective when done properly, until, of course, your opponent decides not to play by the rules any more – in the case of the U.S. Government that meant killing all the buffalo, and in that of China, it manifests in deploying a high-tech piece of kit that, just as he did with the leader of the Bonking Heads, cuts Laks’ and his burgeoning social media presence off at the knees.
And of course, being the queen of a modern monarchy like the Netherlands is all about performance, whether its opening the ‘States General’ or comforting the bereaved after a climate-related ‘natural’ disaster. Saskia too has her merry band, including Rufus for a while, who help her get to Houston eventually, where she, and representatives of certain other low-lying habitats, meet up with one Theodore Roosevelt Schmidt, a.k.a. T. R. McHooligan, the stereotypically brash and ridiculously rich owner of a chain of family restaurants-cum-mega-truck-stops. T. R. has a plan to tackle global warming through a specific piece of geo-engineering and Stephenson clearly delights in taking the reader through the technicalities that build-up to the Big (in all senses) Reveal, which is: sulphur! (Apologies for the spoiler, although its reasonably easy to infer that’s the core ingredient from the cover of the book itself!) Blasted up into the atmosphere through a typically Texan big gun, it forms sulphate aerosols that reflect sunlight, thereby helping to counteract global warming and reduce the sea-level rise (yes, it’s a ‘thing’ – there are papers in the Transactions of the Royal Society about it). Unfortunately, doing this may also significantly alter weather patterns elsewhere, such as in the Punjab, a.k.a. the Breadbasket of India, crucially dependent on the seasonal monsoon, and with that the reader begins to discern how Stephenson will tie his two narrative strands together.
Of course, India’s great opponent across the Line of Actual Control would not be entirely unhappy about such far-reaching effects of T. R.’s gambit, even going so far as to manipulate a natural event – also brutally, as it turns out – so as to positively influence the Dutch, those earlier masters of massive geo-engineering projects. Stephenson deftly tracks the political ripples and currents that build into a wave which Saskia desperately tries to ride, only to find that the only act she can now perform is to step away. Reflecting current concerns about China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, the long arm of the Chinese government is represented by the urbane ‘Bo’, who is equally at home in a well-cut suit in a Texas car park as he is in a tank-top and shorts sitting beside a badminton court in Papua New Guinea, or in a military uniform at the airport shortly afterwards. The exchanges between Bo and Wilhelm, one of Saskia’s key aides, allow for a series of reflections on political affairs, with the U.S.A. agreed to be a ‘clown show’, albeit one that offers some leeway for the likes of T.R. to do his thing, and China presented, by Bo at least, as a ‘real’ country that can step in and restore calm where needed.
However, it is back in Texas where the twin narratives merge and Saskia and T. R. are forced to take a back seat as Rufus faces down Laks, or not as it turns out. Stephenson ramps up the action before bringing things to a satisfactory, if rather downbeat, ending with a tip of the (cowboy) hat to the traditions of the Western. Unlike in the latter, however, there are no clearly defined bad guys wearing black hats here (except T. R.’s security people who literally do wear black hats) – everyone is acting in what they see as their, or their country’s, best interests, no one gets angry or even panics that much, even when mayhem and violence erupts all around them. It’s as if Stephenson decided that when faced with the existential issues generated by climate change, including disasters in which hundreds die, all the characters should remain unfailingly nice and polite, even to their obvious opponents. On the one hand, this adds a further element of implausibility to what many might regard as already far-fetched scenarios; but on the other, it gives an agreeable velvet-glove-around-an-iron-fist feel to the political manoeuvring. Stephenson handles this well and despite the extensive back-stories to the characters and the detailed info-dumps – it wouldn’t be a Stephenson book without those, of course – the writing is always fluid and engaging. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is one of the few books I’ve read recently that I couldn’t put down – which is saying something given that in hardback it’s a bit of a doorstop!
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