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The Billionaire’s Bard

On the rationalist fictions of Neal Stephenson


If the art of science fiction lies in translating the plausible into the prophetic, there’s no practitioner more successful than Neal Stephenson. Across more than a dozen sci-fi novels, techno-thrillers, and works of speculative fiction, Stephenson has developed a reputation for being something of a tech oracle—where his writing goes, so goes the future. Lately, Stephenson’s influential 1992 novel Snow Crash has been in the headlines as the origin of the term “metaverse,” the life-as-virtual-reality concept around which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has staked his company’s future. And his 1999 novel, Cryptonomicon, so accurately anticipated the possibilities of a digitally encrypted system of anonymous financial transactions that, in 2019, Stephenson had to publicly deny the (mostly tongue-in-cheek) rumor that he might in fact be Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious creator of Bitcoin.

Stephenson’s fictions have even given rise to entire product lines: the designers of both Google Earth and Xbox Live reportedly consulted Snow Crash for inspiration, while Jeff Bezos was so enamored of Stephenson’s 1995 novel, The Diamond Age: or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, that he dubbed the top-secret development team working on the Amazon Kindle “Project Fiona” after a character in the book. The idea for Blue Origin, Bezos’s commercial spacefaring company, was hashed out over coffee with Stephenson after a joint viewing of October Sky in 1999; for a time, Stephenson was the only employee. Taking into consideration the other tech billionaires who are fans of Stephenson’s work or have cited it as a major influence—the list ranges from Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Palantir’s Peter Thiel to LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffmann and Google’s Sergey Brin—it doesn’t seem like an exaggeration to say that Neal Stephenson might be the most influential novelist among business tycoons since Ayn Rand.

Tech overlords who are keen on the fiction-as-forecasting model and view themselves as protagonists of their world-historical moment will find a lot to like in Stephenson’s new novel, Termination Shock, the first in his voluminous oeuvre to tackle the subject of climate change. Published in November 2021, Termination Shock imagines a world some fifteen or twenty years into the future in which a rogue Texas billionaire named T.R. Schmidt, frustrated with the general incompetence of the U.S. government, decides to single-handedly reverse global warming by shooting sulfur dioxide into the sky from his West Texas ranch. How the madcap scheme might work is laid out during a punishingly detailed tour of Schmidt’s sulfur-launching facility that takes up half of the seven-hundred-page novel; it suffices to say that sulfur dioxide, one of the principal ejecta of volcanoes, has long been observed to block sunlight entering the troposphere and thus has the potential to reduce the dreaded greenhouse effect.

The avatar of Stephenson’s fiction is the apolitical, hyper-logical, no-bullshit engineer, who might manage to solve the world’s problems if only people would shut up and let him build things.

But could intentionally shading the sun have disastrous consequences, such as interrupting monsoon season in the agriculturally significant Punjab region? This is Termination Shock’s central question, and following the long set piece in Texas, the book plays out like a novelistic exercise of game theory, veering from Amsterdam to Papua, from Saudi Arabia to the Himalayas, as various protagonists including the Queen of the Netherlands (who prefers to be called “Saskia”) and a feral hog hunter named Rufus—for complicated reasons we’ll return to later, two of the recipients of the protracted sulfur-facility tour—race to figure out what the repercussions of Schmidt’s experiment might be.

While Termination’s Shock’s premise is goofily provocative in the grand tradition of Stephensonian fiction—the main character of Snow Crash is a pizza deliveryman named Hiro Protagonist navigating a world in which the U.S. government has collapsed and its citizens have retreated to armed gated communities called “burbclaves”—the more prescient aspect of the novel is the suggestion that we’re closer than we realize to a moment anticipated by climate activists called “snaparound,” when the camps in the struggle over global warming rearrange themselves away from our current polarity of deniers versus believers. In a warming world where freak events like mass displacement by fire-ant invasion and death by rising sea foam (two of the book’s wacky but scientifically conceivable subplots) have become commonplace, the lines of contention will recrystallize around so-called realists, who hope to innovate their way out of climate disaster through “solar geoengineering” projects along the lines of Schmidt’s, and greens, who view such projects as unimaginably risky and argue our only way to halt climate change is to rethink the premises of global consumerism. You don’t need the imagination of a prophetic sci-fi author to guess which side Jeff Bezos will gravitate toward.

Although Termination Shock, likewise, clearly sides with the “climate realists,” it has a peculiar way of couching and obscuring its politics, considering it’s a novel about, well, geopolitical questions of considerable import. In contrast to the fulminating, speechifying, didactic Objectivism of Ayn Rand, Stephenson conjures a reality in which ideology has essentially nothing to offer people taking on global existential threats. (“It’s almost always a disaster when a novelist decides to become political,” Stephenson told an interviewer from Reason magazine in 2005.) Where the avatar of Rand’s fiction was the ultra-capitalist captain of industry trailblazing the path for laissez-faire capitalism, the avatar of Stephenson’s fiction is the apolitical, hyper-logical, no-bullshit engineer, who might manage to solve the world’s problems if only people would shut up and let him build things. Of course, the desire to escape politics inevitably yields its own kind of politics, and it’s in Stephenson’s unexamined assumptions that the myopic contours of his worldview begin to reveal themselves.

If there’s an unacknowledged ideology underlining Termination Shock, it most closely resembles that of a cultural formation some commentators have taken to calling the “Grey Tribe.” The moniker was coined in a 2014 essay by one of the formation’s protagonists, a blogger who writes under the pseudonym Scott Alexander, to describe an emerging internet subculture he characterized in self-ironizing terms as “libertarianish, tech-savvy nerds.” (Alexander currently maintains the newsletter Astral Codex Ten, which is popular among Silicon Valley bigwigs and boasts one of the highest subscriber rates on Substack.) The word Grey is meant to signify a disaffiliation with the politics of Red and Blue; Grey Tribers see themselves as beholden to a data-based objectivity that transcends partisan lines.

Alexander, whose prose sometimes reads as if written by a Neal Stephenson character come to life, rose to prominence on a message board for self-described “rationalists” called LessWrong. One of the core beliefs of rationalists is that Bayesian logic, a method of statistical inference that undergirds many applications of machine learning, can be applied to one’s own critical faculties in order to become more logical and make better predictions about the future. (This is also a central preoccupation of a number of Neal Stephenson novels, including The Diamond Age and Anathem.) By identifying and eliminating cognitive biases—in the rationalist idiolect, “updating your priors”—rationalists hope to develop ever more refined tools for modeling the world which can then be harnessed to pontificate on practically any subject under the sun. Topics covered on Astral Codex Ten range from housing policy to education, from the science of long Covid to various governance models of charter cities, all packaged alongside a proudly heterodox range of prescriptions that purport to evade ideological classification.

Astral Codex Ten is one of the brighter stars among a constellation of like-minded blogs, newsletters, and podcasts that have emerged as a self-sufficient media ecosystem over the past few years, encompassing fellow rationalists like Zvi Mowshowitz and Eliezer Yudkowsky, liberal dissenters like Matthew Yglesias and Antonio García Martínez, and projecting further afield to libertarian economists like Tyler Cowen, Bryan Caplan, and Scott Sumner of the George Mason University economics department. Although these writers prize civility and argue with a politesse that has kept them, with a few notable exceptions, at a certain remove from the broader culture wars, a central conviction unifying the Grey Tribe is that the United States has recently experienced a sea change in its intellectual life, one that has seen its media organs, bureaucracies, and institutions taken over by progressive activists and so-called “leftists.” The more bellicose members of the Grey Tribe term the phenomenon “wokeism,” which they see as a quasi-religious “successor ideology” to classical liberalism and blame for much of the stagnation and dysfunction that prevails in America today.

Although Neal Stephenson disavows any political reading of his fiction, this is a perspective shared by most of the characters of Termination Shock. One of the central premises of the novel is that, over the coming decades, wokeism has advanced to such an extent—in tandem with the increasing severity of climate change—that conducting scientific discourse in the public realm has become untenable. “People have talked for decades about doing this,” explains a Scottish risk analyst to the hog hunter Rufus, referring to the idea of shooting sulfur into the stratosphere to stop global warming. “And almost from the moment it was first mentioned, the idea was loathed by Greens. Just anathematized. To the point where you couldn’t even really talk about it in public or you’d get canceled.” This is a nostrum repeated by various characters throughout the book without meeting any substantial pushback; more than oil companies or corporate executives who’ve spent decades peddling misinformation on climate science, it’s the “fucking Greens”—and their almost spiritual conviction that emissions can be curtailed and the world returned to an unspoiled Eden—who have poisoned discourse such that the earth’s last hope is a selfless oil heir with enough money and personal liberty (guaranteed by a private military apparatus) to undertake unilateral action to reshape the world’s climate.

Like most libertarian fantasias, the book’s political vision is at its most incoherent when it comes to portraying the incompetence of the U.S. government.

What can and cannot be discussed in public is an obsession of the Grey Tribe and a question that permeates Termination Shock’s ludicrous portrayal of geopolitics. The top-secret tour of T.R. Schmidt’s sulfur-launching facility is given to a delegation of foreign potentates from the Netherlands, Singapore, Venice, and the City of London, selected by Schmidt because of their exposure to rising sea levels and because they’re all monarchical or aristocratic figures with no fixed political allegiances. Schmidt’s maverick plan is to convince them of the necessity and efficacy of his climate cooling system, take it online in their presence, and then hope they’ll undertake back-channel discussions in their respective homelands to drum up broader support for the idea. Notwithstanding the fact that he talks like a Yosemite Sam cowboy and has an inexplicable love for the phrase “down Mexico way,” the delegates all seem to find Schmidt brilliant and agree this is a sensible plan. (Any other approach would’ve been “just unthinkable,” one of them muses. “The committees that would have gotten involved . . . the leaks . . . the politics.” Shudder.) Toward the end of the novel, Queen Saskia of the Netherlands even goes so far as to abdicate her throne and become an international ambassador for Schmidt, helping him spread sulfur-launching franchises across the globe.

This is all to say that even though Stephenson advertises the book as a kind of “hard science” corrective to the all-too politicized dystopias of conventional climate fiction, its own anarcho-libertarian politics are far from subtle. Like most libertarian fantasias, the book’s political vision is at its most incoherent when it comes to portraying the incompetence of the U.S. government. At various points the United States is described as a “beached whale,” a “basket case,” a “global laughingstock,” and a “clown show.” Governmental retreat is so total that Queen Saskia, in the book’s action-packed opening sequence, can crash-land a plane into a Waco airstrip, set it aflame, and escape down the Brazos River without arousing the notice of authorities. “Look out for the scavengers!” yells her rescuer and soon-to-be love interest, Rufus. “They gonna get here a lot sooner than SWAT!”

Similarly, T.R. Schmidt can secretly invest millions in a solar geoengineering scheme that involves blasting sulfur-dispensing rockets into international airspace, yet have blithe confidence that U.S. regulatory agencies, the FAA, and law enforcement won’t notice until it’s already a fait accompli. How this Hobbesian state of nature hasn’t set off mass unrest, economic collapse, or mafioso violence isn’t even cursorily examined, nor is it articulated what has brought the country to such an impasse. The implication is that some sort of “tragedy of the commons” scenario has led to the breakdown of democratic order, a page torn straight out of Grey Tribe eschatology: Greens and wokeists to the left, nut jobs to the right, and a small coterie of independent-minded rationalists in the middle keeping the world from coming apart at the seams.

Such a perspective may dovetail with the way many Americans view their government in 2022, but this is only further evidence that the Grey Tribe’s self-identification as a marginalized, persecuted, and borderline elect minority is farcical. In fact, some iteration of Grey Tribe technocracy has enjoyed hegemonic authority over the U.S. policy establishment—on both sides of the partisan divide—since at least the beginning of Paul Volcker’s epoch-shifting tenure at the Federal Reserve, or wherever you choose to pinpoint the origins of neoliberalism. Grey Tribers may put a Silicon Valley sheen on Reaganomics, but their prescriptions boil down to the same mendacious contradiction: a public-facing rhetoric of innovation-friendly small government, coupled with a legislative reality that involves the constant pioneering and entrenching of new markets at every level of governmental scale. This is especially true within the vast military-industrial imperium from which so many of Stephenson’s allegedly “granular, bottom-up” preoccupations—rocketry, cryptography, the internet—hail. The extent that such an ideology has transformed basic provisions that most democracies take for granted into predatory landscapes rife with debt traps and publicly subsidized monopolies is more than a sufficient explanation for the alleged breakdown of civil society and discourse that libertarians bemoan.

Equally farcical as the Grey Tribe’s persecution fantasies is the notion that the last decade has witnessed a vanguard of triumphant leftists seizing the halls of power. The reality is that “the left” as it’s understood in virtually any country in the world outside the United States—a democratic socialist project dedicated to building a strong welfare state, expanding and protecting workers’ rights, and ensuring collective ownership of natural resources and infrastructure—has been consistently routed by center-right liberalism, even within the confines of the Democratic Party, going back more than half a century. The “woke capitalism” so troubling to Grey Tribers mostly consists of superficial virtue signaling aimed to parry challenges to corporate labor practices, and the epic struggle they imagine between “wokeists” and “rationalists” amounts to little more than an internecine row between competing versions of liberalism. To conceive that these are the only terms upon which humans as a species might seek to mitigate the existential threat of climate change, as Termination Shock does, is worse than a logical fallacy; it’s a profound failure of the imagination.

A recent book by the literary critic Mark McGurl, Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, explores the literary ecosystem that has been conjured into being over the past few decades by Neal Stephenson’s one-time employer Jeff Bezos, whose company now purveys half the print books sold in the United States. One of McGurl’s many original insights is to highlight the subtle laundering of responsibility that tech companies engage in when they frame their relationship to innovation and “progress” as inevitable. Bezos expressed this poetically in a 2013 interview with Charlie Rose: “Amazon is not happening to book selling; the future is happening to book selling.” This isn’t true, of course, but it’s a convenient fiction for platform monopolies positioned to indefinitely extract resources from a public infrastructure like the internet while the wealth gap widens and climate change accelerates.

In another section of Everything and Less, McGurl does the yeoman’s task of submerging himself in the vast ocean of content that has been uploaded over the past few years to Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), a gatekeeper-free self-publishing platform launched by Amazon in 2007. McGurl’s interest is to see what new generic forms might have emerged from the “author as service provider” model that Amazon offers its writers and customers. One theme he identifies as particularly emblematic of our era is “giving service to the billionaire,” which in McGurl’s reading can take forms both mytho-poetic—as in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, in which an intrepid gamer plays a metaverse experience designed by a mysteriously absent billionaire for the chance to win his fortune—and erotic—as in Monica Brooks’s KDP series Loving the White Billionaire, in which a newly single vacationer named Jaida is psychosexually romanced by a dashing billionaire named Axel.

Unlike the world of politics, in the world of technology, the choices of individuals may still be paramount.

Stephenson’s Termination Shock belongs to the same generic category, servicing billionaires in two ways. First, like many of his books, it offers them a richly imagined future environment in which their resources can be deployed to make money, a circumstance that results from Stephenson’s undeniably impressive gift for perceiving connections between emerging technologies and extrapolating how their use cases might evolve. In failing to consider critically the politics of these technologies or offer an ideological challenge to the premises of their deployment, he offers billionaires a second kind of service: facilitating for them a fantastical escape from what Stephenson superfan Peter Thiel described in a revealing 2009 essay as “the terrible arc of the political in our world.” Later in the piece, working himself into a high dudgeon, Thiel made the stakes uncommonly clear: “We are in a deadly race between politics and technology,” he wrote.

The future will be much better or much worse, but the question of the future remains very open indeed. We do not know exactly how close this race is, but I suspect that it may be very close, even down to the wire. Unlike the world of politics, in the world of technology, the choices of individuals may still be paramount. The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.

Take heart, Peter. If Termination Shock proves as prescient as Stephenson’s past work, all we need is one brave billionaire.