Neal Stephenson talks about his climate thriller — and why the metaverse didn’t match his vision

Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson’s new novel, “Termination Shock,” focuses on climate change. (Mercatus Center at GMU)

This whole metaverse thing hasn’t turned out exactly the way Seattle novelist Neal Stephenson thought it would when he came up with the idea 30 years ago.

Back then, Stephenson was getting ready to write his breakout science-fiction novel, “Snow Crash.” He was musing about how expensive it was to buy the equipment for a computer art project he was working on, as opposed to how inexpensive it was to buy a television set and watch state-of-the-art programming.

What would it take to make computer equipment as cheap as a TV set? “The answer, of course, is that lots of people watch TV,” Stephenson told me in an interview for the Fiction Science podcast that also touched on his new science-fiction thriller about climate change, “Termination Shock.”

During our chat, Stephenson noted that TV sets were once expensive lab curiosities, but became cheaper when programs like “I Love Lucy” created a huge market. Could that happen for computer graphics? Remember, this was at a time when the World Wide Web wasn’t much more than a glint in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye.

Thus was the metaverse born, as a plot device for “Snow Crash” in 1992. Stephenson’s characters could turn to an entire world created from 3-D computer graphics, offering programming as popular as 1990s-era television.

Fast forward to today, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella are touting the metaverse as the next frontier for online interaction through computer-generated avatars.

Stephenson acknowledges the parallels to his idea — for example, “Snow Crash” describes users who are continuously connected to the metaverse and end up being nicknamed “gargoyles.” But he says the main features of his planet-wide metaverse don’t line up with what Zuckerberg and Nadella are talking about.

“They’re generally not talking about those kinds of planetary-scale things,” Stephenson said. “The key features seem to be that it’s a 3-D universe that is massively multiplayer, and what you do with that depends on your business model. We seem to see a lot of people interested in virtual meetings or virtual conversations in a fixed space, which seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to want. But it’s not quite the same thing as the metaverse in ‘Snow Crash.'”

While the tech world is obsessing over the metaverse, Stephenson has turned his attention to an issue he sees as far more impactful for the planet: climate change, its potentially catastrophic effects, and what we can do to ease the coming crisis. Such topics are the focus of a global summit in Rome and big-ticket legislative initiatives in Washington, D.C. — and they’re the focus of “Termination Shock” as well.

“The efforts that are being made by various governments to address this problem are all welcome. Anything is helpful, but people need to be realistic about how long it’s going to take to turn this thing around,” Stephenson said.

Termination Shock book cover
“Termination Shock” is the latest addition to Neal Stephenson’s list of more than a dozen novels. (HarperCollins)

In “Termination Shock,” a billionaire steps in and sets up a surreptitious scheme to cool down the climate through solar geoengineering. “That’s a thing that’s been talked about quietly, I would say, in the geophysics community for a while,” Stephenson said. “But people are generally reluctant to come out and advocate for it, for obvious reasons.”

Changing the climate can make big improvements in some parts of the world (for example, by heading off an Arctic meltdown and sea level rise) while making things worse in others (perhaps by reducing rainfall in India’s breadbasket). The battle over the pluses and the minuses provides the grist for Stephenson’s geekworthy tale, which weighs in at just over 700 pages.

We talked about lots more in our Fiction Science chat, including Stephenson’s recently concluded gig as chief futurist for Magic Leap, a well-funded startup that’s developing an augmented-reality platform; the audio drama that Stephenson and his collaborators created while working at Magic Leap; plus some hints about future novels and other coming attractions.

“I am working on something that’s more technological and cutting-edge, but I can’t announce it yet,” Stephenson told me. “It might break the surface in mid-2022.”

If you’re interested in Stephenson’s novels, tech-driven thrillers, climate policy and its implications for the tech world, or the metaverse and extended reality, you really ought to listen to the whole Fiction Science podcast (and consider subscribing via your favorite podcast app). Here are a few more highlights to whet your appetite:

Who’ll lead the effort to address climate change? “In my book, it’s a billionaire, because it makes for a good story. I don’t know how realistic that is. It’s more likely to be governments that are less democratic, frankly. If you look at the way the United States and the U.K. both responded to coronavirus, we weren’t even able to get a large part of the population to agree that it was a real thing, even though people were dying by the hundreds of thousands. … I’m pessimistic about our ability to get people to agree that human-caused climate change is a real thing, much less to agree on taking expensive and difficult steps to deal with that problem.”

On the future of democracy: “To be clear, I’m not a big fan of non-democratic countries. I’m a democracy guy all the way. But if the question we’re talking about is, ‘Can the big democracies like the U.S. and the U.K. get behind expensive and difficult action to address climate change?’ … Right now I have to be realistic and say that doesn’t look that likely.”

On the way-out ideas that he works into his books — including new COVID strains, deepfake videos, sonic weapons, brain implants and drones: “A lot of the things you’ve mentioned are just part of the picture that we’re all aware of. We’ve all heard of drones, we’ve all heard of COVID, certainly we’ve all heard of the pandemic. It doesn’t take some kind of special science-fiction-writer brain to be aware of those things. So it’s an obvious move on my part, or any other science-fiction writer’s part, to include slightly-projected-into-the-future versions of those things in a book that’s set in the future.”

On the factors driving the rise of the metaverse: “The way that it really developed wasn’t like TV. The thing that actually became very popular and drove down the price of the hardware was video games. We start seeing that with ‘Doom,’ which is a really 3-D as opposed to 2-D arcade-style game. And once that catches on, it becomes a virtuous circle that makes the hardware super-cheap. That’s the story as I see it. The use of the term ‘metaverse’ has become a lot more widespread just in the last year, and I don’t know why exactly.”

On the future of the novel: “The novel will be with us for a very, very long time. It’s not going anywhere. There are just so many advantages over other creative forms. One person can produce a novel single-handedly with essentially zero equipment. You don’t have to have software, you don’t have to have engineers, you can just do it. And it’s got an almost infinite amount of creative flexibility. So the novel is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play around with different forms.”

The official publication date for “Termination Shock” is Nov. 16. Neal Stephenson’s nationwide book tour includes an in-person (and online) appearance at Town Hall Seattle at 7:30 p.m. PT Nov. 14, and a virtual appearance with Andy Weir, author of “The Martian” and other sci-fi novels, presented by Third Place Books at 7 p.m. PT Nov. 16.

This report was originally published on Alan Boyle’s Cosmic Log. Stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

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Science Augmented reality Books Climate Climate change Geoengineering Metaverse Neal stephenson Science fiction