As of late, I seem to be favoring big books: long, more current novels such as David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (more pedestrian than I had imagined), magnificent Metropolis by Monte Schulz, Richard Powers’ The Overstory (wow, wow, wow), David Wroblewski’s first novel The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (so engaging I read it twice), Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street by David Payne (still struggling to get it going, but not giving up), Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts (an unforgettable autobiographical novel I purchased in a magnificent bookstore in Taipei). And of course others.
There is an engagement with a 700-or-so-page novel you just don’t get with a more conventional 300-page work. Not to say it’s always better, because many I had pined for turned out to be a disappointing, like Tolstoy’s War and Peace (how droll) and Harry Mulisch’s The Discovery of Heaven (about which I still scratch my head wondering why it’s considered the greatest Dutch novel ever written).
Although there seem to be writers who gravitate to it, I think the long form is far and away more difficult for an author to sustain. Which brings me to Neal Stephenson, a master of long-novel engagement. It goes without saying that an art form – novel, painting, musical work – is a representation of the creator’s mind. Stephenson may be thought of as a science-fiction writer, but he’s so much more. He has a highly developed ability to interweave very human stories into iconoclastic situations, which are often future-oriented. I think speculative fiction is a good moniker for Stephenson’s wide-ranging works.
I look on my bookshelf (alphabetized by author’s last name) and discover I have quite a few of Stephenson’s novels: Cryptonomicon (hardcover and paperback, the latter perhaps for portabiity) The Diamond Age, The Big U, Zodiac, Snow Crash. I’d read Snow Crash years ago (it’s now 20 years old) and recently decided to listen to it as an Audible book, but I could not stand the narration. As another listener wrote, “The narrator is fine, it just sounds like he was trapped in a tin box for the entire story.”
So I decided to read Snow Crash again, but aware it’s dated I decided to give a listen to Stephenson’s latest novel, Termination Shock, first. Conceptually, it has a great deal to do with what is popularly phrased as “climate change” (which of course has only occurred on planet earth like forever). Its central character is the Queen of the Netherlands, which we once called Holland. Or the Low Country, because it’s below sea level – hence its famous dikes.
Stephenson gets a lot of play out of Queen Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia and her involvement in a fabulous plan of geoengineering, which I personally believe is the next, and perhaps most important, thing we can attempt in order to save the human race from extinction. Because how are we gonna ship eight billion souls into space to colonize Mars?
Stephenson is a master storyteller. While all the people, places and things are interesting, the story is really and truly the thing. Although there is a save-the-planet theme, it remains very human-centered; it’s unlikely a movie will ever be made from Termination Shock, simply because it doesn’t comport its theme like, for example, Roland Emmerich’s eco-disaster flick, 2012.
I decided to listen to Termination Shock instead of reading it and was pleased with my decision. As one Audible reader wrote of Stephenson, “his ability to weave very believable characters into absurdly surreal events that grapple [with] very real questions and expose the absurd and surreal in our own lives, all while offering rollicking adventures that can buckle a swash with the best of them.”
The narration by Edoardo Ballerini was top notch: not only does he speak clearly and makes no audible mistakes, he helps sustain the story with a single voice that always keeps the characters separate and distinct. (I see he is the male narrators for Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, Stella Maris.)
Termination Shock, Audible version, weighs in at just under 23 hours, so the biggest problem for the listener is mentally keeping track of the narrative during those times each of us needs to pull the AirPods out of our ears and take a break. I can honestly say I retained the memory of where I left off without difficulty, which I ascribe to the strength of the story and the narrator’s voice. I had a great time listening to this novel. It’s a mature work by a very talented author. His research is impeccable; I wondered from time to time if he had a research team working to provide the depth and details. Not that it matters; all of us authors use the vast data-resources the internet affords to create detail. Neal Stephenson, however he did it, did a magnificent job of enriching his story with highly credible future scenario.
Speculative fiction indeed.