Book Review

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Termination Shock, by Neal Stephenson

If this book, and the previous one by the same author which I have read, Cryptonomicon,  [albeit a much later book in his canon] are representative, then they are all [13] very long indeed; this one runs to 697 [!] pages, and the font used for the text is small—possibly 12pt—but I can genuinely say that this was a book I really didn’t want to end. It will probably be classified as SciFi but, given that it has been written within the last couple of years, on recent evidence, I would describe it as prescient, because IMHO one doesn’t have to be a tree-hugging, panicking environmentalist to discern that the scenario presented here is all too plausible; even possible—I hope against hope it is not probable. It is the near future; although the exact year is not specified, but COVID-27 is mentioned [subsequent to COVID-23 and our by-now familiar COVID-19], so it could be in the region of ten years hence, at least, and the climate has significantly worsened. The explanation for the book’s title will follow some further background information.

There are several different strands to the narrative, starting in different locations, but the reason for that will soon become clear. I had to put my republican sentiments into suspended animation for the duration of this story but, thankfully, that wasn’t too difficult, despite one of the main characters being the fictitious queen of the Netherlands, Frederika Mathilda Louisa Saskia, although the Dutch ‘royal’ family is famously low-maintenance; Saskia, as she prefers to be known by those close to her, is also a likeable person [but that has no bearing on my principles, as in the British situation]. A Texan billionaire, T.R. Schmidt [aka McHooligan, the publicly marketed persona for his chain of truck stops] has invited a somewhat disparate group of prominent persons to a conference in Houston, to discuss the climate crisis, and Saskia is one of these; although her constitutional inability to act directly & unilaterally is explained in great detail [as is much else: one of the commendable aspects of Stephenson’s narratives]. Unfortunately, her incoming self-piloted jet aeroplane crashes on landing at Waco airport; Houston being unavailable as a result of the intense heat; but she, and her minimal entourage survive, albeit with a few non life-threatening injuries, to continue the journey, and during her rescue from the cause of the crash, feral swine [and, randomly, although not much more, an alligator], she encounters another main character in the story: Rufus [Red] Grant, a self-employed operator trading under the name FERAL SWINE MITIGATION SERVICES.

Another character, who initially also seems like a rather random inclusion, is a young Canadian man by the name of Deep, although he generally goes by the nickname of Laks, which is derived from the salmon he catches for a living; when he can’t do that in his native British Columbia, out of season, he works as a welder. Initially, these aspects of his character, in addition to his high level of fitness and toned physique, and the traditional Indian martial arts he enjoys practising because of his Indian heritage, don’t seem to connect with the rest of the narrative, but slowly & surely, through the literal, as well as emotional journey he undertakes, the author draws these loose strands together, and they later connect very satisfactorily.

Schmidt’s proposal, which is demonstrated after all the scrupulously polite & accommodating preliminaries, is to spread the sulphur which he has available in vast quantities into the upper atmosphere, providing a global reflective blanket to mitigate the greenhouse effect of the sun, which has been exacerbated by human-produced carbon dioxide. He is going to do this unilaterally and, it transpires, has already started doing it [the technical details are quite involved, so better absorbed from the narrative]; he hopes to also encourage other strategically placed nations to do the same, hence the conference, although the invitees are not necessarily the most geographically, or politically, obvious. Hence the jeopardy in the story: a scheme such as this has been proposed in similar forms previously, but a scientific consensus was never reached so, with a nod to his location, Schmidt decided that he must take the metaphorical bull by the horns and use his money for humanity’s benefit. Unfortunately, not all of humanity would be similarly benefited, and nations such as China & India, which were not invited, are significantly concerned, for political as well as geo-climatic reasons.

The title is the name of what is generally reckoned [using the climatic data currently available to the scientists] will happen if climate-mitigating measures, such as that proposed, and already put into action by Schmidt, are precipitately terminated: the climate would go into a sort of shock, from which it might never recover; or, at least, not in a way which would be conducive to long-term survival of the human race. For several different reasons, I cannot recommend this book highly enough: whether it would convince waverers, or hardline climate change sceptics, of the need for rapid & decisive climate mitigating action is debatable, but aside from the politics, it’s a damn good and well-written story—I would also recommend Cryptonomicon, if you have any interest at all in cryptography, but the history aspect of it is also illuminating, and written in a very approachable way. The [large!] paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by the Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd., London, ISBN 978-0-0084-0440-6.

Book Review

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The Face Pressed Against a Window, by Tim Waterstone

I have to confess I am rather ambivalent about this book: it is subtitled A Memoir, so it is, by definition, selective, which means that I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I would have done a ‘proper’ autobiography. Tim Waterstone’s childhood is described in some detail at the beginning of the book (in which there is also a reference to “genteel Bournemouth”); so far, so good, but after his time at university (and here he shamelessly name-drops, including one of his intake who achieved great fame, Ian McKellen), he seems quite happy, after one fairly short chapter about his time working in India, to almost jump straight to when he achieves his dream of opening first one, and then before very long, a whole chain of independent bookshops (another confession: I didn’t make the connection when I first read his name as the author, and didn’t look closely enough at the cover cartoon which shows a Waterstone’s bookshop!), and the bulk of the rest of the book is occupied, understandably of course and, to be fair, forgivably, by a detailed exposition of the trials & tribulations, as well as the laudable successes, of his bookselling empire. He is also rather tight-lipped about the first two of his marriages, the former during his time in India. His third marriage appears to have lasted, and he has produced, in all, eight children.

His childhood was not the happiest, and it is possible to ascribe the competitive aspect of his nature that enabled him to realise the dream that made itself known to him as a young man to that, but I think that would be simplistic: of course we are all, to a great extent, a product of our childhood & upbringing, but we are also all unique, so there must have been other factors along the way as well. He was the youngest of three children, and his father never loved him like he did Tim’s siblings, a brother and a sister. His father is described as a weak man, who depended upon his wife to a large extent while trying to give the impression that he was the man of the house; it is most likely that, as far as his father was concerned, Tim’s conception was an accident, and therefore unwanted; whereas his mother was always loving & supportive after a fashion, but that didn’t deter her from accompanying her husband to India for work, which meant that the three children were packed off to boarding schools; at Tonbridge, later, he was a contemporary of Frederick Forsyth. The boarding school episode was by no means unusual, of course, but Tim was unlucky enough to be sent to a school run by a married paedophile clergyman; although that, too, was sadly not unique. Tim laments that he made an unforgivable mistake of describing in an interview for The Times Educational Supplement his treatment at this school in a “painfully jocular and trivial and false” way, which prompted letters from previous students or, in one traumatic case, the widow of a former student who had killed himself, because “he had been destroyed by the sexual abasement he had been through at Warden House at the hands of the headmaster.” Lesson learned, albeit at a relatively late stage of his life.

In the final analysis, I am also somewhat ambivalent about how I regard Tim Waterstone as a person, not that that has a bearing upon my review of his book: he is evidently a thoughtful and considerate person, as evidenced by his supportive & caring attitude toward his staff, preferring to think of them as colleagues & friends, rather than merely members of staff; and he makes no secret of the fact that he is a Labour voter, although he doesn’t specify if he was a Blairite, given the latter’s quasi-Tory support for ‘business’; but he also is clearly and unequivocally driven & competitive, without which qualities it is very probable that he would not have succeeded, and this is the aspect of his personality which I can’t personally identify with. That doesn’t make him a better or worse man than I, of course, and it is impossible to go any further than that without the benefit of a personal acquaintance, which is extremely unlikely. What is unquestionable is that he changed the face of British bookselling in the 1980s, before the advent of the behemoth Amazon, and beyond, irrevocably. The book, published in hardback by Atlantic Books Ltd., London, in 2019, has the ISBN 978-1-78649-630-0; it is also available in paperback and an Ebook.