RE:WIRED 2021: Neal Stephenson on Building and Fixing Worlds

Neal Stephenson is a master at science and his best-selling speculative sci fi books are filled with speculations about how people will react to technological advances that could change the world. Sometimes, however, his predictions are not supported by the actual events that occur when people face an actual apocalypse.
Stephenson spoke today to RE:WIRED's senior correspondent Adam Rogers about the possibility of a pandemic in which two-thirds of Americans would die. This is despite having happened in much less time. "Even after Trump's actions, I didn't see it coming.

Stephenson's seventeenth book Termination Shock will be out next week. It tackles global warming. Stephenson believes that the public will be able to see the same cognitive dissonance about climate change after watching Covid-19. He said that the consequences of climate change are far more distant and abstract than having a relative or friend get sick or to die from this disease. "You need to be realistic. This means being pessimistic."

Stephenson's new novel depicts a world that is heading toward a climate catastrophe. A billionaire oil entrepreneur builds the largest gun in the world to fire tons of sulfur into the air. This is an attempt to solar geoengineering, which reflects sunlight. This tactic is considered to be a good idea by some scientists. Scientists believe it could cool the planet, which would save lives and preserve biodiversity. It also might help to protect property in Texas that is being affected by hurricanes.

Stephenson stated that the program was already a "fait accompli" when it opens. "So the bulk of the book is about how people from all walks of life and countries respond to this guy's actions."

Stephenson was compelled to write about climate. "Nothing else matters." Rogers had heard him tell Rogers previously in a WIRED interview. "I am a guy who discovered a niche in writing fiction about technical topics and scientific subjects. It was strange to me that I would reach the end of my career without ever taking a crack at it.

Stephenson described a single billionaire to RE:WIRED as a useful metaphor. He said, "We've gotten to a really strange place in how things work within our society, where billionaires can be the answer to all of it." "Fifty years ago we looked to the government or to private industry if we needed something major to happen.

Rogers pointed out that solar geoengineering was a controversial idea. He then asked Stephenson if it was a "big vision," which the author claimed in a WIRED article from 2011. Stephenson said, "It might be."