Fall; or, Dodge in Hell

Over my recent vacation, I read Neal Stephenson's latest book Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, which is a rough sequel to 2011's REAMDE. I thought I'd write up some brief thoughts I had on it and maybe some questions for a hypothetical future reader. Like all of Stephenson's work from the last couple of decades, this book is a meandering combination of science fiction, philosophy, political commentary, and mythical fantasy. The Kindle edition I read is 880 pages long, and went pretty quickly over four three-hour flights.

In general, I'd give it ★★★☆☆. It's got lots of interesting ideas, but it's shot through with too much ridiculous libertarian ideology, and it tries to tell too way too many stories in parallel. If you liked Cryptonomicon, you'll probably like this book, but I would be surprised if anyone likes it enough to plod through it twice.

WARNING: This post will contain significant spoliers for both Fall and REAMDE; don't keep reading untless you've either read both or are highly confident you aren't going to read either.

The book is divided into four different time periods in two universes. Key characters include Dodge (a.k.a. Richard Forthrast, the lead character from REAMDE and a tech billionaire), returning from REAMDE), his friend C+ (a.k.a Corvallis Kawasaki, a.k.a Corvus, also returning from REAMDE), his sister Zula (another REAMDE returnee), her daughter Sophia, a double-amputee named Maeve, Richard Dawkins El Shepherd (a futurist), and the mysterious Enoch Root, who appears in many Stephenson books going back to Cryptonomicon.

The first time period of the book comprises Parts 1 and 2 (the first ~180 pages) and takes place in the "real world" in the near future. It's a fairly straightforward techno-thriller in a similar style to REAMDE. It opens with billionaire Dodge's death and the discovery that his will includes instructions to preserve his brain with the best technology available. Dodge's friend Corvallis is the executor and struggles with some political intrigue, an extreme futurist named El, and a fake nuclear attack in Moab, Utah designed to sew distrust in the anonymous Internet. A lot of this (particularly once Pluto shows up in Chapter 11) is pretty hard to read and feels more like Stephenson lecturing about hypothetical designs for the Internet than like a novel. The entire PURDAH concept smells like something a cryptocurrency libertarian dreamt up while on peyote at Burning Man1 — right down to the fact that it relies on blockchain-based distributed ledgers2. Eventually, though, they get Dodge's brain scanned and uploaded to a big S3 bucket somewhere, where it sits as inert data.

After this, there's a time-skip forward 17 years and the novel changes focus to Dodge's niece Sophia, who has of course decided to dedicate her life to computational neuroscience. A lot of the beginning of this section reads more like Snow Crash than anything Stephenson has written since. Sophia's trip through a future "Ameristan" populated by meme-controlled, gun-toting Leviticans who believe that the Crucifixion was a hoax intended to portray Jesus as "the kind of beta who would allow himself to be spat on"3. I guess this part of the book is satire? It's pretty much as blunt as you can get, and while the core of the idea is interesting (what would happen if all rational people left a swath of the country and just said "do whatever you want" to the craziest people on the far right?), this section doesn't fit in at all with the rest of the book.

Sophia makes it through Ameristan and eventually succeeds in "booting up" her uncle Dodge. This opens the third major part of the book, which runs concurrently with the second part — Dodge in Hell. Dodge comes back to life in a decentralized computer program and spends an indeterminate amount of time living with no stimulus in an endless field of static. The chapters from his perspective are amazing and unlike anything from any Stephenson book before. Dodge, who was thinking about classical mythology when he died, builds a universe from the chaos modeled partly on the video game he used to develop, partly on classical mythology, and partly on Christian theology, and he is its god Egdod4. Some parts of this section, watching Egdod build a universe are positively joyous to read. More wealthy futurists have their brains scanned and the digital afterlife (eventually termed "Bitworld") grows. Eventually, El Shepard dies, is scanned, and enters Bitworld as a God where he casts down Egdod and starts remaking the world according to his whims.

The "real world" sections of the book that interleave with this (particular Part 6) are the weakest of the book, though. Stephenson focuses exclusively on the powerful, wealthy families that control the digital afterlife and seems to forget about the rest of the world outside of Seattle and from Zelrijk-Aalberg5. All that work setting up the Leviticans in Chapter 13, but then no religion in the world ever has trouble with Americans making their own private commercial afterlife? The book many times emphasizes the commercial nature of what SLUZA/ALISS6 do, but shies away from the fact that in this universe where you can live forever, some people are too poor to pay for it and die just like their ancestors. Chapter 27 mentions that brain-scanning is very popular in China, but doesn't say anything about whether people who grew up in Chinese culture really want to live their afterlives in something part-way between the Old Testament and World of Warcraft.

The last roughly 350 pages of the book (Parts 8 through 11) completely change tone and subject. They form a Tolkein-esque fantasy quest by the reincarnation of Sophia through Bitworld to find a key to release Egdod, defeat El, and save the (virtual) world. Lots more Old Testament references are scattered through this section. It's a fun romp, but there isn't a hint of science fiction in it.

As Sophia/Daisy/Prim succeeds and frees Egdod to remake the virtual world, in the real world Enoch Root and Zula discuss the nature of reality. I guess this is supposed to be the crux of the book but damn is it confusing. My best interpretation is that Enoch is revealing that the Simulation Hyphothesis is real, that our world is some other universe's virtual universe, and that he exists somehow outside of our continuum. And then the book… ends? Humankind eventually goes extinct and lives in a virtual afterlife inside a Dyson Sphere maintained by non-sentient robots? The whole thing was a dream? Everybody moves into Bitworld and then our universe "folds up" into the next-highest level of simulation? Who knows!

If you want to read a 900-page-long Stephenson book that completely changes subject and tone ⅔ of the way through, I'd recommend Seveneves before I'd recommend Fall. This book could've lost 400 pages (say, everything about Moab, most of the Ameristan sections, most of the Adam & Eve section, all of the backstory of Zelrick-Aalberg, and the entire concept of PURDAHs) and it'd be better for it. Does anybody know an editor we could send over to Mr. Stephenson?

  1. Which, to be clear, is an entirely plausible origin. 

  2. Anyone want to make a bet how long until that reference seems as dated as the digression about 1-800 numbers in Snow Crash

  3. Stephenson, Neal. Fall; or, Dodge in Hell (pp. 194-195). William Morrow. Kindle Edition. 

  4. I'm a little slow and it took me embarrassingly long to realize that "Egdod" is just "Dodge" backwards. 

  5. A fictional "Flemish nano-state" where El Shepard retreats to avoid taxation and mass-murder prosecution, successfully, for decades. 

  6. The acronyms for the various incarnations of the groups that control the digital afterlife.