Stephenson’s first new single author book since 2015 is yet again a whopper: 883 pages. Seveneves was a love it or hate it affair: page after page crammed with technical details about what would happen if the moon would “blow up without warning and for no apparent reason.” 2017’s The Rise And Fall of D.O.D.O., co-written with Nicole Galland, was a much lighter affair about time travel and witches – a breezy beach read I enjoyed, yet it lacked the single-minded urgency of Seveneves or the original brilliance of Anathem.
Fall or, Dodge in Hell falls somewhere in between: Stephenson caters to a larger audience again, without an overdose of scientific stuff, and hardly any difficult vocabulary – he (or his editor) even felt the need to explain references like one to M.C. Escher – but at the same time this is not mere entertainment.
Like Seveneves, Fall is actually 2 books in one. The second storyline appears after about 300 pages, and alternates more or less evenly with the first one for a couple of hundred pages, after which it dominates practically all of the final 200. In Seveneves the final part was far-future scifi, while Fall‘s second book is marketed as high fantasy – something it is not, as I’ll get back to in a few seconds.
It’s of note that this book isn’t really about Richard ‘Dodge’ Forthrast, even though he is the titular character. Dodge was the main character in REAMDE and Stephenson says he picked Dodge to recur because he liked writing him. Much to my surprise, he hardly figures in the book, at least as his biological self. (I haven’t read REAMDE, and Fall is a standalone book for sure.)
Shouldn’t you know already: Fall is about mind uploading after death, and a big chunk of the book is about executing Dodge’s last will and testament, after he suddenly dies at the very beginning. He wants his brain frozen, so it can be uploaded to a digital world when the technology comes into existence. As such, Fall starts in a very near-future setting, and we spend quite some time in the next 20 years or so. At the end of the book, we’re about a century from 2019.
The Dodge that manifests in the digital realm is simply a different character. A flat character. Which takes us straight to this novel weakness: the final 200 pages. If you allow me to pan those first, I’ll end with what makes this book worth a read.
In an interview I saw flashing by on Facebook, Stephenson said he noticed that lots of sci-fi fans are fantasy fans too, and thought it would be interesting to write a book that transitioned between both genres.
A digital fantasy realm in a science fiction setting is nothing new. Alastair Reynolds included a few fantasy chapters as part of digital role play in House Of Suns, and Cixin Liu did the same in the acclaimed The Three-Body Problem. Both succeed with aplomb. And in 1995 Stephenson himself did something similar in his textbook postmodern The Diamond Age. Digital afterlifes are nothing new either: Banks’ Surface Detail springs to mind. I’m sure quite a few older examples can be found of both tactics. And more generally, fantasy worlds on distant planets are simply a sci-fi trope. So I was puzzled by the seriousness in Stephenson’s voice when he talked about his idea, as if it was an original thought.
But all that is just an introduction to the real problem: this is no high fantasy at all, but rather something that reads like myth, in the same dry manner. I’m sure the prose resembling myth is part of Stephenson’s intent – the countless of references to mythology in the book are no coincidence. In the beginning of Dodge’s digital awakening, it’s even extremely fitting, but after some time, it becomes clear that, storywise, there’s not enough substance to the form.
The ‘digital’ storyline can be divided into 3 parts: Dodge’s awakening, the awakening of 2 other characters, and finally that of the raven on the cover. I thought the first 2 parts were interesting and well done, but the final part – those final 200 pages – were a total, total bore.
That’s because they are about a whole lot of new and newish characters I simply didn’t care about, because we hardly get the time to know them – a bit like biblical old testament characters, by the way. Flat characters and hardly any character development for this book’s finale: a surprising but damning verdict for a seasoned author as Stephenson. I’m puzzled editors didn’t address this. It’s easily fixed by the way: this part could have been cut 150 pages easily without hurting the overall narrative, making Fall more of a pure and focussed affair at the same time.
Not only are the final characters boring, so is their story. The end is predictable – the finale is a quest for an object that usurps the enemy, so guess what happens. It also becomes obvious that the central conflict in the fantasy part is a bit inconsistent, or at the very least underdeveloped: I’m not sure how the alternative digital world the antagonist envisions is ideologically different from the one created by Dodge.
A general problem of the digital storyline is the mind-body problem, or a variation thereof. Most of the digital simulations of human brains in this digital world are incorporated, can bleed, be pierced by arrows. I’m sure embodiment can be coded for with quantum computers, but still, it’s all an inconsistent mess. Some souls can fly, others can’t. Some souls need to prepare extensively for flight in the digital afterlife while alive, others don’t. Some can shapeshift, others can’t. Souls do remember language and ‘qualia’ – don’t worry, that’s explained as well – yet nothing else of their previous biological life. They do remember trees and stuff, but nothing of the general nature of our world. Still, other souls are able to smuggle knowledge across the digital Styx. Lots of handwavium, that can’t be explained away by differences in resource allocation of server processing power, and/or different phases in the technological evolution.
Stephenson’s attempt at a digital translation of mythological source material has merit, especially at first, as Dodge’s creation of his digital world fittingly resembles how gamers in the 90ies explored new worlds in the dark mist on the maps on their screens. He even manages to convincingly sneak in Adam & Eve. But as the story progresses, it starts to suffer, from being both overthought and haphazard. While certain choices Stephenson made in the book’s first 650 pages are weaved together nicely (Corvus, the amputee girlfriend, the daisy), all that nifty literary construction doesn’t redeem the novel. The inconsistencies I described ultimately kill the intellectual joy we were offered at first.
That intellectual joy brings us to the good…
It needs to stressed: the first 650 pages were a joy to read. Much like Dexter Palmer’s brilliant Version Control, the near-future part of this book tells us a lot about our current times. Fall or, Dodge in Hell is about corporate power, meetings, PowerPoint, lawyers. About yuppies, in short. D.O.D.O. was partly about state bureaucracy, and this tome tackles the private sector.
But more importantly, the book is also about the pernicious influence of the internet. Stephenson takes the early warning signs of today serious (the rising number of anti-vaxxers, Trump, etc.) and extrapolates from that. Much like R. Scott Bakker explained in several articles on his blog: our cognitive ecologies are changing significantly with the rise of social media and the internet. I’ve quoted this fragment from Bakker’s review of Post-Truth by Lee C. Mcintire before – even though the prose is chewy.
To say human cognition is heuristic is to say it is ecologically dependent, that it requires the neglected regularities underwriting the utility of our cues remain intact. Overthrow those regularities, and you overthrow human cognition. So, where our ancestors could simply trust the systematic relationship between retinal signals and environments while hunting, we have to remove our VR goggles before raiding the fridge. Where our ancestors could simply trust the systematic relationship between the text on the page or the voice in our ear and the existence of a fellow human, we have to worry about chatbots and ‘conversational user interfaces.’ Where our ancestors could automatically depend on the systematic relationship between their ingroup peers and the environments they reported, we need to search Wikipedia—trust strangers. More generally, where our ancestors could trust the general reliability (and therefore general irrelevance) of their cognitive reflexes, we find ourselves confronted with an ever growing and complicating set of circumstances where our reflexes can no longer be trusted to solve social problems.
Bakker warns for a coming “semantic apocalypse”, and similarly, Stephenson calls the near-future internet “the Miasma”. To say more would spoil things. Fall‘s take on all of this is both thought provoking and extremely fun to read, even though it’s gloomy.
So indeed, Fall is satire. A form of elitist satire, yes. The uneducated and bigots in America aren’t portrayed from their best side. Apparently that doesn’t fare well for a particular kind of inclusive thought police: I’ve read a reviewer call this “Coastal Elite condescension”.
It strikes me as a sign of the times that some liberal Stephenson readers take issue with his condescension. The truth is out there: climate change is real & man-made, vaccines don’t cause autism, the earth isn’t flat and we did land on the moon. In the 60ies, Kurt Vonnegut would have written satire on these people too, and it would be applauded. Today, some cry foul. It’s one thing for Hillary Clinton to call out a basket of deplorables while running for president, Neal Stephenson has a different job to do: he doesn’t write for people in what the novel calls Ameristan.
I’m all for bridging gaps, trying to unite. But one has to ask the question: can we even close the gaps? Bakker says no: this is just the beginning. With the internet we have created a monster that will spawn only more bubbles, conspiracies and hatred. So, condescension? Maybe the culture wars are really on, and one has to take sides. Maybe it’s time we get our heads out of the sand.
Anyhow: the bulk of Fall is intelligent, relevant, multilayered, full of ideas, fun. I already covered what’s not to love – maybe too extensively. Then again: the finale of a story generally determines its success – why should that be different here? I guess because this book is two books, which makes judgement a bit easier to compartmentalize – even though they remain intermingled to some extent to the very end, and the second one actually starts off really well.
4 out of 5 stars for the first part and the onset of the digital
high fantasy myth bit, and 1 star for the final 200 pages.
Let’s end with some stats. 2011’s REAMDE was the first Stephenson book since 1992’s Snow Crash with a Goodreads rating less than 4: it’s 3.97 at this moment. Seveneves stands at 3.99, D.O.D.O. at 3.87. Fall only gets 3.67, and that’s from 2,745 ratings – including the ratings by all the diehard fans that buy and read a new Stephenson the day it comes out.
It seems like Stephenson’s 20 peak years ended with Anathem, reaching a nadir with Fall. There’s a surprising amount of critical Goodreads reviews that all voice variations on a similar theme: I’m a longtime Stephenson fan, and this book has cool stuff, but that final part sucks big time.