Fall, or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson
Billionaire tech magnate Richard “Dodge” Forthrast dies while undergoing a medical procedure. His family learns that he has requested that his brain be cryogenically preserved, and when the technology becomes available, digitally uploaded. With money being no object, his family complies; they preserve his brain and upload its connectome, the map of his neural pathways, to the cloud. Dodge awakens to nothingness; the world around him is static, “sheets, waves,and bands of noise,” like a television set tuned to no channel. Upon awakening, he begins to construct a virtual world around him based upon vague memories of his former life. This is unsurprising since in that life Dodge, a character who first appears in Neal Stephenson’s 2001 novel Reamde, was the architect of T’Rain (pronounced “terrain”), the world’s most popular massive multiplayer online role-playing game.
In Fall, or Dodge in Hell, Neal Stephenson takes the notion of digital immortality and explores its implications far into the future. Once “brain uploading” becomes a reality, what shape will “the afterlife” take, and who will get to experience it? Will the digitally-uploaded be able to communicate with one another? Will they be able to communicate with the living, or will they even want to? Stephenson pursues these questions relentlessly, dividing Fall into two narratives, one set in our world, “Meatspace,” and the other in “Bitworld,” where the digitally uploaded dead live forever. The timelines in Bitworld and Meatspace stretch years into Stephenson’s imagined future; denizens of the latter remain at home whenever possible to protect their brains rather than risk losing entry into the afterlife; and the world of the living transforms to provide the computational power required to support the world of the dead.
Dodge, who dubs himself “Egdod” after his most powerful T’Rain character, becomes god-like. He forms “The Land,” presides over the souls who follow him into the afterlife, and enfolds a select group of these souls, bearing mythical names like Longregard, Walksfar and Freewander, into his Pantheon. The Bitworld portion of Fall unfolds as a mythically-infused epic fantasy in which good and evil duke it out amidst a sprawling cast of non-human characters and the rise and fall of competing deities. The chapters taking place in Meatspace become a sort of a techno-thriller in which the internet has been maliciously crashed and has morphed into curated “edit streams” delivered via augmented reality eyewear. Social commentary abounds here, as the technology deepens the rift between “Blue States” and “Ameristan.” Bitworld and Meatspace vie equally for the reader’s attention until, about two-thirds of the way in, Bitworld dominates the remainder of the novel.
My favorite parts of Fall include the very first chapter, during which Dodge’s thoughts about consciousness set the novel’s thematic underpinnings, He ruminates on the nature of sleep, consciousness and the three Fates, who, as he knew from d’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, were the spinner, measurer and cutter of the threads of consciousness. “In that sense awake Dodge was as superior to sleeping Dodge as a living person ws to a ghost. Dreaming of coffee Dodge was to drinking-coffee Dodge as one of the shades in Hades – likened in d’Aulaire, to dry leaves whiling about in a cold autumn wind – was to a living, flesh-and-blood person.”
Also brilliant is a section that reveals the deepening social divide in America, complete with Crazytown “truthers,” who fervently believe and defend the fake news that they are fed, and a group of religiously zealous “Leviticans” who nail-gun another character to a gluelam cross. Stephenson, of course, also works magic imagining the post-internet technologies that emerge in Meatspace. Unfortunately, this all gets buried beneath the overlong passing of ages in the novel’s final third (roughly 300 pages) as Bitworld devolves into the story of an epic quest led by a giant, talking crow.
Read Fall, or Dodge in Hell for Stephenson’s deep dives into myth, social commentary and our technological future, but if you find the thread of the story ranging off into the void, let it go. It’s not coming back.
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