Neal Stephenson, “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell” (2019) – As it happens, I actually read this months ago. I requested a reviewers copy on the idea I could run a review in LARB or somewhere. But it turns out everyone already either had somebody to review it, weren’t interested in reviewing it, or is too political for my not-especially-political take. So it goes up on the blog instead! And I have to remember a book I read in March.
In keeping with Stephenson’s m.o., this is a big book, and has the feel of several books squashed together. I’ve argued before that Stephenson’s novels are following the trajectory of the life cycle, and we’re getting into the part where a man begins to think a lot about death (and divorce) and legacy. We start with the titular Dodge, one of the main characters in “Reamde,” in my opinion Stephenson’s weakest novel. He goes in for a routine medical procedure and comes out comatose! His will says to pull the plug but also keep his brain on ice- it turns out Dodge was in to some futurist stuff in the nineties that predicted that science would be able to resurrect people. So like Ted Williams, on ice he goes.
But his beloved grand-niece has Plans. After taking a trip through an America increasingly divided between neurasthenic automated luxury liberalism and fanatical worshippers of the “Tactical Jesus” (easily my favorite thing in the book), she decides her senior project at college is going to be simulating a human brain on quantum computers. And who better to try it with than her great uncle Dodge?
It turns out to suck to have your brain be bouncing around a computer program. It’s just static! Until, that is, Dodge starts playing Minecraft with the static. He makes the world in a way that feels right- that is, a world somewhere between the world he grew up in and the fantasy gaming milieu where he made his fortune. He minecrafts up the hilly-willies and down the hilly-willies and then eventually some other rich techies show up on the server. They create bodies for themselves and then it’s on.
Truth be told this is where I began to lose the thread. There’s an Old Testament quality to the work, down to rolling King James cadences in the Minecraft Genesis bits and that’s cool, I guess, but then it gets into something like the begets, not literally but in terms of being hard to keep track of. There’s another tech billionaire, El Shepherd, who has a Plan for the digital afterlife that Dodge’s niece set up. He doesn’t like that Dodge basically set up lightly-fantasy-Earth Minecraft in the digital afterlife and like a lot of villains, he has a point. We could be doing literally anything! The one time anyone tries something different — a kind of communal musical mindmeld — Dodge completely thunderbolts it. What’s the point of an afterlife if you have to do everything the same as in the before-life?
But in the classic way of villains in conservative-liberal fiction from Madam Defarge to Killmonger, the people with actual ideas are also dicks. El wants to be God. He casts Dodge into hell. Meanwhile, the whole earth’s population is getting obsessed with watching shit unfold in the afterlife and the tech to get in gets more and more accessible. It’s pretty interesting to see how society changes around that, people basically waiting out the clock to get into the digital afterlife club, etc. What becomes of the worshippers of the Tactical Jesus?? Stephenson doesn’t tell us. He just drops them.
At some point Dodge’s niece infiltrates the digital afterlife to, uh… there’s some stuff with an Adam and Eve pair, and a fantasy quest, and fighting the El/Peter Thiel/Bad God figure… but god help me it was mostly pretty boring by then and I can’t remember most of it. There’s some weird shit like how most people who get incarnated into the digital afterlife become weird mutant goblin-esque scrubs- is that where the Tactical Jesus people go? I also got the vague idea they were maybe third world peasants. Either way, shades of the weird eugenics Stephenson played with in “Seveneves.” That only bothers me a little — I’m fine with speculative fiction based in ideas I’m opposed to — but it was mostly confusing and inconsistent, and missed some good opportunities.
All told, there’s a lot here, some good, some bad, some just dull. His broadest point appears to be that while life can be better (or worse), the basic shape of things — from what trees grow where to what shape bodies take (for the most part- there’s always a few fun exceptions) — is handed down from on high, or by the shape of our brains perceiving ideal forms in a sort of quantum pattern-sensing, six of one, half dozen of another. The highlights of the book are the ways in which society bends before and around the digital afterlife. There’s a take on the problem of “fake news” which is both interesting and partaken of liberal bromides about how the problem works (and is completely dropped when it could have been carried into digital afterlife!). The lowlight is the mediocre fantasy novel the book becomes in its last couple hundred (!) pages. What’s next for Stephenson? Who knows but it should be conceptually interesting and worth noting, if nothing else. ***