Fall; or, Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson

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“He keeps complaining that the Singularity isn’t working out the way he’d hoped. I think part of what disappoints him is just how damned bureaucratic it is. So many lawyers. So many meetings.”
When I was a teenager, I was a huge fan of Neal Stephenson. I read his early novels Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and Zodiac at least half-a-dozen times each. However, it’s been about 20 years since I last read something by him. (Wow, that suddenly makes me realize just how old I am.) I think the reason I stopped reading Stephenson is his novel Cryptonomicon. While it was good, it was a struggle for me to get all the way through. (It’s not exactly the type of book you read over and over again.)

Unfortunately, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, falls more into the Cryptonomicon category than the Snow Crash category. It’s about the Singularity (a.k.a. the Nerd Rapture), a hypothetical point in the future in which we’ll have the technology to copy our brains onto computers and thus become immortal. (There’s another version of the Singularity dealing with the moment computers become conscious and that’s addressed a bit in this book as well.)
Fall gives us a more realistic description of the Singularity than you typically get in sci-fi, including the various technical and legal hurdles that would stand in the way. Makes a good point that it won’t really be a single moment, but more of a gradual change.
Tech billionaire Richard “Dodge” Forthrast spends the first 20 or so pages waking up and getting ready for the day, which made this novel boring right off the bat. It did get interesting for me once we switched to the point of view of Corvallis “C-plus” Kawasaki in part 2. C-plus has social anxiety which I can relate to and it was also interesting that he takes part in live-action role playing by dressing up like an ancient Roman. I also liked that he fell in love with an amputee. The technical and legal discussions regarding cryogenic preservation and uploading a human brain to a computer were fascinating as well.
There’s also an interesting subplot involving news reports that Moab, Utah has been nuked. I always like it when my home state gets mentioned in a novel. There’s another interesting bit about online conspiracy theorists harassing someone and an attempt to improve the internet by first destroying it. There’s a lot of info dumps, but they usually take the form of conversations between people which makes them interesting to read.
In part 3, we switch to Sophia’s point of view. It’s a jarring transition from present day to a near future with driverless cars, ubiquitous drones, and augmented reality. Everybody has an editor paid to filter out propaganda, death threats, and porn from their social media feeds. Editors also help keep personal data private.
In this future, the rural US has become a dangerous place and you need to hire armed guards to drive through certain regions referred to as Ameristan. We’re told a religious group called the Leviticans practice animal sacrifice and kill people for breaking biblical laws like wearing clothing made of mixed fibers. They’re Christians who think the Jesus of the gospels was too liberal. They don’t have access to modern medical or dental practices because they chase away intellectuals. Conspiracy thinking runs amok since instead of editors, they have computer algorithms intensifying the echo chamber effect in their social media.
Overall, part 3 gives us a pretty offensive depiction of conservatives. This section felt like it was introducing us to something that would come into play later, but there actually aren’t any references to the Leviticans or Ameristan in the rest of the book, making this whole section feel like a forgotten plot thread. We do learn that Fall takes place in the same universe as Crytponomicon and Enoch Root becomes a somewhat major character.
In part 4, Sophia decides to work on her uncle Dodge’s brain for her senior thesis and Dodge becomes conscious in the virtual world. I thought the story was pretty interesting up to this point, but for me, part 5 is where things start to drag. At this point, Dodge begins to create his own virtual universe. We get descriptions of everything he builds including leaves, trees, hills, coastlines, houses, etc. Since he was a video game designer in life, you’d think he’d make his afterlife more interesting. Why couldn’t the virtual afterlife be more like the virtual world in Snow Crash? Instead, we get a fairly boring afterlife nobody would want to be stuck in forever.
Back in the real world, not much happens besides a corporate convention in which ideas are discussed. The info dumps in this section do get boring. I like that Stephenson raises the idea that there’s more to personality than just our memories. The whole body, including the microbiome, play a part in who we are.
However, do we really want exact copies of ourselves? The people in the virtual world still have human problems like forgetfulness and menstruation. Maybe it would be better if we did become different people. We wouldn’t technically be immortal since the copies of us wouldn’t exactly be us anymore, but what’s so great about all our imperfections that we’d want to preserve them? Also, I didn’t buy that everyone would agree so readily that digital scans of people were alive. Surely at least some people would argue that they really weren’t.
Stephenson has some fun by having a character named El speak through a telepresence robot named Metatron. Also, a character named Pluto makes lava in his free time. There’s plenty of other references to both biblical and ancient Greek myth sprinkled throughout.
Part 6 retells some biblical stories in the virtual world. Instead of forbidden fruit, there’s forbidden honey and eating leads to the necessity of wearing clothes. People build a tower that Dodge knocks down and they then separate based on which language they speak.
The virtual world doesn’t seem very fair with the people who were uploaded first having special powers that later people don’t have. I also wondered why the virtual people never tried to communicate with the real world. This is hinted at a bit, but I’d think that since they’re on the internet, they’d want to reach out to living people they knew. Also, why create a new world from the ground up when they could appear in online video games, watch streaming TV shows, read ebooks, and so forth?
It’s interesting that buying and selling on the stock market is basically all done automatically by bots in this future, although it’s also a bit frightening how much humans in this future hand over to AIs. Since computers program themselves by this point, humans don’t know why programs do what they do.
Part 7 gives us another disconcerting leap forward in time and the shocking event at the end of part 6 isn’t addressed until much later. Part 8 retells the Adam and Eve story in the virtual world. I was surprised by this since we kind of got a retelling of the Garden of Eden story already. Pretty boring to go through this again.
Meanwhile, in the real world, pretty much everybody uploads themselves after death and most people don’t have kids anymore. Those who are still alive tend to stay home, working from home using telepresence robots, using delivery drones for items they need, etc. Everybody is afraid of dying in a way that would damage their brains and prevent them from being scanned. Nobody wants to miss out on the boring virtual afterlife. I’d imagine there’d be groups of people who don’t want to be scanned for various reasons, but apparently not.
The book that started out as sci-fi becomes a straight up fantasy novel by the end as a group of people in the virtual world go on a quest. The villain’s motivation didn’t make a lot of sense to me, especially since he ended up doing the very things he was against. He was just crazy, I guess.
The title of the book could refer to the season. However, the moment when Dodge lost control of the virtual world is called The Fall. Also, Sophia refers to a moment called The Fall that occurs in the real world which I assume has something to do with Ameristan.
This book started out really interesting, but it became a chore to read after part 4. I wasn’t interested in the virtual world and often found myself wondering what was going on in the real world besides corporate conferences.

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