Neal Stephenson’s Fall, or Dodge in Hell was a disappointing book despite many good things going for it. I like how Stephenson writes. I like how he tries to imagine technical details in the tradition of speculative sci-fi. Overall I liked the story in Fall: discovering and building a digital afterlife by private industry, where anyone can have their brain scanned and then be resurrected in a land of myth and fantasy. The quest at the end of the novel makes for a strong ending.
Despite the novel’s attractive features, I found myself frustrated by the first 300 pages. To say the story starts slowly is an understatement. There was the necessary place setting of Dodge’s death, introducing the players, and some exhibition on life extension and brain scanning technology. Following this, we have two world-building chapters that were largely unnecessary and full of problems (which I’ll get into later in this post). Around page 300 we finally get to visit the digital afterlife and get back to Dodge Forthrast who had died in the first 35 pages. The Land, the name of the digital world of human afterlife, is well-imagined and made for the best parts of the novel. The remaining 550 pages of Fall goes back and forth between the virtual and real worlds. On one hand there is an entertaining fantasy story dealing with myth and magic and the quest to find Dodge and win back The Land (a/k/a Bitworld) from an usurper. On the other hand we get dry administrative conflicts and legal wrangling between the entities that own and operate the computer systems that host The Land and upload its residents.
In general, Stephenson does a lot telling and not enough showing in Fall, making for an overly long and wordy read. Sometimes I found it insulting that he doesn’t trust his readers to be smart enough to fill in gaps. More specifically, I had four big problems with the novel which, at just under 900 pages, makes me feel a certain amount of regret that I devoted the time to read the book.
First, the characters are bloodless (figuratively speaking of course, as the uploaded consciousnesses are non-corporeal) and seemed like the same person: technical introverts who nerd-out on certain subjects, talking the same way, and thinking the same way. They are sexless and humorless. None of them have bad habits or major character flaws. Consequently I did not connect with any of the characters and, worse, I didn’t even like them.
We never get to know Dodge/Egdod (but maybe it was assumed the reader knew him from Reamde). Despite Corvallis being in so many parts of the novel, we barely get to know him either, but what little we do see of him seems machine-like and boring. The same is true for Zula (but, again, she’s also in Reamde) who is a just a stick figure created to deliver dialogue about the administration of the Forthrast Family Foundation. Maeve–the implausible Aussie rafting guide but also tech entrepreneur–seemed to be created for certain purposes: hero in another pointless detour about new anti-trolling technology, Corvallis love interest, and character destined to fly around Bitworld. Maeve is also a double amputee, a puzzling aspect thrown onto an already implausible character, almost as if Stevenson needed something to further distinguish her grit and moxie (and making me wonder if this showed inadvertent sexism on the part of the author, as if a woman could not have an interesting personality and strong point of view in her own right). We also meet characters like Enoch Root who are introduced, built-up, but then serves no purpose in the plot. Finally, we have Sophia (Dodge’s niece and Zula’s daughter) who, with no technical training or experience, and supposedly with no nepotism, becomes a force in the digital upload industry. We spend a lot of time with Sophia and yet never really know her. When Sophia is murdered there isn’t much reason for emotion and, worse, it comes across as a transparent plotting move to put her in Bitworld. Finally, there are many additional characters in Bitworld (like Adam and Eve) but they are equally shallow and underdeveloped, and really not worth discussing.
Second, unlike the world building in Bitworld which is a lot of mythological fun, the world building for “IRL” is weak. Besides describing expected tech innovations like drones, AI, and robotics, the future state of the world in Fall is as underdeveloped as its characters. All of the time and detail devoted to the Moab incident were unnecessary and added little the novel’s story arc about uploading and immortality. It was almost as if Stephenson just wanted to write a short story about a spectacular media hoax that lived on for decades. The Moab incident itself was highly implausible, not because it could not be pulled off, but in that it took so long to dispel false reports of the nuclear destruction of a town in the US. It is almost as if Stephenson thinks people only look at Facebook and Twitter in a vacuum, don’t engage any other media or even talk to each other. As if that was not enough, Stephenson piles on that there’s continued “debate” about the hoax, spawning a “Moab truther” movement that would fester in red state America. I’m not sure if Stephenson is trying to channel some kind of Marshall McLuhan analysis in that public discourse played out in the “Miasma” allows people to displace reality and define their own version of it. What I see is Stephenson indicting middle America as a bunch of imbeciles who only believe their media echo chambers, which by now is a pretty tired critique.
There is more world-building in Sophia’s college road trip, 17 years after Moab. This is an interesting part of the novel but another distracting detour away from the digital afterlife. Red state America has devolved with its guns and god, lacking jobs and healthcare, and relishing racial and religious hatred. Moab remains a touchstone for government propaganda. Stephenson takes the unfeasible Moab incident and builds it as a historical event that remains controversial, a fork in the road of US history. I think Stephenson commits the sin of world building around too few ideas, using the Moab incident as world defining. It is one thing to believe the country could be full of uncritical idiots who would still believe Moab was destroyed; it is quite another to believe nothing bigger would have happened in the world in the following 17 years–no wars, no terrorism, no economic collapse, no environmental calamity, and no epidemics.
Third, everything about Sophia comes across as phony, something only mimicking real life. College girl Sophia, on her summer internship at her family’s foundation, has the idea to put together Dodge’s connectome with neuron simulating software run on quantum computers. We are supposed to believe in two months Sophia, a liberal arts major at Princeton in her junior year, discovers something that had been beyond the knowledge of the two well-funded enterprises employing hundreds of professionals that had been studying uploading human consciences for years. Worse, after this Sophia develops into a force in her own right in the digital upload world, continuing to make new discoveries. For example, on pages 369-373 (in the 2019 first edition) Sophia leads a discussion at an academic conference about applying “spatial thinking” when observing the uploaded consciousness. After pages of academic debate, to prove her point Sophia reveals a virtual world being formed by the uploaded consciousnesses, showing a map a continent and a small town. This left me wondering, “Why the fuck wouldn’t she start with that?” Talk about burying the lead.
Fourth, the novel falls short in its economic plausibility, despite efforts by Stephenson to make the new industrial undertaking sound believable. Early on there’s a lot of dialogue about the cost of running the processors that kept the virtual world running. At first it sounded like only the very rich could be scanned and uploaded, but eventually Stephenson makes it sound like uploading was available to anyone who wanted it because the not-for-profit foundations that owned the technology and offered the service were funded by investments managed by ‘investment bots’ that earned above market returns, and revenues from selling access to the “landform visualization utility” to the public as a form of entertainment (like watching someone play Sim City or Age of Empires?). With the expansion of quantum computing, at one point the novel reveals that there is plenty of computing capacity to keep up with scanning and uploading people (page 508), but then goes back to say there were still infrastructure constraints (pages 515-516) with a comment that people could still be scanned and uploaded, but processing limitations meant the newly uploaded would be restricted in what they could do in the afterlife. Later in the novel, there is an implication everyone is being uploaded, with page 575 describing the hosting organizations using 40% of the planet’s energy. We learn at the end of the novel that the hosting computers become spaced-based in order for them to better handle the massive processing load.
I think if scanning and uploading were introduced, the service would remain the province of the rich for decades, but as the technology spread the price would drop, allowing more people to accesses it. The incumbent firms would have an incentive to offer variable pricing and expand the volume of customers so long as price exceeded the marginal cost. Eventually patents would run out and new competition would arise, creating more supply and lowering prices even more, allowing more people on the planet to pay to be scanned and uploaded, with more choices to be uploaded to competing digital afterworlds. But instead of complicating the world with realistic considerations like those, Fall gives us a handful of people in two foundations running a multi-trillion dollar industry dealing with life and death, which is preposterous.
Finally, I got the impression Stephenson did not want to tackle the socio-economic issues, not to mention religious issues, what would have surely arisen in the face of this new technology. The image of a suicide bomber at a server farm comes to mind, as do protests in front of the Forthrast Family Foundation’s offices over income inequality or racial injustice. Amazingly at no point is there government intervention in this emerging industry–which probably makes for a more outlandish fantasy tale than any of the battles between demigods and angels that take place in The Land.