Often, I’ll be walking through Walmart, Kroger, an actual bookstore or a dark alley at night, and just pick up a book that catches my eye, read a snippet of its synopsis and go with it. One of my fears with doing that is that I’ll get a book that’s part of a series and I will inadvertently jump into the middle of a series.
I not only sort of did that with Neal Stephenson’s 2019 speculative fiction book, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, but also, I jumped into the world of Stephenson perhaps without allowing him to put his best foot forward to me as a new reader of his. His name seemed familiar and then I remembered, I’d seen interviews with him through Reason magazine. I posted about reading the book on Twitter to Peter Suderman, of Reason, who had recently read Stephenson’s latest, Termination Shock. Someone else then asked what books he would recommend to get started on Stephenson, and he specifically said he would have recommended Fall.
At the time I posted that, I was about half-way through the book, thereabouts page 400 of an 883-age behemoth of a book, and I was digging it! Suderman said he thought the last half of the book was a bit more “weird and discursive even by his standards.”
And Suderman was right! That’s a long wind-up to say, despite that, I’m glad to have jumped into the world of Neal Stephenson because his ideas, even mere aside details within the book, are fascinating to consider. I look forward to reading more of his work, so it’s not as if Fall dissuaded me from doing so.
I’m not sure I quite understand what the difference is between science fiction and speculative fiction, but my thinking is, speculative fiction tries to be a more grounded form of science fiction, wherein the elements detailed seem plausible and could manifest within a reasonable amount of time, whereas, obviously, elements within science fiction are often beyond the realm of feasibility.
To the former point about jumping into a series, it’s not so much that the book is a sequel, but it sort of is the culmination of a lot of Stephenson’s prior work, as another writer on Twitter explained to me, and in addition, the central character, Dodge, was introduced in the 2011 book, Remade.
Nonetheless, let’s get into it.
The book follows Richard “Dodge” Forthrast, who sort of foreshadows much of the book in the beginning by being fascinated by the contours of a leaf, and is the billionaire owner of a video game. He unexpectedly dies during a routine surgery. Unbeknownst to his family members and friends, he made plans to have his mind uploaded to the Cloud so as to theoretically “live forever,” despite the technology being rather primitive at the time of his death. At the time, bodies, or more specifically, the heads, were being frozen still.
From there, we basically follow through 100-some years of Meatspace (that is the terms used for humans presently living), where technology begins rapidly advancing. For example of some of the changes that come to mind from the book, robotics is a big element. Robotics are far more advanced than presently exists, to where robots are driving our vehicles for us, responding to 9-1-1 emergencies, fixing satellites in space and even acting as our exoskeleton, should we not be able to walk anymore. In addition, you can send your robot as an avatar of sorts in your place to a meeting, as one of the characters does throughout.
There are also changes in organ transplants and such, to where you start to get into that ethical territory of, what is human and what is machine? At which point can you augment a human’s failings so much that she becomes more machine than woman? I’d love to read more about transhumanism.
And of course, the biggest change is the computing power of the Cloud to be able to upload brains to it rather than freezing a brain. Eventually, Sophia, Dodge’s niece, as part of her college project, decides to “turn on” Dodge’s brain within the Cloud and see what happens. Turns out, utter chaos or a form of hell. Time means nothing in Bitworld (what this virtual existence is called) and it’s hellish trying to even center one’s self within the swirling chaos, as Dodge learns.
It sort of echoes the beginnings of our own universe. Chaos turning into order. Which is an idea Stephenson plays with throughout the book — humans are basically nothing, if not extremely focus chaos (or, as Stephen calls it in the book, auras). The natural order of things is chaos. We are the lucky abnormality. The natural order of things is that it’s easier to destroy than to create. Thus, anything created is in itself something marvelous, which is why Dodge focuses so much on the aforementioned beauty of the leaf (which he then gifts to Sophia before his death). And much of the book is Dodge creating from nothing but the faintest memories of Meatspace.
Perhaps the most chilling and intriguing idea Stephenson introduces is that once Dodge is able to begin creating as a sort of quasi-God within the Bitworld and more “souls” come online (people who died and wanted their brains uploaded to the Cloud, too), humans on Earth become so invested in watching what’s going on in the Bitworld (Sophia’s people developed a way to actually watch in something approaching real time or a time delay what’s happening in Bitworld).
“The living stayed home, haunting the world of the death like ghosts.”– Neal Stephenson
Instead of living their lives, humans became obsessed with watching what was going on in Bitworld and that complimented the fact that they were staying home anyway: Why risk injuring your brain by going outside in such a dangerous world? You needed your brain to be in good condition to be uploaded; ergo.
And procreation itself becomes something of an exotic notion over time, to where the human race is dwindling and much of it resides within Bitworld. People who do still have children are considered hippies. Nature seems to be returning to Earth in abundance, as we abate, to where the remaining humans almost exist as an oddity within a small park-like space of Earth.
But it’s interesting: After actually seeing what Bitworld appears to be, why would you want to go there? Because for starters, is it really “living forever” if you don’t have any memories of this plane of existence? Once you cross over into Bitworld, aside from some vague notions, you completely forget the Meatspace world. And secondly, it seems hellish in there! Even once Dodge creates a lot of the infrastructure and such, it’s almost like a primitive world where humans have to start back from scratch. Why would you want to exist there? Not to say anything of the fact that a God-like ruler essentially exists in the form of Dodge, and then later, El.
El is the character, also an eccentric, if more evil, billionaire, who helped to fund much of the ability to upload brains to the Cloud because he also wanted to live forever. However, he thinks Dodge and the people supporting him are going about it the wrong way within Bitworld: It’s mirroring Meatspace too much, the echo of what Dodge remembers. And thus, we’re only repeating the same mistakes. El envisions a more perfect space.
But what’s funny there is, once El is in Bitworld and is able to cause the “fall” of Dodge, he literally creates Adam and Eve and confines them to a Garden, where eventually they are tempted and “tainted” by a worm (who is actually Dodge). So, he seemed to be failing, too! (There’s also some gross incest, where Adam notices his penis, what comes out of it and that he’s aroused by Eve. Which, I mean, I guess would mirror early human societies. The procreation had to start somewhere.)
There’s also a peculiar diversion in the future of America within the book that only gets touched on once and I wish Stephenson had spent more time explaining it! Sophia and her friends are traveling to Iowa where Dodge grew up and they go through Ameristan (I think is how that’s stylized), where apparently, in this future America, there’s a segment of the country that’s sort of seceded from the United States. They are a hyper-religious sect, but the twist here is that they view Jesus as a beta-male. That is, weak and worthy of scorn, given what the Bible says of him helping the poor and such.
Another interesting part that played on the real world as it exists now is that of “fake news.” So, hackers for whatever reason, made it seem as if a nuclear bomb had gone off in Moab, New Mexico. Everyone was convinced for a moment in time. Imagine that. Getting people to think a nuclear bomb went off in an American city! And even after it’s revealed to be a hoax, there are people still peddling to grifting success, that the nuclear bomb really did happen and the government and media are covering it up! It’s great satire by Stephenson and perhaps the most fun part of the book.
I thought this idea that the far right would turn on Jesus himself at some point to be not only a fascinating idea, but something believable I could see happening. The far right, as personified by Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson and others, are so focused on masculinity and a projected sense of it, that you could see that evolving into a disdain for Jesus and a “religious” sect that emerges without Jesus as its central figure.
But alas, Stephenson never goes back to that idea or fully fleshes out what’s going on there.
I have to say, a few hundred pages toward the second half of the book were a bit of a drag for me because we spend an inordinate amount of time in Bitworld. I actually thought Meatspace, where they debated and grappled with a lot of weighty ideas, was more interesting than seeing what the people in Bitworld were doing. Stephenson himself even remarks upon how boring it got for the humans in Meatspace to watch the going-ons, and yet, he made us read the intricate going-ons! I don’t know if that was a meta joke or not.
Still, one of the emergent ideas I thought really interesting from the Bitworld/Meatspace juxtaposition comes toward the end. In the end, the characters go on a Quest to find a key, which will unlock Dodge from hell, so he can re-take the Land of Bitworld from El. However, El destroyed the key, so how can there be a key? Well, as this character explains it, the copy of the key was manifest by the people within Meatspace unbeknownst to those within Bitworld. Which made me think: There’s a fun idea that we are living in a simulation, a sort of Matrix world, if you will. What if we are the Bitworld? And there is a Meatspace world beyond us that we obviously can’t understand because this is the reality we know? We can’t possibly know or understand or reach that other plane of existence. In addition, those within that unreachable Meatspace can tinker with the things we do here in inexplicable ways to us.
Something I was expecting to happen that didn’t: Throughout, thanks to Pluto, another character on the side of Dodge who helps to better some of Dodge’s earlier creations, there are many things reminiscent of tunnels that make it as if a character is teleporting from one spot in the Land in Bitworld to another. The characters on the Quest go through one of these teleporting tunnels. I thought, in the build up to them reaching it, that they were going to emerge in Meatspace somehow. I thought the virtual characters somehow crossing over into the other plane of existence of Meatspace would’ve been a heck of an image!
This was a behemoth of a book, dense with thoughts that could make up their own blog posts. Heck, the first few pages of Dodge’s meandering thoughts as he’s getting ready to, and arriving at, his surgery had me hooked because they were so interesting. And that was the first few pages!
I think some of it gets too bogged down by Bitworld (which is a metaphor for what happens to Meatspace in the book), but overall, I was enthralled enough with the central characters and more importantly, the ideas that Stephenson was playing with, that I wanted to keep reading. I can’t wait to read more of his work because he’s a deeply interesting, provocative thinker on things that are techy beyond my brain and even little details like Jesus as beta male.
If you haven’t read Stephenson before, but have the aptitude to enjoy a dense meditation on philosophy, technology and fundamentally, what it means to be human, I would recommend this book for sure.
Because creating is hard, so when we see a fellow human create something, even if it it isn’t perfect, we are awed by it. I’m awed by Stephenson’s creation here, even if it isn’t perfect.