Kamil Choudhury

#define ZERO -1 // oh no it's technology all the way down

Book Talk - Fall; Or Dodge In Hell

Every couple of years I dedicate a week to reading Neal Stephenson's newest book. It took me two years to get around to it this time round (young kids and COVID have not been good for reading...), but I finally found enough time during vacation to read Fall: Or Dodge In Hell.

I started recording my thoughts in this Twitter thread:

I won't discuss the first 200 or so pages of the novel: a detailed exploration of online disinformation and its effect on red America must have been immensely topical to Stephenson as he was writing the book (probably in the 2017-18 timeframe?), but it is ultimately vestigial to the rest of the novel, which tries to get to the root -- in typically voluminous fashion -- of what it means, really, to be alive.

The novel opens with Richard "Dodge" Forsyth dying during a routine medical procedure and having his consciousness uploaded to a virgin quantum computing cloud. Stephenson walks us in excruciating detail through Dodge (known in-cloud as Edgod) forging a world to live in out of quantum chaos, and then forming a new society in it alongside other newly uploaded souls.

The steady advance of upload technology in the real world results in power hierarchies organically forming in the cloud, and the fortuitous introduction of a Big Bad fills the back quarter of the novel leads to a moderately gripping Heroic Quest that ends with peace being restored to the (virtual) world, whose mythology now somehow explains our collective affinity for Greek mythology and our weirdly cross-culturally consistent creation myths. And oh yeah, as long as the cloud keeps running and expanding, humanity is effectivley immortal. Huzzah.

To Stephenson's credit, the 900 or so pages in the novel fairly fly by.

Unfortunately, accepting Dodge's virtual reality requires us to suspend belief about the 'real' world that ultimately hosts it. Stephenson tells us that creating and running a metaverse for departed souls is stupendously expensive, but hand waves the details away by invoking "financial bots". Really? There is the potential for a first rate financial drama here that is left completely unexplored: alpha decays, endowments fail... what happens when souls have to be terminated because of operating account shortfalls?

In the novel's universe, large swathes of middle America have been reduced to theocratic fundmentalism ("Ameristan") by the unrestricted flow of algorithmic disinformation ("Facebooking") on the internet. Left unexplored is how the denizens of this blighted subregion respond to the spiritual aftershock of humanity becoming immortal. And how does the American left respond to similar stimuli? Stephenson asks us to accept without question that the coastal elite will endure in innovative quantum utopia because They Believe In Science. Sure the book was written before Trump's COVID-fueled assault on good sense and science, but I would sooner believe that unicorns exist than accept that the left would be any better than the religious right at filtering insanity-inducing online disinformation.

Meanwhile, as our main characters happily create a virtual world for the souls of hundreds of millions of their dearly departed friends and family, Enoch Root, the seemingly immortal character from elsewhere in the Stephenson Extended Universe, drops by to tell us that his mission has ended now that humanity is able to simulate itself into immortality. With twenty pages to go, the reader is left with the unsettling prospect of worlds simulating worlds in infinite recursive futility. It's Rick and Morty for the literary crowd.

Until now, no one who has slogged through one of his novels could seriously claim that Stephenson lacks vision or ambition: just think back to the richly realized worlds of The Baroque Cycle or Anathem. Fall's flacid vision of immortality -- simulation without end in a computer playground, with no consciousness or link to what came before -- is profoundly unsatisfying and I cannot help but wonder why any of its characters would bend humanity's best efforts towards achieving it.

Near the end of the novel, the quest for cheap electricity and heat dissipation leads to the dense colonization of space and the proposed enclosure of the sun in a Dyson sphere. The novel's Humanity would rather use the energy of its only star to simulate itself in virtual eternity than explore the farthest reaches of its actual reality.

I would rather die.