Book review: Fall; or, Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson

In a sense, Fall is a typical Stephenson novel.  It has all the hallmarks of an author who is constantly evolving, refining his style and endlessly polishing his prose, so that not a single word or comma is out of line.  However, it seems to contain all the wrong elements one would expect from Stephenson.  It’s like the author decided to pick the worst characteristics of his precious works, and manically throw together multiple concepts, none of which he brings to completion.  If this was the work of a lesser author, I’d be afraid he was deranged, but in the case of Neal Stephenson I like to believe that Fall; or, Dodge in Hell is a grand experiment.  Of throwing shit on the wall and seeing what sticks…

Before launching to some of the side stories and my frustrations with them, let me describe the central storyline in a few simple paragraphs that certainly don’t do the scope of the book much justice.  At the beginning we meet Richard Forthrast, one of the main protagonists of Stephenson’s older novel Reamde.  Forthrast, known to his friends as Dodge, is one of the richest people on the planet, thanks to creating an addictive on-line game (more of that in Reamde).  He heads to a routine medical procedure during which he is accidentally killed.  Going through his last will, his niece Zula (the damsel of distress in the previous book) and his will executor Corvallis Kawasaki discover that Dodge wanted his body cryogenically frozen to a time where he could be brought back to life.

Further investigation shows that the company with whom Dodge signed the contract has ceased to exist, destroyed the bodies of all previous clients and only scanned their brains (and even that imperfectly).  Dodge’s associates refuse to hand over the body to the network of companies headed by Elmo Shepherd, another billionaire who is obsessed about immortality, who scooped all companies dealing with such (including the original cryofreeze one) into his portfolio.  Instead, Dodge is kept on life support until the technology is advanced enough to scan his brain properly.

Sophia, Zula’s daughter and Dodge’s grandniece, grows up during this time, and decides to take a crack at analyzing the dormant database with Dodge’s brain information.  She is given admin access and boots the full database up on a server farm with quantum computers, capable of handling the full process.  At that point, the story splits into two.  Over the next few months, Dodge is slowly regaining consciousness, without any memories, and starts creating a virtual world around him.  He creates a body for himself and calls it Egdod, which was his character in the online game he created during his lifetime.  As more people are scanned and inserted into the world, he becomes the ultimate god of this virtual world, and surrounds himself with a few other exceptional beings to create a Parthenon similar to Greek gods.  In the real world, this process takes increasingly more resources, which are funded by Dodge’s foundation and Elmo’s portfolio.  Elmo, who is slowly dying and wants to transcend to the world of his choosing, is dismayed with the world that Dodge had created, and tries to wrestle the admin privileges from Sophia.  Failing that, he kills her in a failed kidnapping attempt, and dies shortly thereafter.

Sophia and Elmo arrive in the virtual world at almost the same time.  Armed with the real-world resources and knowledge, Elmo quickly disposes of Dodge and his followers, banishing them to another barren world.  Even Sophia, who in her death retained her admin privileges and is the only one who can totally obliterate a person in the virtual world, is powerless to stop it.

Sophia’s power becomes useful, though.  Elmo has established barriers to stop Dodge and his cohort from ever returning, recognizing their individual virtual signatures.  Sophia is able to kill Dodge, so that he is re-formed with a new signature and escapes Elmo’s attention for a while.  Elmo is busy rebuilding the world as he sees fit: him as the supreme god, with an army of angels and other helpers, while relegating all newly arrived dead people to manual labor, inhibiting their mental processes.  In the real world, more and more people sign up to be scanned and placed in the virtual world upon their deaths.  The demand for energy to support this world drives space exploitation, as solar panels are installed in orbit, and eventually a Dyson sphere is speculated to be needed to support the entire population of the virtual world.  Dodge, unaware of the real-world struggles, managed to sire two children, the first two virtual people without a previous corporal body, and the ability to reproduce threatens the stability of the entire system.  Elmo is trying very hard to stop this.

Elmo eventually catches drift of Dodge and locks him away in Dodge’s old fortress.  Years later, Dodge’s supporters in real life manage to snag a copy of the crypto key needed to release Dodge and send the dying Corvallis to retrieve it and save Dodge.  The book switches to a fantasy story where Corvallis assembles a team who go on the quest together, release Dodge just as Elmo catches up with them, and the ensuing battle sees Elmo destroyed and Dodge releasing all the other scanned humans into the wild.

The plot makes a little more sense than my feeble attempts have described it, even though I left out various sub-plots or worldbuilding that goes essentially nowhere.  Still, it is dense and quite convoluted.  There was a number of things I wasn’t happy about.

First and foremost, Stephenson takes obscene pleasure to describe or analyze everything to the greatest detail.  For example, Dodge knows of all his medical conditions and doesn’t hesitate to describe their symptoms, causes and why to worry or not worry about them.  He thinks and acts like an obsessive-compulsive hypochondriac, and that makes him from the beginning a very unsympathetic protagonist.  That’s par for the course for Stephenson: he seems to revel at creating characters one cannot identify with.  The only person I really liked in this book was Zula, for her personal tragedies.  She it the witness to everyone’s deaths and to the entire process of creating an afterlife and the fight over who gets to control it.

Stephenson also likes to have a logical explanation for everything.  As a result, the fantasy portion of the book lacks a certain whimsical quality of fantasy.  Everything is carefully laid out and prepared, every step planned, and there are no real surprises.  There’s no sudden resurrection of a key character (despite nobody really dying in this world), the party of the adventurers doesn’t have “chosen one”, and there’s no random element to mix things up a little.  The entire affair is just too meticulous to be fantasy.

Another quirk of the author that happens all to often in his books is the abrupt ending.  Stephenson’s books have extremely long and detailed build-ups but squeeze the climax into a single chapter or less.  In some cases, like Anathem, this doesn’t matter, as the main attraction is actually the worldbuilding.  In an epic fantasy, however, a good, drawn-out final battle would be preferable to a monster coming up from nowhere, disposing of the main baddie and preventing us from enjoying an epic battle between the old gods and Elmo’s angels.  It always feels like Stephenson runs out of interest in his project at a certain point, wraps things up and goes home.  (In comparison, the most extreme abrupt ending I know of was the end of Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth saga, but it was well explained, and the reader couldn’t be surprised by it.  That’s how one does quick endings.)

By far my biggest complaint, however, has to do with the missed or withheld opportunities this book presented.  Stephenson is choke-full of ideas, and he is excellent at making well-reasoned predictions of social and technological developments.  These take place mainly in the side stories strewn around in the book.

The first such story is when Elmo Shepherd creates a fake news story about Moab, UT being destroyed in a nuclear explosion.  He saturates the Internet with fake videos and eyewitness accounts, even going as far as to create fake news reports with actors pretending to be experts.  The hoax is so perfect that the President of the US needs to travel to Moab to dispel the news reports.  Elmo does it in an effort to destroy the Internet: to discredit it to a point where nobody would take it seriously.  Corvallis, however, happens to be nearby and beats the President to Moab, turning public opinion in the right direction in this matter.  Hoaxers try to discredit Corvallis by publicly attacking his girlfriend.  An old associate of Dodge, Pluto, comes to the rescue by designing an algorithm that would saturate the Internet with so many personal attacks against her that nobody would pay any attention to them anymore, and the anonymous nature of the Internet would be destroyed.  Pluto succeeds.  While his result is instrumental in explaining certain elements of the latter story, the way Stephenson gets there is very lengthy and convoluted.  The entire Moab affair would make a wonderful political thriller book on its own.  I’d love to dig deeper into this entire fake news thing and its aftermath – conspiracy theorists who even decades later believe Moab had been destroyed.

The second side story I wish was explored further takes place when Sophia travels from the East coast to Washington State to work on the database with Dodge’s brain scan.  They take a road trip across a vastly changed America.  The coasts are more elitist than before, while the midlands are occupied by armed militia that nail people they see as sinners to crosses.  Stephenson is an equal opportunity offender here.  On one hand, we have college students who think in terms of microaggressions and who have to deal with a post-gamergate era where they have their work judged by merit alone (the main result of Pluto’s destruction of the Internet is that all work is anonymous, but the total bulk of one’s work can be identifying as belonging to the same person).  Gamergate was an early 2000s event where a number of video gaming journalists were caught fraternizing with game developers and giving them positive reviews.  Instead of apologizing, they launched an attack against those gamers who were looking for unbiased reviews.  When the dust settled, game reviews and reviewers were marginalized, and opinion-based gaming journalism became the norm.  Here, Stephenson predicts that Pluto’s intervention reversed the trend and once again the merit of the work mattered.  Here, Stephenson shows off his knowledge of relatively obscure cultural events that swept the Internet, but that does not really further the story.

On the other side of the spectrum we have the armed religious militia of the Midwest.  They modified their religion to get rid of Jesus (he was a stick figure to convince people be meek), and instead went hardcore Old Testament.  This was done without any irony, but the worldbuilding is so compelling I’d love to see a futuristic story as a separate book, sort of like Zelazny’s Damnation Alley.  Interestingly enough, as I write this review during the Covid-19 pandemic, the images of armed militia occupying government buildings make Stephenson’s prediction very real.

The last story with a missed potential is the entire evolution of the afterlife.  There are a few hints that this would be a religious story in the early chapters of the book.  Dodge collected two books – one on Greek and the other on Norse mythology – for Sophia.  So, when he starts building his new world, it is reminiscent of the Greek myth (without the sexual perversions of Zeus).  However, it soon becomes the retelling of the Old Testament.  Later, when Elmo arrives, he essentially transforms Dodge into the Devil, and Dodge dutifully fulfills this role to the smallest detail, even giving forbidden knowledge to Adam and Eve.  Elmo is an evil god, though, and is cast down by Dodge who takes over the world.  I missed any kind of moral lesson here, though.  It doesn’t need to be profound, but a story like this shouldn’t leave me completely indifferent.  Heinlein did an excellent job in criticizing organized religion in his Job: A Comedy of Justice.  He even went as far as portraying the Devil as the sympathetic character and life in Hell preferable to Heaven, just like Stephenson did here.  Fall gave me a certain vibe of Job, but without the humor of any kind of moral judgment.

If you read this far, you may think that this book is a hot mess of great but unfinished concepts, unlikable characters, drawn out story and abrupt ending.  And you would be right.  This book is not for everyone.  People who may have some fun with it are those who read other works by Stephenson, such as Cryptomicon and The Baroque Cycle books, as both works contain characters that are present here as well.  I got the feeling that Fall is trying to tell us that we live in a higher layer of virtual simulation, but nothing else.  Maybe in a book or two down the line, Stephenson will spell it out.  (Or maybe he already did in The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. where he proposed a viable parallel universe solution.)  In the meantime, though, I would advise the general science fiction reading population against approaching this book, unless you already read and liked most of the author’s other works.  This was my case, but even then, I found Fall to be quite difficult to digest and fully enjoy.

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