Published on June 16th, 2019 📆 | 4223 Views ⚑0
Neal Stephenson’s Fall is Paradise Lost with brain uploading and weaponized fake news
The Singularity — a moment where technological progress speeds up exponentially and humanity as we know it becomes obsolete — has jokingly been referred to as the “rapture of the nerds.” Neal Stephenson’s novel Fall, or, Dodge in Hell takes things a step further: what if the nerds weren’t simply the prophets of a new order, but literally became our gods?
Over a sprawling web of modern techno-thriller, near-future sci-fi, and high fantasy subplots, Fall lays out a theory on the mind-body problem, a retelling of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and a riff on the classic sci-fi trope of brain uploading. It’s an ambitious but massively uneven book — mixing wide-eyed wonder with a pessimism that borders on sociopathy.
Spoilers for some major plot points of Fall ahead — but mostly ones that have been revealed in promotional material already.
Like many Stephenson novels, Fall features a huge, multigenerational — and in this case, periodically reincarnated — cast of characters. But at its center is Richard “Dodge” Forthrast, an aging game company CEO and protagonist of Stephenson’s earlier novel Reamde.
The broad strokes of the story: Dodge dies during a routine medical procedure, and his consciousness is uploaded to a quantum computer. This digital Dodge (known as Egdod) slowly gains self-awareness and constructs a mystical space called Bitworld, presiding over a growing number of newly uploaded “souls.” But the wealthy transhumanist Elmo “El” Shepherd is furious that Dodge has seemingly recreated an old, regrettably human social system. He throws Dodge out of his own paradise, setting up a power struggle that will shake Bitworld’s very foundations.
The best parts of Fall combine fascinating technological speculation with the broad archetypes of myth — which become a way for souls to make sense of their new existence. Egdod reenacts the Biblical creation story as God, then John Milton’s Paradise Lost as the Devil, with the help of a soul “pantheon” drawn from Greek and Roman mythology. His world follows a certain amount of video game logic, and its physical spaces are based on his childhood hometown. El considers these references a kind of original sin that must be purged from Bitworld, but as his symbolic name suggests, he’s ultimately not above them either.
Fall devotes chapters to Egdod’s beautiful and painstakingly logical rediscovery of things like rot and rebirth, while his living friends piece together his actions through a glass — or at least, a visualization of computational resource costs — darkly. That storyline doesn’t really start, however, until about 300 pages into the nearly 900-page Fall. Instead, its first section is full of grimly wry near-future speculation, starting with a massive, weaponized fake news event.
After Dodge’s death, someone convinces the world that terrorists have dropped a nuclear weapon on the town of Moab, Utah, largely destroying people’s trust in both the internet (referred to as the “Miasma”) and reality. And when Moab “truthers” descend on an innocent resident of the town in vengeance, a consortium of techies cuts the last thread, unleashing a system that will create huge numbers of fake, conflicting theories about her in order to insulate her from all of them.
Cut forward a few years, and America has effectively split into different nations with different views of reality. Heartland “Ameristan” is full of people who believe Moab was destroyed, including a rabid fundamentalist cult fond of crucifixion. Meanwhile, well-off coastal residents like Dodge’s niece Sophie hire editors to sort facts from lies online.
This arc offers a brutal vision of the future, and it feels like a more cutting evolution of Stephenson’s early novel The Diamond Age, in which society is divided into enclaves of intelligentsia and a lumpenproletariat class of “thetes.” But it’s also unbearably plodding, perhaps because it’s full of people who are too rich and clever to have skin in humanity’s miserable game. Fall’s major characters spend most of their time outside Bitworld either pontificating on technical concepts or pondering the masses’ foolish customs with a sense of anthropological bemusement. (Their Bitworld incarnations do the same thing, but at least they’ve got flaming swords and superpowers.)
Fall has a nearly Randian contempt for most souls in Bitworld when it deigns to acknowledge them at all. Stephenson is more interested in exploring the nature of consciousness and reality than laying out an ideal society, even as it becomes clear that Dodge’s flawed paradise will likely replace Earth as humanity’s default home. So Fall constantly shies away from considering what it means for a few rich benevolent dictators to redefine reality. Often, it avoids the topic by writing off other resurrected residents as servile, small-minded, avaricious, and devoid of the capacity for intellectual growth — to the point where Bitworld is effectively a video game world with a few major characters and a host of NPCs.
This is off-putting to the point of creepiness in a way that’s never acknowledged, and it neuters Fall’s intriguing exploration of whether people are really fated to carry their old human pain into a world where anything is possible. If most of them are barely worth treating as sentient, and the rest naturally will themselves toward godhood, why bother asking? It also casts the earlier real-world section in an even grimmer light, implying that even without the “Facebookification of America” — as it’s called in Fall — most humans would be stuck in a state of hostile ignorance. And as the book slips into its final section, it loses itself in a straightforward fantasy quest that’s fun on its own terms, but feels like an abandonment of the novel’s earlier complexity.
Like Bitworld floating above its sea of chaotic data, Fall seems deeply sad beneath its maelstrom of big ideas. But no matter how many pages it lavishes on worldbuilding and philosophy, it never manages to own that darkness — let alone come to terms with it.