Fall, or, Dodge in Hell
By Neal Stephenson
William Morrow, 2019
Neal Stephenson’s immense new novel, baroquely titled Fall, or, Dodge in Hell, is at heart a story about digital immortality. At the book’s beginning, eccentric billionaire Richard “Dodge” Forthrast, suffers a catastrophic setback during a medical procedure and, to the dismay of his family, ends up brain dead.
Their dismay increases and infinitely complicates as they learn more about the provisions Forthrast made long ago in a will in order to address just such an eventuality. He originally contracted with a company called Ephrata Cryonics to preserve his body and upload the engrammatic contents of his brain, and now, years later, Ephrata Cryonics is owned by a tech maven named Elmo Shepherd, a figure every bit as forceful and eccentric as Forthrast himself. The original demands were products of their time, but the technology has improved by light-years; brain-scanning is now done with bogglingly complicated technology like ion-beam scanning, which “destroyed the brain a few molecules at a time in order to save it.” Cloud computing and massive server farms now make it possible for Forthrast’s will to be fulfilled in ways he himself never imagined: his brain can be scanned, uploaded, and given an entirely second ongoing life in disembodied electronic form, totally free of what the novel calls “Meatspace” but facing a new reality whose rules haven’t been written.
This gives Stephenson the perfect platform to explore the intersection of technology and humanity, and he fills that platform over every inch, piles it to the ceiling, loads it down, positively buries it, crushes it under sheer verbiage. Stephenson’s novels are all whopping tomes in the thousand-page range. None of them, including this latest, even remotely needs to be so long; when a character in Fall says “to make an extremely long story short” on page 330 of an 875-page novel, even stoic readers will be tempted to cry.
The most maddening element of this grotesque self-indulgence on Stephenson’s part (and the even more grotesque watery permissiveness of his editor) is that he’s a thoroughly engaging writer; his books are stuffed to their attics with blather, but the blather is uniformly interesting. Given the book’s basic plot, readers will know to expect eight thousand digressions and elaborations on the nature of personhood, for instance. Stephenson dutifully provides all eight thousand of those digressions and elaborations, and every single one of them makes for smooth reading:
“Soul” was so fraught with unwanted philosophical and religious baggage. But the reality was that when scanned brains were booted up as new processes, with the ability to draw upon computing resources and to interact with the other processes, they took on seemingly personlike attributes: they existed in one place, not all places; they moved about in a way that seemed physical; and they dealt with other processes in a way that seemed social. And you could try to dodge around the hard questions by sticking to neutral terminology like “process.” But they weren’t selling the service to their customers by offering to spawn processes. Every customer who paid into the plan while alive, and who had their remains scanned after their death, was doing so in the belief that the resulting process was in some sense a continuation of their existence in a sort of afterlife. No amount of dancing around could really doge the fact that what was really being talked about here was the soul.
The prose is all so clear and intelligent that it almost feels rude to point out how tautological 90% of it is. No reader should be put in such an awkward position; it’s the author’s editor who should face the uncomfortable task of taking the author aside and gently saying, “Look, old horse, we can all agree that you write a sterling line of natter, so could you be a love and lop 350 pages off this thing?”
Alas, no such conversation ever took place it seems, because although Fall is a fascinating fictional exploration of what post-Singularity consciousness might be like, it’s also a 400-page novel lumbering around in an ungainly Hollywood-style foam fat suit. Stephenson has a grand, multifaceted story to tell, about this world and the next, and he has insights aplenty of the kind readers of Snow Crash would expect. And his thousands of loyal fans obviously have no problem with books the size of Manhattan phone directories, or Stephenson and his laissez-faire editorial team would have heard about it four or five books ago. But even so, readers who are unfortunate or impatient enough not to count themselves among the initiated will encounter fog-banks like this one throughout Fall:
What came next could not, of course, be described without using words. But that was deceptive in a way since he no longer had words. Nor did he have memories, or coherent thoughts, or any other way to describe or think about the qualia he was experiencing. And those qualia were miserably low quality. To the extent he was seeing, he was seeing incoherent patterns of fluctuating light. For people of a certain age, the closest description for this was ‘static’: the sheets, waves, and bands of noise that had covered the screens of malfunctioning television sets. Static, in a sense, wasn’t real. It was simply what you got out of a system when it was unable to lock on to any strong signal - “Strong” meaning, actually conveying useful, or at least understandable, information. Modern computer screens were smart enough to just shut down, or put up an error message, when the signal was lost. Old analog sets had no choice but to display something. The electron beam was forever scanning, a mindless beacon, and if you fed it nothing else it would produce a visual map of whatever was contingently banging around in its circuitry: some garbled mix of electrical noise from Mom’s vacuum cleaner, Dad’s shaver, solar flares, stray transmissions caroming off the ionosphere, and whatever happened when little feedback loops on the circuit board got out of hand.
“Likewise,” Stephenson helpfully adds, “to the extent he was hearing anything, it was just an inchoate hiss.”
There’s a great deal, a fantastic deal, an exhausting and unnerving amount of inchoate hissing in these pages, enough to deafen a reader and very nearly enough to drown out the entire book. Third act plot twists help a bit to kick the whole business into a canter, so readers who persevere will be rewarded. But why make a New York City Marathon out of a three-idea book in the first place?
--Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.