I’ve been a fan of Neal Stephenson since Snow Crash (1992), his third novel. I’ve read much of his work — the big exception being The Baroque Cycle, descriptions of which haven’t captured my interest yet. I like his writing enough that I’ll probably enjoy them if I ever take the plunge.
Stephenson writes pretty hard SF, which I love, and he explores such interesting ideas that I’m generally quite enthralled by what some see as fictionalized physics books. The thing is, I’d enjoy reading those physics books, so having it come coated in any kind of frosting is a win in my (pardon the pun) book.
I’ve just gotten started on his most recent novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell.
When I say “just gotten started” I mean I’ve gotten to page 849… of 2987 (on my iPhone using a readable-sized font). I’m apparently 28% through it — which obviously means 72% yet to go.
I’m going to go curl up with it some more, but since it’s Sci-Fi Saturday and I’m really enjoying the book (and since I’ve got
13 12 posts left to do this month if I’m to reach 899), I thought I’d post about it.
It appears that the underlying theme in Fall is consciousness and virtual reality in the context of brain uploading — two topics that fascinate me, so I’m already hooked.
There is also, in what I’ve read so far, some pointed observations about society’s relationship with the interweb. Or, as the book calls it (and I love this perfect name), the miasma.
Another perfect word Stephenson offers is the din, which applies to the combination of email, Twitter, Facebook, newsfeeds, and all the other parts of the miasma that constantly demand our attention.
The novel is divided into two Books, each with several Parts which are comprised of multiple Chapters. I’ve just gotten to Chapter 17, which is the start of Part 4 of Book 1.
Each of the first three Parts I’ve read centers on a different person and a different aspect of the story.
[WARNING: Minor spoilers for the first 28% of the story. But the “big reveal” here is given in the first sentence of the Wiki article for the novel, so it’s probably not that much of a spoiler.]
Part 1 (Book 1) follows Richard “Dodge” Forthrast, who was the main protagonist in Reamde (a thriller novel with the theme of hackers and games).
Richard is a billionaire (due to a computer game he created), and the story begins with his waking up in bed (which goes on for many interesting pages) and then going off for a routine medical procedure (exactly what that was isn’t mentioned, but one can guess colonoscopy).
During the procedure, something (also not specified) goes wrong, and Richard dies. (At least his brain does.)
Perspective shifts to Corvallis Kawasaki, a friend Richard enlisted to drive him home after the medical procedure.
Corvallis arrived independently after Richard was already inside. Since the procedure takes some time, C-plus (as his friends call him) becomes engrossed with doing work on his laptop while he waits.
He becomes aware of a commotion, sees EMTs show up, and then he sees an unconscious Richard wheeled past on a gurney.
He follows as Richard is taken to the ICU and pronounced brain dead. This invokes the question of a living will.
It turns out Richard had a very specific one from a time in his past when he went through a phase of being attracted to the idea of preserving his body in hopes future technology would allow more life.
Which leads to an interesting situation I won’t detail. Suffice to say, the family determines to keep Richard alive on a ventilator until technology advances enough to allow a quality brain scan.
The current technology involved slicing a brain as thinly as possible, scanning the slices, and then trying to recreate the connectome, which proved very difficult. The hoped for (and eventually achieved) technology uses finely focused ion beams to destructively scan the brain as a high resolution.
Part 2 (still Book 1) jumps forward three years.
Perspective stays with C-plus, whose cloud business (and source of wealth) was bought by a Facebook-like provider.
Most of this part deals with an internet hoax of absolutely astonishing proportions. I’m hesitant to spoil this, because it’s fun to watch it unfold.
[Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want it spoiled!]
Using a budget of under one-million dollars, the hoaxers manage to make it appear a small town, Moab, Utah, has been nuked off the surface of the Earth. The way they do it is rather brilliant and certainly doable today.
The way this Part ends — how certain problems are dealt with — essentially ends up creating an entirely new internet.
Part 3, which jumps forward to a time 17 years after Richard’s accident, involves a road trip from Princeton, NJ, to California, with some interesting stops along the way.
The main character here is Sophia Forthrast, the daughter of Zula Forthrast, who was the secondary protagonist in Reamde. (Zula was adopted into the family.)
What this part is really about is how American has bifurcated into “sane, reality-based” parts — the coasts and most large cities — and “Ameristan” which is not particularly sane and certainly not reality-based.
The comparison is to the religiously based warlord culture of Afghanistan or Pakistan.
For instance, one group Sophia and her group meet is the Leviticus church, which denies the Crucifixion happened, because no Son of God would allow Himself to be treated that way. The whole thing is a hoax perpetrated by the so-called Christian church. The Levitican Christ is a militant ass-kicker.
Middle American, except for the major cities and connecting interstate highways, is given over to tribes and warlord communities that are dangerous in the extreme (due to having technology and lots and lots of weapons).
Sophia and her friends are escorted (by mandate from the car rental company) by a “tactical” — a pickup truck with a heavy machine gun mounted on the bed. Driven by two gun-toting hard guys.
One point Stephenson makes here is that we’re getting into (are into) a world where people don’t agree on basic facts, and this takes us back to ancient times.
The scientific revolution changed that, and we’ve been more and more able to agree about reality ever since.
Until recently. And what’s new is social media, which allows one to exist in a fact-free bubble of unreality. We’ve managed to undo centuries of reality-based existence.
BTW: At this point, 17 years in the future, the ion beam technology has allowed Richard’s brain to be scanned, and the data of his connectome is safely in the cloud.
Waiting for what comes next.
And on that note, I’m gonna go find out what that is!
Part 4 awaits. (I’m pretty sure Book 2 involves virtual reality.)
Stay reality-based, my friends!