Neal Stephenson

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.

§

Stephenson’s novels often have an underlying theme. For example, Cryptonomicon is about cryptography, and The Diamond Age is about nano-technology.

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!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

16 responses to “Neal Stephenson

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    The story sounds interesting, but in my previous attempts to read Stephenson, I found him too long winded, at least for my tastes. And those page counts sound nuts!

    So looking forward to your posts on the full book, particularly on the ideas, so I don’t have to read it. 😉

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Ha! Yeah, he does go on a bit. I don’t seem put off by it, and I think part of it is that I kind of get Stephenson. He seems to see the world, and to think, a lot like I do. I see myself in his writing. I think he and I would get along “like a house on fire” as the saying goes.

      The page count is as shown on my iPhone and a bit dependent on font size, but it’s definitely a long book. It’s probably at least a two-part story or even a trilogy. (Thinking about it that way helps. I have some “Megapack” books from Apple that, for example, include multiple Raymond Chandler or Philip K. Dick novels. Or a shit-ton of short stories, like my Big Book of Science Fiction. The page counts are intimidating!)

      I’m just shy of the halfway point as of last night. It’s starting to get into the virtual reality aspect. I was hoping Stephenson would talk more about the mechanics of running the brain simulation (multiple brains, by this point in the book). It definitely involves quantum computers, and it is a physics simulation, but no details (so far) about the details.

      I’m sure I’ll post again once I’m done. The vexing thing is that it’ll necessarily be spoiler-filled. I’m not even halfway through, and there are all sorts of things I’d hate to spoil. (And I know enough about what’s coming to know the story is really still setting things up… at the 1300 page mark!)

      But you might want to consider trying this one. It’s hitting on a lot of the topics of consciousness we’ve been discussing all along. It’s an SF novel, so it’s not super in depth, but (presuming he’s done his research and is writing with some degree of authority) I am finding it interesting seeing those topics put to life.

      OTOH, he does go on. And on. 🙂

      (On a vaguely related note: I’m going to hold off reading your The Expanse post until I get a chance to tuck into the show.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I might check it out once I read your write up. Spoilers have never particularly bothered me, so I’ll be fine if you need to reveal plot details. (Honestly, I’ve already read the wiki synopsis, although it’s very condensed.)

        That said, at this point, I rarely find fiction particularly informative on consciousness. Maybe I’m just too embedded in it. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy fiction which posits theories I disagree with, just that it can’t be the only draw.

        On my Expanse post, no worries. It’s spoiler free, although I can’t guarantee some won’t be dropped if there is any discussion.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I agree. Fiction isn’t likely to inform on consciousness; it’s more fiction about a topic near and dear that would be the draw. In fact, in my previous reply, I originally wrote, “You may, or may not, want to give it a try” — the “may not” exactly because it would be known ground to you. (It’s all in on brain uploading, so I think you would, at least, agree with the ideas.)

        You apparently don’t enjoy Stephenson’s mind as much as I do, so I actually lean more towards you “may not.” No real new ground and you’d have to put up with all the exposition. For me it’s like hanging out with a chatty, interesting, really smart friend.

        I think it’s that I’m not in a The Expanse frame of mind yet. I’m like you in not having all that much of a problem with spoilers. It’s more that I need to clear the deck so I can really focus on it. Right now my mental CPU is busy with other tasks, and The Expanse is something I’d like to give more attention to than I have to spare right now.

        (I may have to drop by your post, though. I’m not sure I’ll be wanting to jump into the darkness of the story until after the holidays. I’ll probably watch the season in January.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I’m open to trying Stephenson again at some point. It’s probably been almost 20 years since my last attempt, and my tastes have shifted. The main barrier I see is his baroque writing style. If anything, I’ve become more impatient with that style over the years. But I’m more likely to accept it if it includes the right kind of mind candy.

        On consciousness in fiction, interestingly, the Expanse books eventually posit a theory of consciousness that I completely disagree with, yet I love the way it’s used in the story. (There actually a hint about it this season, but not one that will be recognized by anyone who isn’t caught up on the books.)

        I can understand needing to get into the right frame for the show. The first three seasons were darker than the books. This season didn’t feel as bad. The Roci crew get along with each other much more like in the books this season. Not that the overall feel is happiness and light by any stretch.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I wonder if Amazon would let you read the first chapter. It would at least tell you how much you react to his writing style.

        Greg Egan’s work is my example of stories about consciousness where I’m not entirely onboard with the basic premise. But I really love his work (and it’s not like I deny the possibility; I’m just skeptical).

        As we’ve touched on before, TV and movies seem to be embracing the dark side. Apparently people love that stuff. [shrug]

        Sidebar re Richard Brown interview videos: I was watching the Bernardo Kastrup one and had to stop halfway through. I’m not a fan of idealism, and I even seem to have an antipathy towards it. I think I see it as egotistical to think our minds have anything to do with the very big, very old universe. Seems downright Ptolomaic. Definitely not a step in the right direction to me.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        On Amazon, they do. Anyone can look at the first 10% at their catalog entry, or you have have it sent to your Kindle account. I just read the opening scene, with Dodge laying in bed, hitting the snooze on his phone repeatedly, and thinking about the Isle of Man and sleep paralysis. I stopped a few pages in as the contemplation with no apparent point was getting a bit long. I recall the beginning of Seveneves being more promising, although based on what I’ve heard, it has it own long introspective stretches.

        I know what you mean about idealism. I ended up listening to the whole thing, but then I was on a walk and could zone out when needed. I found Kastrup a bit more thoughtful than I expected but, similar to when listening to Goff, the assault on logic was hard to take.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        A lot of that opening scene sets up that he dies, and also parallels what happens to him when he wakes up in as brain simulation. (Which, for good or ill, was turned on with no I/O provided. It’s just running as a sim of a biological brain by itself.) That business with the snooze, for instance, has parallels in how his brain sim wakes up.

        I don’t know if you got as far as the mirrored ball reflecting reality, but that ties into the VR business as well.

        Kastrup was a software guy, so it’s not surprising he’d be a bit more analytical than a metaphysician. I’m sure I’ll get to the rest of the interview. I just had to take a break.

        Did you listen to the Carolyn Dicey Jennings interview? I enjoyed that one a lot. I’d never really considered the difference between my directed attention versus my captured attention.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I did listen to that interview, although I had a hard time understanding her overall views.

        The directed vs captured attention thing is usually referred to as top down vs bottom up attention. One is controlled, the other reflexive. There was brief mention of Graziano, but other than saying she disagreed with him, I wasn’t clear on how she disagreed.

        I might have to listen to it again at some point. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind or something on my Friday walk.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yep, they talked a lot about top-down and bottom-up. They also talked a lot about the “self” — which Jennings believes in as does, I believe, Brown. That’s in contrast to what I believe she was was the Dennett view of self as just the “geometric center” of functional drives. I remember Graziano being mentioned, but can’t recall what they said about him.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Ah, thanks, I forgot about the self part. In truth, I find that debate unproductive, which is probably why it didn’t stick. Just because we can reduce something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. (Otherwise the only thing that exists are quantum fields and their interactions.) In my mind Jennings is right, but so is Dennett, just at different levels.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Finished. The latter part of the book comes off mostly as straight Medieval fantasy, and didn’t grab me as much as Stephenson’s work usually does.

    There are many interesting ideas, and I almost get the feeling he bit off more than he could really chew here. There seem a lot of gaps in the story that ought to have been more filled in. It would almost have done well to be a series — the latter part does vaguely remind me of Jordan’s Wheel of Time but a lot more interesting.

    I think overall I feel a little let down. I wanted more from what Stephenson seemed to be setting up. It’s a bit like Seveneves in feeling almost like a first book of a new universe. (Seveneves really felt like the introduction to a world.)

    • SelfAwarePatterns

      It sounds like it effectively became a mixed genre book. The problem with those is that they’re always risky. It depends on the reader being comfortable with the alternate genre. It’s why western episodes of TV sci-fi shows are so despised. Most sci-fi fans are not western fans.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Definitely mixed genre with maybe a sense the SF real world (“meatspace”) part existed mostly to set up a fantasy story. One problem I had is that the VR context means it’s a fantasy world with no rules and nothing is grounded in the local physics. At the same time, the fantasy quest part is pretty mundane considering.

        One of the main villain’s complaints is the VR is too normal, too much like meatspace, but when he takes over, he doesn’t really seem to do much with the possibilities of VR. Just sets up a realm that needs to be taken down by the good guys. Parts of the quest business got really tedious and I started skimming pages.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        That’s where I’ve historically ended up with Stephenson’s stuff. And then I ended up missing crucial points as a result.

        Based on the Amazon ratings, you’re not alone.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, there were a number of early reviews commenting on the second half. It was a very ambitious work, his stuff tends to be, which is one reason why I like him, but the fantasy quest just didn’t work for me. The pity is that it colors and eclipses the great stuff earlier.

%d bloggers like this: