I finished Fall: or, Dodge in Hell, the latest novel from Neal Stephenson, and I’m conflicted between parts I found fascinating and thoughtful and parts I found tedious and unsatisfying. This division almost exactly follows the division of the story itself into real and virtual worlds. I liked the former, but the latter not so much.
Unfortunately, at least the last third of the book involves a Medieval fantasy quest that takes place in the virtual reality. The early parts of the story in the VR are fairly interesting, but the quest really left me cold, and I found myself skimming pages.
I give it a positive rating, but it’s my least-liked Stephenson novel.
Art criticism is hard, and for all I know, the story turned out exactly the way Stephenson wanted it to, says everything it should, and there’s all sorts of things going over my head that, if I had but wit to grasp them, would increase my appreciation many-fold.
All I can say is that I can’t rate this as highly as I have other of Stephenson’s books. For me, the fantasy parts just didn’t engage. That said, I’m a hard audience for fantasy — the usual stuff rarely grabs me.
There may also be failed expectations on my part. Given the ideas and context of the novel, I was really looking forward to more of an exploration of VR from both the inside and the outside.
In any event, I find myself forced to give a two-part rating here: The real world story gets an Ah! rating but the VR story just gets an Eh! (and that’s me being generous — parts of the quest made me go Meh! — but some of the VR stuff was good).
[And, of course, Spoilers Ahead. I’ll warn you before I get into details.]
As an aside, Stephenson has been accused of being bad at writing endings, and some of his stories do end a little abruptly.
His ending to Anathem seemed to deliberately signal that, “yes, I can too writing endings,” and in this book I could actually feel the arc of his wrapping things up.
It gets back to the difficulty of criticism. Who says stories must have neat endings? Why can’t stories just stop. Art is definitely about breaking rules; the only real question is: does it work?
We have to confront our expectations. “Do I think this is bad because it’s not what I would do?” It’s important to judge a work by its own yardstick and the author’s goals.
I think, at the least, Fall is an ambitious work, which is very much Stephenson’s style. I sometimes feel his books need to be even longer in order to explore all the interesting little bits he tosses into his stories. (And yet people complain his books are too long.)
One of his recent novels, Seveneves, seemed to me like a table-setting origin story for a possible series set in the Seveneves universe. This one also felt like a possible platform for future stories, although, in retrospect, maybe not.
That might be because the VR world wasn’t very interesting.
It’s a standard Medieval context — no technology, only the simplest mechanisms, basic metal work, good carpentry, masonry, and textiles, and a few VR-fueled “magic” wrinkles.
The problem is that it’s a world with no rules, no history, no real necessity.
From a storytelling perspective, the lack of constraints removes the grounding logic from the narrative. Nothing really has to make logical sense. It removes the stakes.
[Enough generalities: SPOILERS AHEAD!]
The plot starts with Richard “Dodge” Forthrast, the protagonist from Stephenson’s recent Reamde (which I really enjoyed).
Richard dies during a routine medical procedure, and it turns out his will specifies his body be preserved for future immortality efforts (forgotten from a time Richard was briefly interested, but never changed when he lost interest).
So his brain is destructively scanned at a fine resolution and his connectome is stored digitally.
(One complaint I have is that Stephenson isn’t clear about exactly how the digital version is set up. At times it sounds like the connectome, but it seems actually to be a physics simulation of the whole brain.)
Richard’s niece, Sophia, who loved her uncle dearly, grows up and, gets an internship at the internet company responsible for storing Richard’s digital data. She’s given admin access to it, and ends up “turning on” Richard’s brain (to see what happens).
No input or output is provided, so there is no interaction, but they do see the running process using resources. After a time of growing and crashing that process begins to demand more and more resources.
They realize turning it off could amount to murder. Over time they learn to monitor resource use in a way that allows visualization of the “land” Richard has created.
(The running system is encrypted, so it’s impossible to tell what the processes are actually doing. The lack of I/O is still a little surprising to me.)
It turns out that Richard’s mind comes alive in an environment Stephenson describes as like the static on an old fashioned TV when it’s not receiving a broadcast channel. Pure chaos.
After much effort, Richard learns to form things from the chaos, beginning with a leaf (tying back to a real leaf he picked up to give to little Sophia next time he saw her). Richard goes on to form trees, a park, and ultimately a large island surrounded by ocean.
At some point new “souls” begin to appear in Richard’s environment.
These are people who died, had their remains preserved, and ultimately their brains scanned (and their bodies discarded). Seeing that Richard seems to be functioning, the operators have added this small number of brains to the system.
Many of these end up as Richard’s “Pantheon” of secondary gods — Richard, of course, is the almost all-powerful creator, who calls himself Egdod (which is Richard’s nickname, Dodge, spelled backwards).
I say “almost” because as more souls show up, it turns out Egdod can’t manipulate reality with too many people watching. Once things are formed, especially people, they tend to stay that way, especially when many people “believe” in that form. (Kind of an idealist reality.)
The time ratio between the real world and the VR varies depending on how many quantum computers are online. There is a sort of arms race between adding souls to the system, which demands resources, and adding new computers.
The people in the VR never experience a difference, time always moves at a normal rate for them. But to the real world watchers (as the visualization software gets better over time) sometimes see a world that barely moves or one that zips by too fast to follow.
The zipping parts allows Stephenson to advance his VR world by “centuries” of time to explore what happens when “ancient” times slide into myth.
One interesting theme here involves the fascination the living have with watching the dead. As the years advance, with quantum computers in orbit sucking up sunlight for power, dying becomes a process of migrating to the VR, along with millions of other souls.
What does it mean to live in a world in which someone dies and is lost to you, but you know they go on living in the VR?
It turns out, and Stephenson never explains why, that being reborn in the VR erases your memories of your past life. (Stephenson compares it with the river Lethe, in Hades, whose waters grant forgetfulness.)
So those in the VR have forgotten their real life and make no effort to contact former loved ones. Meanwhile those former loved ones can only watch the VR world.
(I do wonder a little why no effort was made to inject information, to try to reach out to those in the VR world.)
The villain of the piece is Elmo Shepherd (El), a multi-billionaire with a major fear of dying. The quantum computer revolution that enables the VR world is, in large part, due to his wealth.
He despises what Egdod has done, mainly because it’s too much like the real world. His complaint is that, given the freedom of VR, so much more is possible.
When he finally dies and enters the VR, he does so with very powerful quantum computers behind him that allow him to easily defeat Egdod and cast him out along with his Pantheon.
But for all El complained about the nature of the VR, he doesn’t do that much to change things.
Once Egdod and the Pantheon are cast out into the chaos, and Egdod creates a new land for his banished friends, the novel jumps into the future. In fact, it largely abandons both El and Egdod.
From here on, it’s a fantasy quest that seeks to free Egdod to return and throw down El.
Another complaint I have, along with just not enjoying the fantasy quest, is the narrative never returns to Egdod or El. We’re given no sense of what they are up to during the centuries that elapse before the final showdown.
This has gotten long, so let me wrap up just by just touching on some aspects I found worth noting:
Theme: Our dependence on technology, first utilities, then the internet, and ultimately VR systems. In the book, we’re headed for a Dyson cluster or sphere to harness enough power, because it’s clear that humanity is transitioning from “meat-space” to VR.
It raises interesting questions about our dependence on technology. Most technology failures don’t completely wipe us out (although some will). If everyone is in a VR and those system fail…
An interesting thing about VR immortality involves the potential of creating new souls (by combining data of existing souls, like we do now). But if new births are allowed, there is exponential system growth (and requirement for resources).
Themes: This book is very mythological, very biblical, very story of Eden with a strong dash of Dante’s Inferno. Two major characters, for a while, are, I kid you not, Adam and Eve, and they are creations of Spring (a major character) and Egdod.
I would have liked more about the technology. All we really get is “Quantum!” The systems run on quantum computers. They eventually have to start building them in orbit. (Not just for power but also for cooling.)
For me, the VR part started off okay, but ended up muddled in a no-stakes fantasy quest and final showdown battle that I found downright tedious.
(I do not like those big final battles, whether mythological, superheroes, or in space. The necessary outcome is preordained, so it all ends up being a lot of noise (visual and audible) to no end. Much ado about FA.)
Overall, I enjoyed the book, even if I did start skimming during the latter part of the fantasy quest. That may be, at least somewhat, on me: I don’t read Stephenson for fantasy.
Stay real, my friends!
December 21st, 2019 at 11:54 am
Heh,… I wonder if this review isn’t a bit like the book in leaving a lot out. I had a lot more notes, but the post was getting too long.
December 22nd, 2019 at 1:02 pm
And, BTW: SPOILERS possible, even likely, in the comments!
December 21st, 2019 at 12:16 pm
BTW: Winter Solstice is today, at 10:19 PM CST! Soon the days will start getting longer. My favorite day of the year — it’ll be champagne tonight!
December 21st, 2019 at 5:41 pm
I suspect Stephenson was vague on the technology to avoid having his book become obsolete too quick. William Gibson remarked in an interview that the only places he got into trouble in his books is where he was too specific on the technology.
Quantum computing in fiction is a lot like fusion power. It’s the next thing over the horizon so it can be invoked to justify anything the author wants to posit, similar to how atomic power was used in the 40s and 50s.
It’s interesting that the villain goes by “El”. That’s one of the ancient names for God, specifically the Canaanite name for their chief deity, but in the Hebrew Bible is also often used as an alternate name for Yahweh, or as a generic word for a god.
The shifting away from the protagonist to new characters sounds like something that would break the spell of the story for me. But from your description, it sounds like that happened in the first part too. Lots of reasons for me to forego this book, which is unfortunate, because it does sound interesting.
December 22nd, 2019 at 1:36 pm
“I suspect Stephenson was vague on the technology to avoid having his book become obsolete too quick.”
That’s kind of what I assumed. I think it’s not really his style to get too detailed about incidental technology.
When I think about it, he explains ideas in detail, but not the background technology so much. He leans towards Hannu Rajaniemi a little that way. He’s not like, for example, James P. Hogan, who once spent three pages following an email from source to destination.
True about quantum computing being modern-day narrative magic. There is that, besides obsoleting many common encryption protocols, the Big Deal about QC is the ability to simulate physics at the quantum level, so one can see the application for simulating an entire world.
A few details would have been nice… 😀
“It’s interesting that the villain goes by ‘El’.”
As I said, very biblical. Stephenson has stirred it all together into his own story — there aren’t too many 1:1 parallels. It struck me almost as a jazz riff on the bible+mythology.
Even the Adam and Eve characters — the first new life created in the Land — don’t quite sync up with the Bible story characters (even though they do get kicked out of a Garden).
For one thing, the main character, Richard, aka Dodge, aka Egdod, as far as thematic arc in the VR, sort of starts off as God in creating the Land, but once cast out by El (the new God), comes closest to the myth of Satan.
And, in fact, in the guise of an apple-eating worm, Egdod appears to Eve and gives her the gift of knowledge and questions, which end up getting both Adam and Eve kicked out (by El).
“But from your description, it sounds like that happened in the first part too.”
The real world cast dwindles and dies (and enters the VR) over the course of the book. By the end, only two of them are left. The world isn’t empty yet; still plenty of young around.
The VR part does have some major jumps forward, although they involve old characters who were rebooted without memories, or real world characters who joined the VR at some point (with no memories of the real world).
The first arc involves Egdod finding himself in chaos and creating the Land. It includes the first round of new souls showing up and how Egdod continues to improve the Land with the help of his Pantheon.
That ends with El showing up and casting Egdod and the Pantheon out. Then there’s a jump to the second arc, some time later, in which El banishes Adam and Eve from his Garden (formerly Egdod’s). The plot follows Adam and Eve as they explore the Land. That ends with a confrontation too complicated to get into.
The third arc, many years later, involves the quest and final conflict. This takes up roughly the last third of the book, and it’s the part I didn’t much care for.
It’s really that third VR arc that spoiled the book for me. I liked the real world stuff, and the first two VR arcs were okay. The pity is, for me, I’m left with the bad impression of the final third. (And something weird that happened at the end of the last real world scene. Still trying to puzzle that one out.)
December 22nd, 2019 at 3:29 pm
It almost sounds like he’s trying to make the reader wonder if we’re actually in the simulation, or if the outer world is itself its own simulation. If not, then it feels like he wasted a lot of set up.
If I’m uploaded but can’t remember anything from my original life, in what sense is it me anyway? I’m not sure it’s a kind of upload I’d want to bother with.
December 22nd, 2019 at 8:02 pm
The weird thing that happens at the end of the last scene in the real world does make me wonder of Stephenson is suggesting the real world is also a VR. If so, it would make his earlier novel, Reamde, also take place in a VR, and might even include other earlier novels, but at least two include the same cast of characters.
His memory-loss thing is something else I wish was better explained. Thoughtfulness, inner language, and character, all seem to survive, but memories of experiences do not. It also can happen that memories return. The better scans (using later tech) seem to allow better retention to some extent. It isn’t terribly clear.
But, yeah, if it’s not your thought patterns that survive forever in VR, then the “living forever” part doesn’t mean much. (Any more than taking comfort from other selves in putative multiverses does.)
December 22nd, 2019 at 9:02 pm
The idea of the real world being a simulation would be an interesting plot twist.
Based on your description, the memory thing seems very selective, more like a plot device than anything else. Do the memories arise at crucial points in the story?
If I knew for sure they existed and survived, I might take some comfort from other selves who were recent branches. The problem is finding a way to test it. Brian Greene is the only physicist I’ve seen say the MWI might someday be testable, but even he admits it would be extremely difficult.
December 23rd, 2019 at 10:57 am
“Do the memories arise at crucial points in the story?”
Nothing that convenient. It’s more that current actions can invoke dim memories. For example, when Richard’s brain comes online, the first thing he “creates” is a leaf — which is from a memory of a leaf he picked up and saved to give to his niece just prior to the medical procedure that killed him. He doesn’t recognize what he’s created until it’s done. He’s able to identify it as a leaf, but has no memory of why he knows that.
As he goes on to create trees, ground, a park, and more, he does it somewhat by trial and error seeking forms that feel right or seem to work better than others. (One of Stephenson’s lesser themes involves the idea of physical form with regard to consciousness.)
I get the impression he’s invoking the kind of amnesia that affects narrative memories but not structural ones. (My only experience with “traumatic amnesia” comes from stories, so I don’t know how true it is, but that’s the sort of thing Stephenson seems to be going for.)
It’s a necessary plot device for the story he wants to tell, which requires the real world seem mythological, at best, to those in the VR. Almost like a reverse Heaven — a possibly imaginary place people go to (or come from) as a transition from one world to another.
So I didn’t have a problem with the memory loss thing so much as would have liked some explanation. That said, it’s true that Stephenson’s real world characters don’t really understand how the system works, just that it does. Everything being encrypted doesn’t help.
“Brian Greene is the only physicist I’ve seen say the MWI might someday be testable,”
[insert tongue in cheek] I’ll never forgive Greene and his wide-eyed enthusiasm for suckering me into believing String Theory was the Next New Thing. (I bought both The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos. And saw the Nova episode. Thought it all made so much sense.)
December 23rd, 2019 at 12:39 pm
“It’s a necessary plot device for the story he wants to tell, which requires the real world seem mythological, at best, to those in the VR.”
In the end, that’s enough for most authors. Or most readers for that matter. The only thing is whether it works at a story level. One podcast I listen to, Writing Excuses, discussed “the rule of cool”, meaning that if it’s cool, sometimes you include it, even if you can’t come up with plausible science to explain it. (Although it’s worth noting that the WE cast are primarily fantasy writers.)
Interestingly, I saw an interview with Greene not that long ago. He hasn’t given up yet on string theory. (Or at least not as of that interview.) He noted he would love to see it falsified, if it’s going to be falsified, so he and others could move on to other things. But I don’t imagine it can be easy to contemplate your life work being a dead end. (Although that seems the lot of most theoretical physicists these days.)
January 5th, 2020 at 12:04 am
FWIW: Here’s a site with all the maps from the book. I found this handy while reading — images in ebooks can be too small.
February 26th, 2022 at 7:27 am
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