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!