Singularity – a moment when technological progress accelerates exponentially and humanity as we know it becomes redundant – is jokingly "recording of the nerds. "Neal Stephenson & # 39; s novel Fall or dodge in hell goes a step further: what if the nerds were not just the prophets of a new order, but literally became our gods?
Over a vast web of modern techno-thriller, near-sci-fi, and high fantasy subplots, Fall explains a theory about the mind-body problem, a retelling of John Milton & # 39; s lost paradiseand a riff about the classic sci-fi trope of uploading the brain. It is an ambitious but very uneven book – combining a miracle of big eyes with a pessimism that borders on sociopathy.
Spoilers for some important plot points from Fall ahead – but usually those who have already been revealed in promotional material.
Like many Stephenson novels, Fall features a huge, multi-generational – and in this case, periodically reincarnated – cast of characters. But in the center is Richard "Dodge" Forthrast, a CEO of aging games and protagonist of the earlier novel by Stephenson Reamde.
The broad areas of the story: Dodge dies during a routine medical intervention, and his consciousness is uploaded to a quantum computer. This digital Dodge (known as Egdod) gradually gains self-awareness and builds a mystical space called Bitworld, which presides over a growing number of newly uploaded "souls". But the rich transhumanist Elmo "El" Shepherd is furious that Dodge is apparently an old, unfortunately human social system. He throws Dodge out of his own paradise and sets up a power struggle that will shake Bitworld & # 39; s base.
The best parts of Fall combine fascinating technological speculation with the broad archetypes of myths – which become a way for souls to understand their new existence. Egdod plays the Biblical creation story again as God, then John Milton's lost paradise as the devil, with the help of a soul "pantheon" drawn from Greek and Roman mythology. His world follows a certain amount of video game logic and the physical spaces are based on his birthplace from childhood. El regards these references as a sort of original sin that must be cleared from Bitworld, but as his symbolic name suggests that he is ultimately not above them.
Fall Devotes chapters to Egdod & # 39; s wonderful and meticulously logical rediscovery of things like rot and rebirth, while his living friends summarize his actions in a glass – or at least a visualization of computational resource costs – in the dark. However, that storyline really only starts around 300 pages on the nearly 900 pages page. Fall. Instead, the first part is full of grim, fickle, near speculation in the future, starting with a massive, armed fake news event.
After the death of Dodge, someone convinces the world that terrorists have dumped a nuclear weapon in the city of Moab, Utah, largely destroying people's confidence in both the internet (the & # 39; Miasma & # 39;) and reality. And when Moab goes for revenge on an innocent inhabitant of the city, a consortium of techies cuts the last line, unleashing a system that will create huge numbers of false, contradictory theories about her to isolate her from all of them.
Cut a few years further and America is effectively split into different countries with different views on reality. Heartland "Ameristan" is full of people who believe Moab has been destroyed, including a rabid fundamentalist cult who loves crucifixion. Meanwhile, wealthy coastal residents, such as Dodge & cousin Sophie, hire editors to find out facts online.
This bow offers a cruel vision of the future, and it feels like a more cutting evolution of the early novel by Stephenson The diamond age, in which society is divided into enclaves of intelligentsia and a class of & # 39; lumetproletariat & # 39; from & # 39; thetes & # 39 ;. But it is also unbearably splattering, perhaps because it is full of people who are too rich and smart to have a skin in the miserable game of humanity. Fall & # 39; s main characters spend most of their time outside of Bitworld, pontificating on technical concepts or thinking about the foolish customs of the masses with a sense of anthropological bewilderment. (Their Bitworld incarnations do the same, but at least they have flaming swords and super powers.)
Fall has an almost Randian contempt for most souls in Bitworld when it deems itself to acknowledge them at all. Stephenson is more interested in exploring the nature of consciousness and reality than outlining an ideal society, even if it becomes clear that the defective paradise of Dodge is likely to replace the earth as the standard home of humanity. So Fall constantly shy away from considering what it means for a few wealthy benevolent dictators to redefine reality. Often the subject is avoided by scaring other resurrected residents as slavish, meek, greedy and devoid of the capacity for intellectual growth – to the point where Bitworld is actually a video game world with a few main characters and a large number of NPCs.
This is off-putting to the point of creepiness in a way that is never recognized, and it is unbelievable Fall & # 39; s intriguing exploration of whether people are really looking for their old human pain in a world where anything is possible. If most of them are barely worth treating as living beings, and the rest will naturally be themselves in relation to the divine, why ask? It also sheds the earlier real-world section in an even grimmer light, implying that even without the "Facebookification of America" - as it is called in Autumn – most people would be trapped in a state of hostile ignorance. And when the book slips into its final volume, it loses itself in a simple fantasy quest that is fun on its own terms, but feels like abandoning the earlier complexity of the novel.
Just as Bitworld floats above its sea of chaotic data, Fall seems deeply saddened by his maelstrom of great ideas. But no matter how many pages it's used exuberantly for world formation and philosophy, it never succeeds in owning that darkness – let alone coming to terms with it.