JULY 7, 2019
NEAL STEPHENSON WRITES big novels full of big ideas. He employs large casts of characters, and epic, violent opening scenes dominate his body of work. From The Big U (1984) through 2017’s The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (co-written with Nicole Galland), Stephenson has engaged major disruptions in technological praxis and large-scale social and economic problems. His new novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, is no different; at 877 pages, it is a big novel, and it engages big ideas like collective consciousnesses, cryptocurrencies, digital networks, artificial intelligence, augmented reality (AR)/virtual reality, social and civil disintegration, and the law. In addition to its bigness, Fall is also, on the whole, Stephenson’s most entertaining work since Anathem (2008).
Fall is a compelling sequel to the dour Clancy-esque Reamde (2011), and it appears to complete the Waterhouse-Shaftoe-Forthrast saga that includes Cryptonomicon (1999) and The Baroque Cycle (2003–’04). Familiar characters (such as Enoch Root) return, and, like these earlier works, Fall’s plot is bifurcated into two worlds; one is our reality (called “Meatspace”), and the other is an augmented virtual reality for the deceased (called “Bitworld”).
Because Bitworld is in many ways a play on the Greek and Roman myths of creation and the “Titanomachia” (a theme from Cryptonomicon) as well as Genesis and Milton’s Paradise Lost, questions of morality, ethics, and epistemological conflicts naturally arise. In the novel, the main character from Reamde, Richard “Dodge” Forthrast, the billionaire creator of an immensely popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) called T’Rain, dies during a routine medical procedure; he has his brain cryogenically preserved until its entire connectome can be electronically scanned and its axons and dendrites “reactivated.” Dodge awakens in the chaos of Bitworld with most of the same powers his godlike character “Egdod” had in Reamde. In Bitworld, as Egdod, he creates vast territories and massive buildings, and (with the help of the initial 15 or so other brains scanned and added to Bitworld) he generates biomes, plants and animals, weapons, and crafts.
Life, such as it is in the digital world, is pleasant enough. Egdod and his coterie of first beings construct a digital world that slowly becomes more populated by other creators. Book Two of Fall is a work of high fantasy that very much knows it is a work of fantasy — the narrative unfolds as a titanic battle between different creative visions for Bitworld (but given that all the inhabitants are already dead and can be rebooted if they “die” again, it sometimes doesn’t feel like the stakes are actually very high). Conflict, if not sin, enters the novel beginning with the reading of Dodge’s will. Vast sums of money are spent by the Forthrast family in conjunction with the Waterhouse-Shaftoe family on research and development to perfect the technologies needed to fulfill the will.
Further conflict occurs when Moab, Utah, appears to be destroyed by a nuclear blast; the true fallout mainly occurs on social media, where Moab “truthers” rally around these events as part of their opposition to the US government’s supposed treachery. Here the novel’s central problem emerges: exploration of how social media might be hacked on a global scale is the kind of world-transforming issue that drives Stephenson’s finest works, but as strong as the section on the Moab incident is, it quickly fades from the plot until one wonders why it was introduced at all. It simply seems like a MacGuffin needed to draw another billionaire (Elmo Shepherd) into conflict with the Forthrast estate and with Egdod in the novel’s two worlds.
The Moab incident posits a frightening vision of what could happen if a precision hoax executed through viral marketing on social media became experienced as a persuasive social reality. As with reactions to global climate change or the US elections in 2016, Stephenson explores how such a moment could be weaponized in a disinformation campaign strengthening already present divides to the point where we could see a post-reality schism and social bifurcation.
After the Moab section, a second plot begins, involving Dodge’s beloved grandniece Sophia driving cross-country from Princeton to Seattle 17 years after his death and the Moab incident (and three years before he awakens in Bitworld). By this time, much of the former United States has been divided between truth-based communities, largely on the coasts and in college towns, and “Ameristan,” where weapons and evangelical Christianity dominate. In Ameristan, the destruction of Moab is regarded as real, and the US government is guilty of the true hoax: the cover-up. Seattle and other coastal cities become more and more focused on the eschatological questions of living forever in Bitworld, and people there spend their lives building enough capital to buy their way in. Populations plummet as people stop having children and only prepare for life everlasting in Egdod’s domain. In Meatspace, watching Bitworld unfold becomes a popular AR phenomenon, and discussions of how Bitworld might be created and sustained are explored in more compelling detail than why Bitworld works at all as a place to spend eternity in a role-playing game.
Neither the Moab nor Ameristan plots serve much purpose in the novel except to show that Elmo Shepherd and Fox News viewers are bad people with either too much money or too much ammunition — or both. Further, Shepherd suffers from mental illness; too often in Fall, “crazy” and “evil” are conflated. What’s missing from both parts of Fall is the dense examination of such cultural divides that we see in Snow Crash (1992), Anathem, or the last section of Seveneves (2015): the visit to Ameristan is especially frustrating as it promises, but does not much deliver, the kind of incisive social commentary that Stephenson often engages in. That said, his musings on dental and medical care in a world that rejects science, and the precarious state of infrastructures no longer maintained but instead used for target practice, show Stephenson’s typical nuance and humor.
Additionally, Dodge’s character remains fairly flat throughout the novel despite his failures and successes. Stephenson rarely has him examine the idea of life after death or the epistemological questions that might arise when one finds oneself alive in a new world and wielding godlike powers. Here again the novel asks us to consider questions about reality, memory, life and death, and the potential for digital life expansion, but its characters don’t ponder such questions in much depth. Life in Bitworld sounds great for gamers, but is that all? World of Warcraft forever? For most people who die and wake up in Bitworld, life in the hereafter is work — either as a “Beedle,” a kind of worker bee doing menial tasks, or as a laborer with some, but limited, agency. According to the mechanics of Bitworld, most of us would be non-player characters (NPCs) in our own stories of eternity. Nonexistence seems preferable.
So what works in Fall? What makes this a largely successful novel despite these problems? The journey through Ameristan is terrifying as a result of the breakdown of how people consume information — fact-based or not — and is especially poignant regarding social media’s effects in the novel. The novel suggests that a new enterprise of cultivating feeds in and out of our minds will emerge. That we will build our brand online through what feeds we consume and how we package ourselves to others is already happening, of course, but having access to a professional editor will become, the novel suggests, as much a part of life as having a smartphone is today.
Further, Stephenson’s tremendous gift for envisioning future technological praxis is shown in Fall through his speculation, perhaps stemming from his position as “chief futurist” at the AR startup Magic Leap, about how people will protect both their privacy and their digital identities online. The creation of apps called PURDAH and VEIL fuels the editing, personalizing, hiding, and/or announcing of one’s presence in both reality and online, which sounds exciting as a means of combating the scourge of “fake news” and social media bots. PURDAH is a “Personal Unseverable Registered Designator for Anonymous Holography,” a means to provide authorship of one’s presence in the online world through identifiable traits in one’s writing. Likewise, VEIL is “Virtual Epiphanic Identity Lustre,” a means to electronically broadcast both noise and signals to facial-recognition software systems. A VEIL can jam one’s face on security cameras and in other people’s augmented glasses or convey links to one’s PURDAH as a kind of QR code or nothing at all. As a means of protecting and projecting one’s privacy and identity, it is quite intriguing — how can, and even should, we protect our identities and go where we want in the coming days of near-total video surveillance?
Co-opting the Islamic and Hindu traditions of women being physically sequestered and/or hiding their faces and bodies is the kind of tone-deaf thematic appropriation that Westerners, including software makers, often take. Rather than being a fault of the novel, Stephenson uses this to skewer online culture, particularly social media, and the ubiquity of noise-making “smart” devices that began in Anathem and continued through Seveneves, where, 5,000 years after humanity nearly went extinct, social media remains a strict taboo. In Fall, the PURDAH and VEIL systems intriguingly give the characters agency over what they want the world to know (and not know) about them as they move about Meatspace, and they seem like a natural outgrowth of today’s social media and increased use of facial-recognition software in the physical realm. These systems are designed to assign authorship to coding of all kinds, including public and private statements, and thus combat the scourge of fake news, which certainly seems like a good idea. That said, while wearables like Apple Watches, Fitbits, and other fitness trackers have proven very popular, Google Glass was nearly universally derided, and AR goggles such as those created by Magic Leap have not yet become widely available in the market. It is hard for this reviewer to imagine wearing goggles all the time to project and protect one’s identity though.
Stephenson’s wearable technology combines Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook so that one curates (or, for those with the means, has one’s life curated) for one’s followers. As in other speculative fictions featuring wearables, Vernor Vinge’s 2006 novel Rainbows End comes most quickly to mind; information is accessed through lenses, here worn as eyeglasses and not contacts, and AR is a common group and individual experience for business, education, and play. In this regard, Fall is an exciting addition to this subgenre because of Stephenson’s history of inspiring technological innovation and for raising questions about how our digital lives may extend beyond our deaths. However, it seems that Fall wants to be more, particularly in the second part of the novel, which is a kind of fable of creation.
The legal, computational, ethical, and epistemological debates over whether or not to attempt to create Bitworld and then sustain it once it is turned on feel very much of our moment and rife with big concerns that really matter, but ultimately, Stephenson’s latest work is less than the sum of its parts, due to lack of genuine tension in the novel’s final third.