Audiobook Review: Fall; Or, Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson

The problem with any book by Neal Stephenson is that the person foolish enough to try and “review” it has to start somewhere. A foothold on the story, its arc, the social relevance and a bunch of other blah blah blah. To use a common Stephenson affectation: with this story, like the rest of his stories, there isn’t such.

Because to get to that somewhere involves introspecting the story and coming up with a Gestaldtish summation of WTF just happened. Stephenson’s stories are not short and are brutally thick with cause and effect to the point where you just… kind of lose your train of thought, as I’m doing.

This story is f***ing overwhelming, and life changing. It’s also a bunch of other hyperbolic superlatives that I’ll just wrap up with the typical feeling I have after finishing any of Mr. Stephenson’s books (whether first or fourth reading): I’ll never think the same way again.

The Commitment

Every Stephenson book I’ve read requires commitment on the reader’s part. Some people dig the challenge, others just aren’t into the mental toil. I’m both, if I’m honest. It took me 3 efforts to get through Anathem, 5 to get through Cryptonomicon and I’m still trying to get through Seveneves. It’s a rite of passage.

My brother threw Fall across the room, and he’s not a light reader (Pynchon is his favorite writer). Of the 8 friends I have who are trying to read this book, 3 have given up, 2 reported it to be slog and 3 utterly loved it. I was each of these people.

I don’t think it’s possible to find two people who agree on this book, which, to me, means it’s worth trying and that is my first point: take this book on. Accept the challenge. It’s worth it.

A Digital Afterlife

This book is about the digital afterlife. If you’re a Black Mirror fan and are thinking about San Junipero don’t – it’s not that at all. The premise, however, is sort of the same.

The book picks up a few years after REAMDE and features many of the same characters (C+, Zula, Richard “Dodge” Forthrast, etc) and it also weaves in characters from other Stephenson stories – most notably Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle. I thought that was a nice touch.

The story starts off with energy and pulls you in quickly, starting with the death of Dodge and, to me, a masterful social media hoax involving a nuclear bomb going off over Moab, Utah.

This is Stephenson at his best. Breathtaking depth and vision with absurd assertions backed up by relentless science. The nuclear bomb turns out to be a hoax, but the entire world buys into it because video footage (using actors from a fake movie) dropped on social media played into people’s fears. Meanwhile, a DDoS attack in Moab itself cut it off from the internet – so for a few days people believed that was simply gone.

That and the following chapters were the most fun to read and, consequently, the ones I forgot about first. They deal with the destruction of the internet as we know it, replaced by a block chain analogue that embraces accountability. I had to relisten to a few chapters (out of choice) because Stephenson goes into such rich detail and I absolutely loved the idea of an “internet apocalypse”, something I don’t think I’ve read about before.

From there things get weird, fast.

Shaping a Digital Afterlife

I don’t think it’s possible to spoil a Stephenson book because the fun is in the journey, not the story. If you remember anything from this review it’s that: it’s a long, slow, dense journey. If you want to be totally surprised by it, stop reading here. I don’t plan to give away major plot points… but just in case.

Stephenson doesn’t just spring the idea of a digital afterlife on you, he shapes a world – the only world – in which it’s possible to have such a thing. He addresses the computational needs (using quantum machines of course) and the energy and cooling required. The center of the this phase of the book – the “buildup” if you will – is a legal back and forth regarding Dodge’s will. In it he specified exact instructions on what to do with his body when he dies because he wants it preserved for the time and place when it’s possible to load his “connectome” (his digital self) into a computer.

One of the funny things about it, in retrospect, was its slowness, the lack of any dramatic Moment When It Had Happened. It was a little bit like the world’s adoption of the Internet, which had started with a few nerds and within decades become so ubiquitous that no person under thirty could really grasp what life had been like before you could Google everything.

Neal Stephenson, Fall; Or, Dodge in Hell

This is what I love about Stephenson: you get completely lost in his overly active brain. He comes at you with so many ideas that you have to pause the audio (or put the book down) to let the myriad whacko nuttiness settle and form some type of recognizable concept.

The idea of “mapping” a human brain by creating what is, essentially, a 3-dimensional graph of neural connections (the “connectome”) is brilliant and bullshit at the same time. I think. Maybe not. I really have no idea! Stephenson’s tech-literary Judo comes at you so fast you find yourself on the ground before you know what’s happening, disbelieving all of it until you realize that… hey wow you’re on the ground and he’s standing over you laughing trying to help you back up.

What just happened?

When Sophia, Dodge’s niece, goes to work for Corporation 9592 she is tasked with understanding the DB, or “Dodge’s Brain”. All they have is his connectome in the form of binary files on disk, which she loads into a distributed quantum network and… just turns it on.

I loved this cowboy coder technique of booting up the first digital brain because it’s exactly what would have happened. It takes everyone by surprise in the book too, which I thought was wonderful and I found myself giggling as Sophia just kind of shrugged as if while the scientists around her pitched fits. Nice touch :).

Behold: Egdod

Skipping ahead: they managed to boot Dodge’s brain and his consciousness came online. I thought more work could have been done here but Stephenson chose to go down a path that I thought was simultaneously interesting, odd, and also obvious. He chose the to form the digital afterlife into some kind of fantasy realm.

Egdod is Dodge’s avatar from T’rain, the MMO at the center of REAMDE (a great book btw). When Dodge “awakens” his brain is forced to make sense of chaos, and eventually does like something straight out of the book of Genesis. Egdod (“Dodge” spelled backwards) is definitely god-like, sprouting wings and forming the land with not much recollection of who he is or what’s happened to him.

It was hard for me to make this transition. I loved the Black Mirror world that Stephenson was building and the stories happening therein with characters that I was attached to from his previous books. Transitioning to a fantasy story seemed… clumsy to me.

And Stephenson being Stephenson, he clubs you over the head with it until you submit. Egdod is joined by other “souls” over time and they start to branch out into other forms, including a “hive” of souls that mass together and threaten Egdod’s superiority. At one point, a soul named “Spring” figures out how to create life from the chaos in the form of a bee.

Everything about this part of the book: the tone, speech patterns, and the prose, are all reminiscent of a fairly standard fantasy novel full of gods, dense forests and magic. Eventually you get used to it, and then…

Back to The Real World

Stephenson transitions between these world abruptly, as if trying to reinforce the idea that you are, in fact, reading two books. This made sense to me because a digital afterlife really is a different plane of existence (as it’s described later in the book). I mean: if you ended up in San Junipero would you want to spend time thinking about your previous existence?

I don’t want to make light of this point (and Stephenson certainly didn’t). The characters in both realms (real and digital) don’t interact at all. The only way people in the real world can understand what’s happening in “Bitworld” (as they call it) is through the use of a viewer which tracks signal associations between processes. It’s overwhelming to think about how that might work, and the characters in the book “get used to it” in the same way Cipher got used to spotting people in the Matrix by looking at the code from the image translators.

Over decades, the viewer becomes so good that people begin watching it as a source of entertainment, leading to one of my favorite lines from the book:

The living stayed home, haunting the world of the dead like ghosts.

Neal Stephenson, Fall or Dodge in Hell

The dead in Bitworld, however, have some idea about where they came from but its assigned a mythical quality. The only one to have a full understanding of his past is Dodge, who is defeated in battle by his nemesis in the book and, at the same time, gains full understanding of both worlds. Interestingly, nothing more comes of this, which I thought was weird.

The Fading of the Real World

Decades go by in the real world while in Bitworld, time flows according to processing power. Another fine touch by Stephenson: addressing the time slip between Bitworld and the real world. Time goes by as normal in Bitworld, but to the people watching it at home it will slow to a crawl or speed up to the point where days go by in minutes.

To handle the processing power, servers are put in orbit and capture solar radiation for energy and thermal radiation is mirrored out into space to avoid overheating the planet. I like the way Stephenson handles this. There’s a lot of money to be made off of Bitworld so we will invent accordingly.

Interestingly, Stephenson doesn’t spend much time talking about too many other real world details. That’s been done to death in other stories – he’s far more interested in how Bitworld matures over time. It’s in this part of the book that I think most people get lost or flat out give up.

It’s easy to see why: the entire narrative is thrown completely on its head. Bitworld matures into a full-blown fantasy realm straight out of Lord of the Rings. People can do different forms of magic, fantastical beings (lightning bears being one of my favorite) inhabit treacherous landscapes and everything reads like a Tolkein novel.

It’s all very confusing. Until you consider one thing: how else could it truly be?

It seems that when we humans have a chance to invent a different world we reach for the fantastic. One of my favorite games is Witcher 3 and it could easily take place in Bitworld.

Wait… it does take place in Bitworld, except Geralt isn’t formed from the soul of a dead person. At least… that we know of.

This was the slow realization as I finished Fall: Stephenson captured the only way this could possibly work out. Left to their own design, dead souls will build and create what they find interesting or, put another way, what inspiration wells from their deep memory. This, to me, was a stroke of genius and, once again, Stephenson has spun my brain.

The Cloud Within the Silver Lining

With a book this long it’s impossible to not become irritated by an author’s affectations. This is especially true with audiobooks. I began to sense when Stephenson was tired of rolling out a certain plot point – fatiguing him to the point where the word “various” would crop up more than normal and he would flip into passive voice:

Various nobility were arrayed around the table while goblets of wine were filled bawdy jokes told.

Example of Tired Stephenson

You can’t blame Stephenson for succumbing to fatigue with this book. It’s HUGE and it’s DENSE, but sentences like this should be tackled (in my opinion) by an editor and reworked into something less throwaway.

It’s Almost Too Huge

The subjects in Fall are legion. Stephenson talks about social change, the death of fact and the internet as well as its utopian blockchain-powered replacement – this could have been a satisfying book on its own! There’s the question of what a soul is and the religious probings of an afterlife, each of which get their turn albeit a shallow one.

It’s unlike Stephenson to arm wave any detail, but I felt in this book he had to in order to finish it. I don’t mind that he didn’t drill into everything, but some pruning could have been helpful. For instance: server farms in space sound fun, but how exactly do you network those to avoid the obvious latency issues? Cosmic rays and radiation, meteorites and natural disasters taking souls out of existence…

This might sound demanding, but Stephenson is known for rounding out these kinds of plot elements. I mean… servers in space? Yeah! I can barely manage to get an app deployed to AWS … but deploying a virtual soul? Yikes! And what about viruses…

Finally: you want to spend time with beloved characters from his old books that Stephenson reintroduces in this story. The Shaftoes make a tangential entrance and I immediately started thinking about Bobby, one of my favorite characters from Cryptonomicon. I kept thinking that they would play a larger role but … nope.

Some characters do (I won’t spoil that who it is) and it’s… weird. I never fully understood why this character was there but… that’s OK I loved them before and I still love them now :).

A Missed Opportunity… Maybe

I brought up Anathem before, primarily because it’s one of my favorite books from Stephenson. Such a bizarre story in an alternate reality that dealt with the very idea of what reality and consciousness is.

It would fit perfectly within Fall. In fact I was convinced that the ending would feature Bitworld giving itself the name of “Arbre” with the main characters founding the Concents to avoid some kind of collapse. I think that would have been fun… but maybe a little over the top (as if that’s a problem here).

The Audio Performance

The book is read by the same narrator as REAMDE: Malcom Hillgartner. He is extraordinary in this book, his attempts at an Australian accent aside. I do voice over stuff for videos and I can tell you that keeping the energy and pace as he does is a miracle. I couldn’t help myself in trying to figure out where the daily breaks were – a narrator’s voice will typically sound crisper from one chapter to the next – but I couldn’t do it with Mr. Hillgartner.

Well that’s it! I really enjoyed this book but it takes dedication. I had to make sure that I didn’t listen in small bits (10 mins or less) as I’d lose the plot quickly. Instead, I made time in the evening to sit for an hour or so, and also during lunch breaks, which made all the difference.