Fall; Or, A Neal Stephenson Fan In Hell

Warning: this post will contain lots of spoilers about Neal Stephenson’s novel Fall; Or, Dodge In Hell.

I think it started around two thirds of the way through Fall, when Egdod suggested none too subtly to his children that they call themselves Adam and Eve. Egdod, the titular Dodge — having died and been brain-scanned and booted up as something like a God in a digital afterlife known on Earth as “Bitworld” — is in the guise of a worm after having been cast out of the Land he built out of raw computing power by Elmo Shepherd. Elmo, or just El, who we’re led to believe by his attempts to wrest control over the resources powering the Land is the antagonist of Fall, wants something more from the Land than the MMO-style playground that Dodge has shaped it into. He’s raising the entities who will henceforth call themselves Adam and Eve in an Eden-style garden, in the hope that having been birthed in the Land will enable them (unlike all the other “souls” who died on Earth and were rebooted in the cloud) to be the vanguard of something new and not so beholden to humanity’s Earthly constraints. Instead, presumably through Egdod’s apocalypticThe Greek word “apocalypse” means “a disclosure of great knowledge,” and that’s the sense in which I use it here.

influence, Adam and Eve learn of the time before El came to power and El casts them out of the Garden for it. And lo, humanity’s wondrous computational afterlife is reduced to Bible cosplay. I thought: am I supposed to be cheering for Dodge here?

Well, yes; because El turns out to be a fascist. So we root for Dodge because while he lacks imagination and much of a personality and his Land is basically a Middle Ages historical reenactment LARP, at least it’s not a police state. But Stephenson never really convincingly makes the case that this is an afterlife to be hoped for, or even an improvement on none at all. Insofar as we have access to the thoughts of his characters, I think they might agree, if they stopped to consider it. Corvallis Kawasaki, Fall’s first POV character after Dodge’s “meatspace” death, engages in some historical reenactment of his own — as a Roman legionnaire — as a youngish man early in the novel. Five hundred pages and maybe forty or fifty real-world years later, he thinks to himself, “Being a Roman soldier had been fun for a while too, but past a certain age you couldn’t dig those ditches anymore.” Of course, he shortly dies and is uploaded to Bitworld, and guess what, motherfucker! It’s ditch-digging time!Granted, in Bitworld Corvallis is a large raven, thanks to some mind- and body-hacking he engages in pre-mortem. Still, despite his best efforts, he is compelled to dig his share of ditches, just not necessarily literal ones.

Perhaps Stephenson’s afterlife isn’t a compelling one because he never follows through on its philosophical underpinnings. There are tendrils of a more interesting and adventurous book poking through Fall at intervals, but Stephenson never really develops them in a satisfying way. My favorite notion, which recurs several times in different guises and concludes with no payoff whatsoever, is that of intersubjectivity and shared consensus. It shows up in the book’s real-world hoax-incineration of the town of Moab, AZ and subsequent depiction of “Ameristan,” a near future extrapolation of current red-state America whose shared consensus has become entirely disconnected from objective reality. It appears again when Egdod finds his powers to shape reality in the Land limited in the presence of other souls whose perception of that reality act as a kind of friction against changes to it. And in the last meatspace scene before the fantasy novella that comprises Fall’s last two hundred pages, Corvallis muses (omissions are of some plotty details but don’t change the quote’s flavor):

What does it mean for a thing to be convincing? Qualia are only part of it… it turns out that we are wired for intersubjectivity. Our perception of reality is as much social as it is personal… Why do prisoners in solitary confinement go nuts? Because they don’t have others to confirm their perceptions… others have to see it, and react. Ratifying the qualia, cross-linking the history into a social matrix.

That that idea was so vividly and, relatively successfully, evoked in the book’s Ameristan section makes it all the more frustrating that the book’s final section drops it entirely. What is the Land if not a sort of shared hallucination? And yet the fantasy romp of Fall’s final section is played completely straight, with precious little connecting it to the sometimes heady matters of the last 600 pages, and precious little about it allowing for a vision of reality other than the one created by Egdod on a whim.

Early in the existence of the Land, there is actually a brief glimpse at an alternative: a Tower that an enterprising group of souls build out of their own “essence” commingled into an orgy of computational power to rival Egdod’s own and also probably a literal orgy. Now that’s what I call ratifying the qualia! A hedonistic vision of the afterlife, perhaps, but presumably a compelling one to those who entered into it voluntarily. And, unfortunately, an analogue to the Tower of Babel. So Egdod blows it up with a lightning bolt.

Immediately after Corvallis’s quote about intersubjectivity above, he and Dodge’s niece Zula ponder whether Dodge’s having booted up in a blank Bitspace, completely devoid of qualia, might have been a kind of hell. Certainly it was a kind of solitary confinement. And yet, despite that Dodge should thus have “[gone] nuts,” and despite that El’s encroaching mental illness is repeatedly darkly hinted at as instigating or at least exacerbating his megalomania, the world Egdod creates is a coherent and even shockingly quotidian one, and it seems we’re intended to be sympathetic to his own totalitarian response to potential challenges to his dominance. It’s as if the following treatment of Dodge, criticized by Abigail Nussbaum in her review of Fall’s sort-of prequel Reamde, has metastasized to encompass the creation of an entire world:

It is “a belief that had been inculcated in him from the get-go,” we are told, “that there was an objective reality, which all people worth talking to could observe and understand, and that there was no point in arguing about anything that could be so observed and so understood.” But for Richard, that objective reality seems to mean whatever he thinks about the world…

Fall is the literal apotheosis of that treatment, and we in turn are treated to a book where whatever Dodge thinks about the world becomes objective reality. This damages the Bitworld section of Fall both coming and going. The several chapters devoted wholly to Egdod’s construction of the Land are some of the most boring prose Stephenson has ever put to paper, written in a florid sort of pseudo-Biblical style that completely flattens the little personality Dodge displayed in the two chapters preceding his meatspace death. And the vaguely Tolkeinesque quest at the end is diminished not only by its dependence on a whole new group of hitherto unknown and generally unmemorable characters but also by its stakes: why are we invested in a quest whose goal is to restore to prominence a God who made of Heaven an EverQuest?

So: perhaps least of Fall’s many sins is that large swathes of it are boring, especially after the early appearance of Enoch Root and something called the Waterhouse Foundation seem to indicate a return to the freewheeling and slightly manic energy of Cryptonomicon. For all its faults, even at its most digressive (and it got pretty fucking digressive), Cryptonomicon was always fun or at least stylistically lively enough to carry you along on sheer verve.

Abigail Nussbaum, quoted just above, seems to have tapped out of reviewing Stephenson after she panned Reamde, which is probably good for her but a shame for me as I expect she’d have had some incisive things to say about Fall’s Anglocentrism. But maybe there’s not much to say about it except that it’s everything Nussbaum already criticized in her Reamde review, writ even larger. I checked the internet for others who cottoned on to this. One of the few who did so was Robert McGrath, whose critical review covers quite well the tremendous blinders Stephenson seems to be wearing here.

So in the end, what are we left with as a vision of the future in Fall? The operation that created Bitworld grows and grows until it’s a global operation collecting protection money from everyone who wants a shot at Dodge’s creatively impoverished afterlife, built on Biblical and Greek myths with no other cultures even getting a look in, by a God installed by chance and his own wealth in life who will brook no challenges to his power. Dodge In Hell, indeed.