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Fall; or, Dodge in Hell

Neal Stephenson
William Morrow
890 pp.
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In his latest novel, Fall, Neal Stephenson tells the story of Richard Forthrast, better known as “Dodge,” a video game magnate who has willed his brain to research in the hopes of being reanimated. Heeding the call of the “Eutropians,” Dodge and seven others lead the charge for digital immortality, foretelling the emergence of new technology that will upload the brain of the financial elite to a virtual cloud. But what happens when a human-generated simulation begins to replicate the chaos by which life arose?

After his untimely death, Dodge’s cryopreserved connectome is scanned and activated by using a vast network of computers, each processor dedicated to simulating the thousands of synaptic connections of an individual neuron. Emerging into the nascent “Bitworld,” he experiences awareness amid a cacophony of static and light. Being the firstborn of his own afterlife, Dodge is given free rein to design the world according to the pattern of his memory. But he is not alone for long. As other patrons are uploaded from the corporeal “Meatspace,” Dodge assumes the role of king of the digital genesis, making subjects of the pantheon of bit-souls.

But Dodge’s quest to create a more perfect life after death is challenged by the arrival of competing tech guru Elmo Shepherd, who seeks to impose his own version of eternity on the afterlife. Shepherd enters Bitworld with superior programming algorithms, acquired and refined after Dodge’s death. He trades Dodge’s lifelike renderings of uploaded souls for winged avatars, enslaved by his new algorithm. Dodge and his host of early Bitworld settlers retreat to an alternate plane described as the “lake of fire,” waiting for an opportunity to reestablish their rule.

Eventually, Stevenson introduces the birth of new souls that are native to Bitworld, evoking a central question: Whence comes life and afterlife? Meatspace clientele struggle against the children of Bitworld for dwindling virtual resources. The children are faced with a moral conundrum, facing the prospect that their reality is filtered by the elite ruling class Shepherd has installed.

Fall invokes contemporary issues in neuroscience, focusing on the interplay between the hard-wired brain connectome and dynamics of synaptic learning. In doing so, Stephenson offers a sobering conclusion to the epistemology of the internet age that includes both subtle advice—reminding us, for example, that pride comes before the fall—and, ultimately, an outward rebuke of the quest for apotheosis.

In this great undertaking, however, Stephenson’s cast of Meatspace characters is often lacking in dimensionality. They are described as unique individuals, but their contributions to dialogue could easily be interchanged with little repercussion. In addition, the book’s generous narrative often strays toward the tangential without offering a clear contribution to the overall story arc. But perhaps it is Stephenson’s intention that readers accompany Bitworld souls through aeons of incremental evolution, rediscovering the mundane as well as the sublime. Such an ambition would be admirable, but it fuels impatience in the reader, who may find herself wishing to return to the exciting central characters.

Fall offers an important allegory of mankind’s struggle to understand our place in the universe, surrounded as we are by natural laws, myth, purpose-seeking, joy, and suffering. The reader is left with a sense that achieving perpetuity may ultimately be a pyrrhic victory.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027, USA.