Monday, August 12, 2019


I've gotten out of the habit of grabbing new Neal Stephenson books right at release. For over a decade I would pre-order each book and devour it immediately. That habit got interrupted when he started creating more collaborative books with multiple authors, like The Mongoliad and D.O.D.O. For his newest book, "Fall; or, Dodge in Hell", I ended up putting a hold on the book at the library and waiting more than a month to start reading it.

Now that I've finished, I'm fairly confident that I'll end up buying the hardcover and adding it to my growing shelf of first-edition Stephenson novels. It's really good. It has the hallmarks I've come to appreciate from his books: tons of interesting ideas, which Stephenson doggedly chases down and thoroughly fleshes out; ballsy plotting; plentiful digressions. And it once again avoids feeling like a rehash of any of his earlier books: you can definitely draw comparisons to prior novels, but it's doing its own thing, and it's a lot of fun to discover what it's trying to do.


As with all books I anticipate reading, I'd avoided any spoilers going in, and so it wasn't until I was about five pages into the book that I finally realized that it's a sequel to REAMDE. I'd greatly enjoyed that book, and I increasingly think that it's the title I'll recommend to people who are wondering if they should get into Stephenson.

That said, it doesn't read like REAMDE much. REAMDE was a fun and fast-paced thriller, with a lot of tech stuff and other nerdy content filling in the cracks, but very much an action-driven book. Fall is not; it's much more a book about ideas, where confrontations happen in board rooms or coffee shops over pointed words and court filings rather than in hotels with gunfire. Over the long run, it actually ends up covering much the same content as Anathem, but it gets there through a vastly more comprehensible path than Anathem's tossing-in-the-deep-end approach. And structurally, Fall reminded me a lot of Seveneves, with a roughly 2/3 build-up and an almost-completely-separate story filling the final act.

As with REAMDE, Fall begins in our near-future; pretty much all of the technology is stuff that exists today or is generally recognized as being on the imminent horizon. The early concern of the book revolves around social media in particular and human knowledge more generally. Stephenson retains his uncanny skill at inventing perfect names for fictional tech companies, and the best example here is "Lyke" as a new social media network.

An early bang in the story comes when the Utah city of Moab is annihilated by a nuclear explosion. That would have caught my attention anyways, but it was even more arresting since I was just there a few months ago on my southwest backpacking trip. We soon learn, though, that this "explosion" was a fraud: a mildly expensive but not terribly difficult hoax that seeded a burst of disinformation, then sat back and watched it spread like wildfire throughout the Internet (very appropriately dubbed the "Miasma" here).

The trouble of sifting out truth from falsehood in the Miasma reminded me strongly of the troubles with the Arkies in Seveneves. Both plotlines deal with the general problem of digital noise: we have easy and instant access to far more information than ever before in human history, and it's now becoming apparent that this is a liability rather than an asset, as the sheer volume makes it nearly impossible to extract the true and useful information from data that is false, manipulative, or useless.

It's cool to see Stephenson returning to this topic and digging into it some more; I'm reminded that the 2016 election happened between Seveneves and Fall, and the reading public is probably more aware today of the ways social networks were exploited and weaponized in that campaign. I've always liked it when Stephenson has gotten interested in concepts and then mulled them over through multiple books, like the bicameral mind in The Big U and Snow Crash, or currencies in Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle.

The trouble of truth and accurate communication is a real problem, but the way it's framed in Seveneves and Fall kind of highlights Stephenson's elitism. His heroes are scientists, engineers, smart people who know better than anyone else. Democracy feels inherently bad in his worldview, mired in mediocrities and only looking out for themselves, unlike an ideal enlightened technocracy. This division is most obvious and pointed in the Ameristan chapters early in the book, but also underlies the conflict in the Land later: does someone who built something deserve more power and influence? It's unsurprising that Stephenson is so popular among us programmers, as his books show a very idealized version of who we are and suggests that creators "like us" are superior.

The ultimate creator is arguably Dodge himself. I was struck by the biblical language used when Richard's mind "wakes up" in the Hole in the Wall. Echoing Genesis, he divides the light from the dark, and decides that "it is good." That same rhythm proceeds throughout the creation process, as he defines the boundary between land and water or sets the cycles of day and night.

The Tower of Babel is one of Neal's oldest preoccupations, dating back at least as far as the Sumerian nam-shub curses of Snow Crash, but Fall has by far the most thorough and powerful presentation of that story yet. It's interesting that we don't get any perspective into what the Blob is thinking; Dodge has essentially ascended to divinity by now, and he and his pantheon are out of touch with the concerns of petty mortals. In the abstract, it is an interesting struggle between a powerful few and the will of the many. I'm honestly not sure if we're meant to be cheering on Dodge during his victory, or if it's a criticism of his pride and egotism, or what; based on his thoughts alone, he seems to be motivated out of a petty desire to have the biggest pole. But anyways, it's really interesting to see the breaking and its effects in real-time: the promise of direct communication between two souls is ended, an artificial barrier has been erected to foment division between people, and as a result the position of the powerful is secured while the many lose the potential for collective action that could have won them a share of resources.

And of course there's the Garden, a clear parallel to Eden, including such hallmarks as Adam and Eve, long walks with "God", the threat of knowledge, angels with fiery swords to guard the entrance. But other biblical elements are the basis of riffs and variations. The apple is the cause of original shit, not original sin: eating apples brings people into a more physical mode of existence, able to feel cold and hunger and other sensations they did not experience as spirits before tasting it. The worm sort of plays the part of the serpent, but in a very different way.

While reading these sections, I was reminded of Philip Pullman's fantastic His Dark Materials: there's an increasing separation between "God" and lesser beings, where a creator who was very hands-on and present in the early times grows more remote and inaccessible over time, only working through intermediaries. In HDM, "God" is an antagonist, and I found it interesting to think of Dodge in the same way. He takes on devilish characteristics after the Fall, with dark wings and lakes of fire and all those accoutrements, but I'm pretty sure he's intended as the protagonist.

As a side note, it makes perfect sense that Richard would become "God", as his background in creating the virtual world of T'Rain for an MMO becomes perfect preparation for creating the world of the afterlife. El may be unhappy with the outsized role Richard plays, but it's hard to think of another person (other than possibly Pluto) who could have done a better job, or even had the instinct to do it. Watching Richard create Bitworld after leaving Earth reminded me of the Mormon concept of the afterlife. I've only heard about this second-hand, and it's very possible I have it wrong, but my understanding is that in Mormon theology every person will become a "God" or "Goddess" of their own world after they die. There's a definite appeal to the idea of being able to be a creator, to spend eternity building things. I did wonder whether consumers on Earth were all happy with being sent to the same afterlife, or if some of them would have preferred to each have their own private server spun up, so they could have the same sort of freedom and influence that Dodge did. If they address that in the book I forget it; it may be that the overhead in running each world is too great and they need to scale a single world for performance reasons, or it might be related to the fact that Bitworld is able to requisition resources and spread throughout multiple networks and data centers anyways, so even if multiple afterlifes are started they would eventually merge as long as each is connected to the Internet.

I was most attuned to the Christian elements of the novel, but it seems like a lot of different belief systems are represented. There's an interesting animism present: from the very earliest days, certain souls choose to inhabit rocks, trees, bodies of water, or other natural objects and forces, rather than taking on humanoid form. It's cool to see how a "soul" can choose to manifest or inhabit, and take on different sorts of purposes. A typical "spawned" soul will live out a human-ish life, spending its days talking with other souls, building a modest house, eating food, and so on; the formless souls, though, will spend all their years making a rock into the best single rock it can be, or inhabit a westerly wind with far more nuance and force than Dodge or even Pluto could create. It's cool to see some of these souls manifest in the later section of the book, but I also really like the idea that many of them are still quietly fulfilling the purpose they have chosen for themselves, imbuing the created world with a greater power.

Of course, religious topics aren't confined to Bitworld. I was fascinated by the Leviticans, an interesting, and horrifying, way to reconcile the contradiction of "Republican Jesus." In our America today, most self-declared Evangelical Christians have aligned themselves with policies that champion the powerful and rich, and both right-wing politicians and religious leaders invoke a vision of Jesus who craves warfare against our enemies, tax cuts for the wealthy, turning away refugees, leaving the sick and poor to fend for themselves. How do you line that up with the actual text of the Gospels clearly presenting the person of Jesus as a friend of the poor who preached radical generosity and peace, even when it harms the giver? Christians are called to turn the other cheek when struck, not to claim another eye; when someone asks you for your coat, you should give him your cloak, too. This disparity has been particularly crazy-making for me since most members of evangelical and fundamentalist churches will also claim that their beliefs are solely derived from the Scripture and not from man's teachings.

In Fall, this tension between what people want their Jesus to be and what the Bible says their Jesus is is resolved by keeping their desired ideology and ditching the literature: this sect declares that the crucifixion itself (the cornerstone of the Christian faith!) was a hoax, that obviously the Son of God couldn't be killed by mere mortal men. They keep the name of Jesus and still claim to worship Him, but freed from the pesky contradictions of the scripture they can mold Him as they desire. They hold on to the elements they like, mostly the vengeful Old Testament teachings: demanding obedience, retributive punishment, enforcing capricious restrictions (no blended fabrics, no touching menstruating women). They've snipped out the sacrifice that's at the heart of 2000 years of Christian theology, returning to a simplistic Bronze Age ideology of "My God can beat up your God."

I'm pretty sure Stephenson is an atheist, or at least agnostic, but he tends to have a pretty sympathetic view of religion in his books. Like a lot of authors, he presents "faith" as a positive thing, but unlike most other people I read he also sees worth in the structure of religious thought. Real theology wrestles with complex issues, questions itself, applies discipline and rigor, honors tradition while still growing: you can see why, even apart from the content, the field would appeal to him. In this book, Jake Forthrast is probably the best positive example of a devout man. He's very different from the scientists and engineers who are Neal's usual heroes, but Jake has many of the same qualities and is admirable in his own way: he's thoughtful, principled, knows what he believes and why, but also does not think that he has all the answers, and works to improve his knowledge.

There is a kind of surprising conservatism that runs throughout Neal's work. For an author best known for his prescient predictions about technology and culture, he has an almost Confucian ideology that crops up in multiple books. I first became aware of this in The Diamond Age, a post-cyberpunk book that depicts a post-scarcity world where incredible technology and limitless resources are available to every person; but most of humanity just wastes it, and are mindless consumers who live in anonymous tenement buildings and spend their entire lives eating and watching entertainment. The people who actually run things in this world are from cultures that have strong family units and social structures: the Victorians, the Nipponese, and the Han. Tradition, respect, and an aversion to the latest technological fads are a pre-requisite for social status and leadership. In a similar vein, Anathem showed the value of discipline and self-sacrifice, with the Autists intellectually and culturally superior to those outside their walls. Seveneves was really interested in bloodlines and the moral values that get passed down though generations. REAMDE and Fall posit that having a clan of heavily-armed libertarians lurking in the woods isn't the worst thing; they may seem scary and anti-government, but they are stable, and form a crucial bulwark against external threats.


Reading Fall made me think a lot about different layers of reality. The existence of Dodge and the various Spawned and Sprung is fully "real", but is also a contingent reality of our Earth. It's "real" because they can think, perceive the world around them, act upon that world, communicate with one another... everything that we do in our own reality. And yet, it's also true that they exist as electrons distributed across a vast array of computer servers. As real as their world is, it would vanish in an instant if Earth were obliterated, or if solar flares fried the electronics, or even if someone decided to turn off the simulation.

This reminded me a ton of the Wick from Anathem, and unlike in Anathem, I can more clearly understand how one could move "up the wick" or "down the wick". People from Earth could communicate with Bitworld by inserting information into the cloud to send a message; conversely, Bitworld residents could create a message within the cloud that could be observed by visualization programs on Earth.

And, to extend this (similar to the expansion from simple data to complex commands shown in the Illustrated Primer of The Diamond Age), one could imagine, say, a buffer being created within the cloud that's used to drive a robot on Earth. So, even though Bitworld is a contingent reality, Bitworld residents could theoretically physically manipulate objects and events on Earth, extending their control outside the simulation.

This gets spelled out rather explicitly near the end of the book, on page 844, as Corvus is convincing the Quest party of their treasure's otherworldly origin:

Suppose that the other plane of existence is real, and that it was preexisting. Which is to say that the Land was born out of it, much as you were born out of Eve. It follows that in that other plane are powers or faculties of creation that somehow account for the whole story of the Land's coming into being, and underlie every aspect of what we take to be real. Moreover that plane is populated by souls who know of us and our doings, and who from time to time may for reasons we cannot even speculate on choose to effect changes to the Land - but to do so without violating what makes the Land coherent. If you accept these premises, can you not accept that an object [...] might be brought into existence again? Not by any craft of any soul who dwells here, but by one on the other plane of existence, wielding powers the nature of which we cannot begin to understand?

It's heady, mind-bending stuff, and it puts me in mind of some of my favorite movies, like The Matrix and Inception, where a fully-realized world is nestled within and dependent upon another world. Of course, once you start heading down this road, the obvious question becomes, how do we know that Earth is the "prime" reality, and that it is not a contingent reality of another world? Well... we don't. This is another area where faith is helpful, either to choose to believe that we are an original plane of existence, or to recognize God or an equivalent entity/force as coming from a higher reality. I'm reminded yet again of George Berkeley, whose philosophy I like more and more the older I get: approaching the problem from a religious rather than a technological angle, he concluded that there is no real matter and all of our lives are illusory; but it's OK, because we all exist by being perceived by God.

This all ties in very much with Enoch Root, and it was really fun to retroactively make sense of this odd character who has recurred across the many Waterhouse/Shaftoe books leading up to Fall. And apparently it applies to Solly, too. There's always been something that seemed kind of magical about Enoch; but at last we can see that it isn't exactly magic, it's just that he's a visitor from somewhere else that knows a great deal about us. From page 661:

"You're not erudite?"
"Nope," said Solly, "just wise."
"Mm. What do I have to do to become wise?"
"Die," said Enoch, "and go to the next place."
"Seems like a stiff price to pay."
"We paid it," Solly said.
"You look alive to me."
"We paid it," Solly insisted, "where we came from."

And it's only just now as I'm writing this that I'm connecting the dots and realizing that Solly and Enoch weren't just conveniently hanging around while all this was going on. They came from a higher plane of existence, and caused a new (I should say "lower", though that sounds pejorative and shouldn't be) plane to be created. Whatever world they came from didn't just see value in Earth; they saw value in Earth creating its own contingent reality. Why? We can't know for sure, but it seems likely that they recognize that the Sprung of Earth have their own value and worth, and ought to have a reward after death.

This post made a lot of comparisons to Stephenson's earlier books, but just to be clear, that's more a result of the way I naturally process new books than a deliberate intention on Stephenson's part. He's on record as saying that he doesn't connect lines between his own books; it isn't that he's been building a vast and intricate David Mitchell-esque shared universe that's reached its apotheosis in Fall, it's more that he's a really bright guy who gets deeply curious about things and you see the results of that curiosity across multiple books. It's tremendously fun to be caught up in that curiosity: Neal's enthusiasm is contagious, and I'm always left reflecting over the systems he lays out and wondering how they can be applied to the world around me. I really enjoyed chewing over all this book had to offer, and am pleased to see it enter the Stephenson canon.

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