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Fall; or, Dodge in Hell
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B : lots of interesting ideas and some solid stories and adventures, if not entirely satisfying
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
Fall; or, Dodge in Hell opens describing, at a leisurely pace, the last hours of Richard Dodge's life.
The Seattle-based billionaire founder and chairman of video game giant Corporation 9592 has a minor medical procedure scheduled for that day; it is: "a thing done a thousand times today", but in this particular case it is not going to go well.
The contract that all eleven of these people had signed, while they were alive, when they gave Ephrata Cryonics their money, contained an out. It said that the remains were to be preserved in cryogenic storage -- or through whatever means, in the judgment of Ephrata Cryonics, were best suited to the desired goal of eventually bringing the deceased back to life.And Ephrata Cryonics' -- now a subsidiary of Ephrata Life Sciences and Health (ELSH) -- judgment and focus soon quite sensibly zeroed in solely on the brain: preserve that, first physically -- and then in electronic form. That's what they did:
They took each of those eleven brains and scanned them. Reduced them to data structures. Stored the data in the cloud.And that's what they plan to do with Dodge's brain, too .....
The scanning process is, however, destructive -- and was, in the case of these first eleven trailblazing heads very rudimentary ("running it through a deli slicer and taking pictures" is the succinct description of the basic process). But ELSH are looking towards improved technology -- ion-beam scattering -- which, while also destroying the tissue, promised much higher resolution in 'capturing' the brain, as it were.
ELSH is run by Elmo 'El' Shepherd, who has grand visions of the singularity and happens also to be terminally ill -- suffering from an incurable genetic disorder that runs in the family, whose: "inevitable results is a degeneration of the brain". I.e. he is going to lose his mind -- unless, of course, he can preserve it -- preferably still in good condition -- first. He is incredibly wealthy, and has big, big plans -- and Dodge's brain, under contract, presents a huge opportunity. And while he doesn't get his hands on it immediately, the Forthrasts come to an agreement and, when the technology seems up to snuff, allow him to do his thing with it -- paving the way, he hopes, for his own way-to-eternal-life.
Part of the fun of Stephenson's novel is his awareness of and interest in the legal issues. Lawyers are quickly on the scene in the story, and contracts and wills play a significant role in how the story unfolds. Legal disputes and tugs-of-war between the two (conveniently incredibly wealthy) power-bases that eventually control what spins out of Dodge's brain-remains continue throughout the story. (Trying to explain the division of her family's estate to her college friends: "'Per stirpes,' Sophia said, and then spelled it out. 'Look it up. Read it and weep. Those of you who finish early may wish to refamiliarize yourselves with the storyline in Bleak House.'".) El, in particular, shows himself adept at using the law to his advantage -- not least in ensconcing himself, for the last years of his life, in a bit of unclaimed terrestrial territory, a tiny bit of land between Belgium and Netherlands which they never settled sovereignty over, called Zelrijk-Aalberg -- a self-made safe haven.
It's a while before Dodge's remains are ... settled, and meanwhile, during the waiting years, Stephenson offers a few other incidents and adventures. After Dodge's brain-death, the book jumps ahead three years, and the part after that is already set seventeen years after his 'death'; the actual transition of the brain -- the technical uploading of the brain (and destruction of its physical form) -- is mentioned in not much more than passing, like some incidental step. More is made of the change of the world at large, specifically the United States, where a large-scale Internet hoax has for once and all undermined the basics that allowed for cohesive society, bringing to an end a: "three-hundred-year run when there was a way for people to agree on facts" and making for something of a free-for-all, which includes large swaths of middle American where the thinking had become rather backward (conspiracy-embracing, god-focused, gun-obsessed -- with the occasional crucifixion to make a point ...). The Miasma -- the Internet -- had been replaced by a new system, notable also for requiring editors to keep it anywhere near clean or useful, a costly add-on that many can only afford if they share the cost (with a corresponding decline in usefulness and privacy).
Stephenson keeps this -- and all the other -- technological advances humming (and advancing) in the background, as it were -- introducing and using them, but without focusing too much on how or why the developments progressed as they did, beyond the obvious; technological advances in 'Meatspace' -- the familiar physical world -- are of some but ultimately only secondary interest for his story, though along the way they do allow him to make some points about society, technology, information, and the choices we make. (Yes, there is a feel of some of this being rather tangential, with both characters and concerns brought to the fore and then left dangling as he continues elsewhere, but they tend to be both entertaining and thought-provoking, which almost feels like enough to justify them .....)
It is Sophia -- Dodge's grand-niece, who was very much on his mind in his last conscious hours but was not much more than a toddler back then -- who, seventeen years later, as a Princeton student, comes to study Dodge's uploaded brain -- and sets in motion what amounts to turning it on: not just keeping the brain running, as it were, but turning on the self-modification capability. The nudge which pushes bit-brain Dodge into (a form of) consciousness.
Stephenson has some fun imagining what it's like for consciousness to establish itself -- especially given this peculiar mind-body set-up (all mind, no body) -- and it takes Dodge quite a while to ... come to himself. So, for example, he longs identifies as 'Egdod' (Dodge backwards). Stephenson indulges in this world-building, throwing new twists in along the way, as the novel now moves back and forth between Meatspace and this rapidly evolving and increasingly crowded and more elaborate virtual 'Bitworld'.
Part of the fun is how the living outsiders perceive what's going on in the virtual world, beginning first just with the energy consumption they monitor, and then, for example, with a Landform Visualization Utility that allows them to map what is being 'built' in the virtual world. For a long time it's unclear to the outsiders whether the deceased have taken memories with them into their new world, or whether they can, and the (after-)'life' enjoyed by the uploaded remains largely a mystery to the still-living.
Time-scales/speeds differ in the two worlds -- one leap in the story is of: "four years in Meatspace, but hundreds in Bitworld" --, with time speeding up or slowing down in Bitspace from the perspective of Meatspace (the 'Time Slip Ratio'), depending on the major constraint: energy usage. So Stephenson can conveniently make big leaps in time in his story -- much bigger in Bitworld than in Meatspace. Even in the still-physical world, however, the story tends to hop ahead rather than unfolding steadily -- including with the characters aging, and dying, in spurts, evermore of them joining the gang in Bitworld.
Getting uploaded into the virtual cloud proves to be a popular and soon nearly universally desirable procedure: everyone wants to get scanned and archived in Bitworld. The promise of (a form of) eternal life seems at hand. Though, of course, it's remains hard to tell for the living to tell what the after-living are actually experiencing .....
Stephenson imagines an elaborate virtual construct -- rule- and (physical) law-based, with foundations in familiar myths, stories, and experiences. The other-world is very earth-like -- and some of the local myths and conflicts clearly echo familiar mythology. When El passes into this hereafter a conflict that had been simmering in Meatspace can be played out more closely -- as El always felt that the button was pushed too early, and that Dodge wasn't, in that state, the ideal founder for this other-world. Dodge has some great powers as the first on the scene -- as creator of the scene -- but late-comer El comes with some advantages too. Yet there are others, too, with special powers derived from when they arrived -- or, in the case of Sophia, the fact that she is the original token-holder for the whole damn program, giving her a life-and-death power no one else, not even Dodge or El, have.
Bitworld takes on a very 'natural' look, recreating the feel of life on earth in many ways -- albeit with a few unusual twists. Those who populate it tend to do so in more or less human form -- but others are possible; some characters are also winged, for example, and capable of flying. Some are also more powerful than others, with different forms of power, often taken from myth -- yes, there's some thunderbolt-hurling, there are giants, there are (kinds of) angels.
A major turning point comes with the appearance of two new creatures in Bitworld, human(oid)s who eventually take the telling names of 'Adam' and 'Eve': "the first two souls that were created anew in the Land with no trace of what went before, save a certain necessary commonality in the organization of your minds". Previously, every new being in Bitworld was one that had been uploaded; Adam and Eve came into being solely in this space. El sees that as fundamental problem: he's focused on replicating outside (Meatspace) existences in Bitworld, and doesn't want any independent souls coming into being there. For one thing, they're problematic free-riders of a sort: every being needs energy (computing power, still all found (if increasingly automated) in Meatspace), and while a pair alone isn't much of a burden, if they have offspring the threat of overpopulation suddenly becomes very real.
Adam and Eve start out in a garden, but of course they're banished; Eve does become pregnant -- and has a litter of kids (not just the one ...). And El wants to ensure that that's pretty much the end of the line .....
If the first third of the long novel was pretty much entirely in Meatspace, almost all of the final two hundred pages take place in Bitworld, the local story there one of a grand quest in search of the key that could unlock ... well, what had seemed to be locked away forever. It is, of course, the avatar of a cryptographic key, the last remaining way to access the program running the whole show at its most basic level.
Many of the real-world characters have, by the time of the quest, physically died and now are, in various forms, part of Bitworld; time has moved at a different pace, so much more has gone by in the virtual world -- eons, of sorts -- while a creaky Zula still putters around (with the help of an exoskeleton-cum-support-robot) in the real world, for example. Over this great length of time, this other-world has developed into an elaborate one -- including also in its power-structures. Those who venture forth on the great quest -- several not even quite sure of their specific roles -- face both great natural and human(oid) dangers.
The quest-tale is almost straight out of fantasy fiction -- with a few connections to the real-world foundations to all of this that also come into play. Good and evil are clearly differentiated, sacrifices must be made, remarkable abilities come in handy. It is an entertaining story within the story -- fitting on and into the bigger picture (which, after all, also extends into Meatspace), but also standing quite well on its own as grand adventure story, complete with spectacular (if not entirely surprising) conclusion. That it is played out in a virtual world doesn't make the stakes any lower.
So Stephenson does a lot in Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, and the pieces -- or rather chunks (they tend to be big ...) -- are well done, compelling stories and adventures, on various scales. The balancing act, between real and virtual worlds, is a difficult one; the two are almost entirely separate and, for example, communication, of any sort, whether bringing some into Bitworld (in the form of memories, for example) or trying to communicate in some sort of real time between the two worlds, is very limited. Stephenson also chooses to keep them very separate -- to the extent that it seems surprising how little attention there is to trying to establish forms of communication (though the outsiders apparently do spend a lot of their time peering in, to the various extents possible). So also, early on, the novel takes place almost entirely in the real world, while most of the last stretch is in the virtual one, with no back and forth even just in narrative perspective.
Quite honestly, for much of the novel, it's the outside perspective that is the far more interesting one. Turning to Bitworld, Stephenson begins in very basic form: he has to build up a whole world anew, and though he allows for some leaps and zooms through advances, a lot of this world-building is pretty boring. The narrative voice also takes on a different tone -- echoing the mythical (and biblical) bases for what comes -- which can sound like a bit of a drone. Things do pick up, and the adventures do get more exciting, culminating in the quest-tale -- but most of this still has a bit of a medieval-fantasy-tale feel (and sound), long less compelling than the technological and cultural shifts in the real world.
Stephenson presents some significant events in the real world too, especially in the novel's early sections, -- notably the Internet hoax, and then, more than a decade later, the resulting restructuring/retrenching of (parts of) American society -- but leaves much here underdeveloped. For a while he considers the broader fall-out of the undermining of the Miasma (the Internet), but then it doesn't play much of a role any longer. Similarly, technological advances simplify life, but are also only generally briefly highlighted; the changes to Meatspace remain more background than one might have hoped for.
Strikingly, there's little discussion in Meatspace of the implications of creating the virtual eternal resting place. It's taken for a given, for example, that pretty much everyone wants to get on board; there's neither a policy nor even much of a philosophical debate about what's going on. Similarly, surely there would be competing systems -- and its hard to imagine governments wouldn't be active in at least monitoring all this better; the novel is also entirely US-focused, and it's hard to imagine that, say, the Chinese wouldn't have a different take on all this.
Finally, the virtual world seems ... amazingly unimaginative. True, Stephenson's founder-figure is a man who made his mark with video games, so perhaps one shouldn't expect anything more than an elaborate video game, and Stephenson highlights Dodge's interest in mythology, which eventually echoes in that other-world. Still, in many ways Bitspace turns out to be little more than a somewhat fantastical recreation of earth. The mind-body problem apparently did matter, with all these minds opting to try to re-inhabit familiar old body forms, and build up a familiar-looking world around them, rather than developing in any truly novel ways (deciding they want wings, and working towards ensuring they'll have them when they cross over into that other world is about as novel as it gets -- interesting, but limited). This is all plausible -- but it's a shame there's not more discussion -- much less exploration -- of other ways this could have gone.
It all does make for an entertaining story -- and/or clumps of overlapping stories --, mostly well-presented. There's a good deal of quite engaging adventure here, albeit much of it traditional and familiar in both its outlines and specifics -- but then that seems to be part of the point Stephenson wants to make, about the very basics of humanity (including that that we share basic stories).
Stephenson does throw in more than he can adequately deal with -- and that includes characters, some of whom are left dangling a bit (not least of which is Dodge him/itself, for long stretches of the novel) even as they also reïnvent themselves and/or are 'revived' when they move from the real to the virtual plane -- and that's a shame, because he brings up fascinating issues; of course, more follow-through would have bloated the already sizable novel even more.
Even as is, there is both a lot to chew on and lot simply to enjoy. Fall; or, Dodge in Hell isn't entirely satisfying -- far from it, in parts -- but it is a substantial and solid entertaining read, rewarding enough.
- M.A.Orthofer, 29 May 2019
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American author Neal Stephenson was born in 1959. After his novel about academia, The Big U, he wrote "the Eco-thriller" Zodiac and then began writing true science fiction, with which he has had great success.
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