Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, Neal Stephenson (Morrow 978-0-06-245871-1, $35.00, 896pp, hc) June 2019.
Neal Stephenson’s idea of a novel isn’t quite the same as anyone else’s, and for the most part this has served him remarkably well. His Baroque Cycle trilogy was really no more a trilogy than was Asimov’s Foundation series, except that while Asimov’s narrative units were stories and novellas, Stephenson’s were entire novels – and not just three of them, either. Seveneves was already an ambitious epic of catastrophe and survival before Stephenson decided to incorporate a 300-page sequel, set 50 centuries later and with an entirely new cast of characters, as its final section. Reading a Stephenson novel can sometimes seem like wandering through a gorgeous old cathedral with so many fascinating side galleries that you feel disoriented when you stumble back into the nave and remember what you came in for in the first place. And yet, even these architectonic narrative structures increasingly look like part of a still larger scheme: the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families show up in both Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle, along with the mysterious Enoch Root, and all of them are alluded to in Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, although only Root gets a significant role. The novel as a whole is a kind of sequel to Reamde, following the later and posthumous fortunes of several members of the extended Forthrast clan from that novel, focusing in particular on Richard Forthrast (or “Dodge”), his niece Zula, and Zula’s daughter Sophia. But the relatively straightforward Reamde, with one of Stephenson’s more linear thriller plots, is quickly left behind in favor of – well, a series of fascinating side galleries, including what appear to be Stephenson’s own versions of a geek Genesis, Paradise Lost, classical mythology, and quest fantasy.
Dodge himself doesn’t get much time on stage before he’s whisked off it for a couple of hundred pages – or maybe for good, depending on how you read the posthumous sections in “Bitworld”, which come to make up the bulk of the novel. Preparing for a routine medical procedure, Dodge comes across copies of the D’Aulaires’ books on Greek and Norse mythology, which he’d bought for his beloved grandniece Sophia (who eventually will emerge as the most interesting character in the book) and finds a brilliant red maple leaf, which will later serve, in deeply mythic terms, as his own version of Proust’s madeleine. But something quickly goes awry with the procedure, and the point of view shifts to his friend and executor Corvallis Kawasaki, who must, along with Dodge’s niece Zula, immediately deal with a conundrum: although Dodge is legally brain dead, his will stipulates that his body be cryonically preserved and his brain be scanned and uploaded according to the terms of a procedure developed years earlier, now regarded as obsolete and useless. Later, an effective ion-scanning technique is developed, and Dodge’s brain is turned back on at the direction of the now-grown Sophia, and a truly remarkable passage describes his first moments in “Bitworld,” with virtually no “qualia” or sensory input to guide him. Starting with the image of that red leaf, he begins to make a world.
Before we even get to Bitworld, we’re diverted into some of those provocative side galleries. A nuclear bomb apparently wipes out Moab UT, and even after this is shown to be an internet hoax, conspiracy theorists continue to insist on its reality for years. (There’s a provocative argument introduced that the consensus, scientific view of reality that emerged during the Enlightenment has begun to dissolve in the wake of the internet.) Some 17 years after Dodge’s death, Sophia and her Princeton friends find themselves in a dystopian rural Iowa facing an extreme fundamentalist sect called the Leviticans – from whom they are able to rescue a crucified Enoch Root. A superhacker named Pluto, one of the cofounders of Dodge’s original company, sets out to undermine the whole internet culture with a group called the Ethical Network Sabotage Undertaking. Another uber-geek, a wealthy tech-entrepreneur named Elmo Shepherd, facing a degenerative brain condition, pours money into the project to keep minds alive in Bitworld (including some earlier brains which had been preserved as heads only rather than full bodies). And Dodge, initially alone in a formless virtual environment, continues to create his world.
We’re not even close to the halfway point. As Dodge’s Bitworld begins to take shape, based on only the vaguest memories of his earlier life (the initial layout, for example, resembles the street plan of Dodge’s boyhood Iowa town), the tone shifts rather disarmingly, both in the dialogue and in the narrative voice, into a kind of orotund, faux-Biblical mode. “This is a place where I abide in solitude,” says Dodge (now calling himself Egdod, but sounding more like Charlton Heston) to a new arrival. “I urge you to venture forth and make the surrounding lands known to you, for there is much that remains undone in their shaping and perfection.” That new arrival turns out to be Pluto, who uses his hacking skills to spiff up Dodge’s rather rough-edged creation. We meet several familiar characters in their Bitworld avatars, as well as characters spawned in Bitworld itself – without “meatspace” originals – and among them we get to watch a re-enactment of Genesis, complete with an apple, exile from the Garden (even with characters named Adam and Eve), and the Tower of Babel. Mostly, though, the second half of the novel unfolds from the central cataclysm of Dodge being cast out of paradise and exiled into the firmament, like a Miltonic Satan, and setting out on a heroic quest organized by a giant talking raven, featuring a noble band of giants, rock-monsters, and a version of the Greek Fate Atropos. Many readers, I suspect, will find this high-stakes quest for control of the digital afterlife an engaging fantasy on its own, while others (myself included) are going to be nagged by questions like why vasectomies are a thing in a digital world in which birth seems to consist of budding off whole litters of kids, or why characters who didn’t sound remotely like Milton or the King James version in their meatlives suddenly begin talking in near-pentameters. (Once the final quest gets underway, the dialogue shifts back into a more familiar, down-to-business adventure mode, but the wobbly tone shifts are distracting.)
The idea of a digital or constructed afterlife is by now a tradition in SF, not only in works by Egan, Banks, Pohl, Danvers, and others, but going all the way back to Simak and Farmer. Inevitably, they give rise to a kind of pop eschatology, which can tilt toward sheer adventure in a new kind of SF environment or toward ponderously philosophical epics – pure cheese or a kale-infused protein shake. Stephenson seems to want to have it both ways, and while several sequences, both in meatspace and the murky afterlife, demonstrate his usual skills in provocative scene-setting and kinetic adventure, they never quite knit together in a coherent whole. It’s a wildly and admirably ambitious novel, but, in its own way, it’s an Ethical Network Sabotage Undertaking of the whole notion of narrative unity.
-Gary K. Wolfe
I like big books and I cannot lie. But bigness simply for the sake of bigness tests even my tolerance.
Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle – each one of the three volumes is thick enough to stop a bullet, to say nothing of all of them stacked together – is a wonder for those with the patience to fall into its pages. Within are characters you care about (I audibly gasped when Eliza caught smallpox (um, spoiler) and read faster to find out if she made it), plots that linger when they need to and move when they don’t, and just enough baroque detail without ever being too much.
Fall; or, Dodge in Hell picks up Richard “Dodge” Forthrast’s story near where 2011’s Reamde left off. It also leans into the rambling bloat that crept into Reamde and inflates it further. There might be a fascinating, intricately connected, intergenerational story about the intersection between humans and computers in here somewhere, but it’s hard to find. While Stephenson appears to be examining how much detail our brains would need in some far future when our consciousness can be uploaded at the point of our deaths, he simply buries his point under hundreds and hundreds of words that obscure rather than clarify.
What doesn’t help, either, is where Stephenson has taken Dodge’s character. In Reamde, he was cocky, sure, but felt grounded by his family and the situations that unfold around him. Here he literally gets to play God because his is the first “brain” uploaded onto an experimental platform. The book follows two paths after this moment: one that shows Dodge (or “Egdod” as he is styled) building the digital world, and one that shows what is happening in the actual world. The latter is marginally more interesting. Stephenson’s gift for projecting how humans and technology might interact is fully present there. A couple of the scenes are thrilling, like the destruction of Moab and the rescue of Enoch Root.
But the Dodge parts: oooof. It’s clear that Stephenson is telling a creation story, one that includes the battle between good and evil and the poor luckless souls who get in the way. There is epic poetry and mythic beasts. And, again, it might have been fascinating if Stephenson hadn’t fallen so in love with Dodge, whose every action the author must laud and embroider. Evil Elmo Shepherd is a melodramatic villain whose defeat can be predicted from the moment he gets sideways with Dodge. All of their dick-swinging comes at the cost of more complicated characters like Sophia, Zula, and Corvallis, whose stories might have made this big book an immersive, propulsive read rather than a punishing one.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.
This review and more like it in the June 2019 issue of Locus.
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