Amy Goldschlager Reviews Fall; or, Dodge in Hell Audiobook by Neal Stephenson

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, Neal Stephenson; Malcolm Hillgartner, narrator (Brilliance Audio 978-1-5113-2841-8, $44.99, 25 CDs, 31.75 hr., unabridged [also available on MP3-CD and as a digital download]) June 2019.

After about an hour’s worth of really heavy fore­shadowing about how hard it is to make convinc­ing virtual replicas of real-world phenomena and the potential danger of accidentally eating before a minor medical procedure that requires fasting, tech guru and game designer Richard “Dodge” Forthrast dies during that procedure. After a great deal of panic, grief, and legal challenges, a seemingly forgotten clause in Dodge’s will leads to his brain being scanned and uploaded to a server. As more and more human brains are scanned and uploaded, these digital beings, who have nearly no memory of their past physical existence, begin to build a new society, with Dodge’s programmatic skills putting him at the top of the heap – that is, until a powerful and not entirely sane tech billionaire gets uploaded and begins reorganizing things more to his own liking.

Malcolm Hillgartner’s dignified baritone lends a sense of gravity to the proceedings; his narration offers valiant support to Stephenson’s attempts to give the story the weight of both a mythic epic and a serious work of sociopolitical post-cyberpunk. Unfortunately, what we have instead is 30-plus plod­ding hours of tangents which do not always pay off, enough Chekhov’s guns to fill that infinite arsenal in The Matrix, painfully obvious symbolism (the chief antagonist who gains control over the virtual afterlife is named Elmo, but prefers to be known as El. Students of Hebrew as well as Superman fans will know the meaning), and a not terribly imagina­tive pasted-together narrative in the virtual afterlife that incorporates rise of the Greek gods, the fall of Lucifer, the story of Adam and Eve, and a generic fantasy novel/adventure-game style quest for a Mc­Guffin. Outside in the real world, the discussions and plotlines about the virtual afterlife, virtual evolution, the potential digital singularity, and the use of the internet to lie about world events aren’t anything that weren’t covered more thoughtfully, creatively, and efficiently in William Gibson’s “The Winter Market”, Charles Platt’s The Silicon Man, Tony Daniel’s Metaplanetary novels, Cory Doctorow & Charles Stross’s The Rapture of the Nerds, and Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle, to name only a few.

I am always optimistic about a new Stephenson, and this one has a fine pedigree as a direct follow-up to Reamde and a link to his Baroque trilogy. But this book just isn’t up to the mark, which makes this the second Stephenson disappointment chronicled in this column (the first was his collaboration with Nicole Galland, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.) Here’s hoping that the next novel is a return to true Stephenson form; still waiting for that sequel to Seveneves….

This review and more like it in the October 2019 issue of Locus.

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