In the 12th chapter of Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Fall, a quartet of Princeton students set out on a road trip to Iowa to visit the “ancestral home” of one of the students, Sophia. This part of the novel is set about 25 years in the future, in an age when self-driving cars are the default and a de facto border exists between the affluent, educated coasts, where Sophia and her friends live, and the heartland they call “Ameristan.” The latter is a semi-lawless territory riddled with bullet holes and conspiracy theories, where a crackpot Christian cult intent on proving the crucifixion was a hoax (because no way is their god some “meek liberal Jesus” who’d allow himself to be “taken out” like that) literally crucifies proselytizing missionaries from other sects. You have to hire guides to shepherd you through this region, men who mount machine guns on top of their trucks “to make everyone in their vicinity aware that they were a hard target.”
How did things get so bad? For one thing, residents of Ameristan, unlike Sophia and her well-off pals, can’t afford to hire professional “editors” to personally filter the internet for them. Instead, they are exposed to the raw, unmediated internet, a brew of “inscrutable, algorithmically-generated memes” and videos designed, without human intervention, to do whatever it takes to get the viewer to watch a little bit longer. This has understandably driven them mad, to the degree that, as one character puts it, they even “believed that the people in the cities actually gave a shit about them enough to come and take their guns and other property,” and as a result stockpiled ammo in order to fight off the “elites” who never come.
As much as you may have come to hate what the internet has done to American society, the savage, Swiftian satire of this part of Fall suggests that technology’s harbingers like Stephenson, author of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, hate it even more. Sophia’s road trip takes place after the fall of the open-access internet as we know it now—what the software engineers of this part of the novel call “the Miasma.” To destroy the Miasma, an enigmatic tech billionaire named El Shepherd, staged a massive hoax, persuading the media—social and traditional—that the town of Moab, Utah, had been obliterated by a nuclear weapon. The stunt was meant to demonstrate how fundamentally unsound and unreliable the Miasma was, and to prompt the public to take measures to protect themselves from junk communication, privacy violations, and social media in general. The problem was it didn’t entirely work, and as a result, while Sophia’s cohort takes measures to block bad information, in the world of Fall, not everyone else does or can afford to do so. Hence, a huge chunk of the population of Ameristan believes that Moab really was destroyed by an atom bomb and that the hoax story is just a government cover-up. And that’s despite the fact that anyone can walk or drive into Moab and see evidence to the contrary with their own eyes.
Of course, this is only Chapter 12 of Fall—that is, around Page 190, which to someone who’s read the subsequent 700 pages the novel seems a very long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Fall tricks you into thinking it plans to be this or that sort of fiction (a bitingly plausible near-future dystopia or tale of corporate intriguing, for example), only to heel around and head off in a new direction entirely. It does this more than once, yet remains a coherent whole. The audacity of Stephenson’s intentions is itself part of the entertainment value. What will he think of next? If the anticipation of that can get you through the awful lot of talk of the first 200 pages, the rest is a feat of mind-blowing adventure powered by deep existential questions.
Stephenson’s early work—particularly 1992’s Snow Crash and 1995’s The Diamond Age—earned him the reputation of a cyberpunk writer, but almost three decades later that label no longer fits. Instead, he writes what might best be described as philosophical action novels. Sometimes, as in 2011’s Reamde—a technothriller that hurtles through a plot featuring a multiplayer online role-playing game, money laundering, ransomware, Russian gangsters, the economic boomtown of Xiamen, Islamic extremists, MI-6, Idaho survivalists, and Wal-Mart—the action takes over. But Fall more closely resembles 2008’s Anathem, a near-indescribable intellectual thrill ride about renegade monk-mathematicians and alternate universes that will make you believe, however briefly, that you have a solid grasp of some concepts in theoretical physics.
At the very beginning of Fall, a routine medical procedure goes wrong, leaving Richard “Dodge” Forthrast, a wealthy video game company owner, brain-dead. (The novel’s full, old-timey title is Fall; Or, Dodge in Hell.) His heirs discover that Dodge never updated the will he had drawn up in his 30s, when he briefly fell in with a group of wild-eyed cryogenics enthusiasts. His estate is therefore legally obliged to preserve his brain using the most advanced technology available. This entangles them with the schemes of the internet saboteur, El Shepherd, who also intends to upload his mind to the cloud someday. Shepherd, who appears to be a sinister reimagining of Ray Kurzweil—the inventor and futurist who has proclaimed the imminent arrival of the singularity, when humanity and computers will become indistinguishable—believes that our uploaded selves will have the opportunity to remake society, to remake reality itself, in fundamentally new ways, jettisoning the errors of the past along with the limitations of our physical bodies.
Such plans raise a long-standing philosophical conundrum, the mind-body problem. Is the human mind merely a phenomenon of the human brain and body, or is it something else entirely? As Fall progresses, the latter seems to be the case. Instead of freezing and transplanting physical brains, a technology emerges to record all of the neural connections in the organ, destroying the brain itself in the process. Stephenson carefully lays out the perplexities of this situation. The process can only be performed once. Should Dodge’s heirs wait to harvest the data from his brain, on the assumption that the technology to do so will improve over time, providing a higher-resolution result? What about the rest of his body? Can the brain really be meaningfully separated from the entire physiological system that provides all of its input?
Meanwhile, Dodge’s adoptive niece, Zula, and his executor, Corvallis Kawasaki, engage in high-level legal maneuvering to keep El Shepherd from seizing control of the digital afterlife. (Note to Stephenson fans: Yes, the recurring character Enoch Root does appear in Fall, and, in a twist reserved for the initiated, reveals something of his mysterious nature.)
The narrative jumps forward by a couple of decades (and not for the last time in this epic yarn). Up to this point, the data from the brain scans of several dozen people (most of them members of that nutty cryogenics group) have been stored, but not unleashed. Sophia, Zula’s daughter, has few memories of her beloved great uncle, but they center around the copies of D’Aulaires’ books of Greek and Norse myths he gave and read to her just before he died. Computer scientist and neurologist Sophia decides, as her graduate school project, to unleash the data from Dodge’s brain scan into an advanced new processor farm using quantum computers.
Here, the narrative of Fall splits in a startling fashion. The rest of the novel alternates between a scrupulously realist account of the doings of Corvallis, Zula, Sophia, and El Shepherd—a sort of high-tech Game of Thrones—and the experiences of the process formerly known as Dodge (he calls himself Egdod), as it/he comes into consciousness and begins to shape the world (that is, the available data and processor power) around him. This part of the novel resembles Genesis, the pagan mythic traditions depicted by the D’Aulaires, and Paradise Lost. (An engraving from Gustave Doré’s illustrations of Milton’s epic poem is reproduced on the endpapers of Fall‘s print edition.) The “world” Dodge assembles for himself looks something like this one: trees, grass, a street, snow—as a videogame designer, after all, crafting such environments was his job. New processes harvested from other dead people’s minds join him there. But El Shepherd becomes enraged at the way Dodge has reproduced our fallen existence in what he had planned to shape into a post-human utopia. As he prepares to abandon this mortal coil himself, a cosmic clash in what the real-world characters call Bitworld and what its residents call the Land is inevitable.
One of the ideas Stephenson seems to endorse in Fall is that the human mind has been fundamentally shaped by our physical bodies. As a result, even when liberated from those bodies, we’ll understand ourselves and our existence within the same framework—the same essential stories of creation and fall, similar tales of gods, goddesses, and heroes. The last section of the novel assumes the form of a rippingly Tolkienesque epic fantasy quest: an eventful journey through a magical landscape, embarked on by characters it’s impossible to think of as mere processes. It’s great fun—and yes, fantasy buffs, there is even a map. Fall is a rebuke to utopians of every stripe, including those early prophets of the internet who promised us a cyberspace liberated from the constraints of “meatspace.” But the internet is not a brave new world built out of computers. Like Stephenson’s Land, the internet is made of people and all the glory and the nasty baggage that comes with our flawed selves. Wherever we go, there we are.
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