Or, Dodge in Hell
By Neal Stephenson
All Posts Contain Spoilers
There comes a moment in every Neal Stephenson novel when I can tell that Neal is bored.
This moment is familiar to anyone who has ever tried to write fiction, I suspect: sometimes, the sheer effort it takes to get your characters where you know they are going is exhausting. You want them to just hurry up and get there, but, somehow, they won’t, and so you trudge with them through what feels like endless plot, in order that they and the reader will understand their ultimate destination.
These are some of the hardest moments in fiction-writing, at least for me – they’re joyless – but you try not to communicate this difficulty, this joylessness, to the reader. You obviously don’t want your reader to know that you’re bored, that you hated writing this part of your own story, that what they are reading is, essentially, infrastructure, the dull but necessarily support around the good bits. And so you work really hard to hide your boredom, your loathing, from the reader.
Or I try to hide it, and that’s why, despite my essential sympathy, Neal Stephenson’s boredom annoys me. It’s lazy; worse, it’s ungrateful!
Stephenson delivers seven-, eight-hundred page books to his readers, with labyrinthine, esoteric plots, plots which hinge on elaborate and esoteric mechanisms, arcane rituals of cryptography or minute robotics protocols. He is a man, some might say, in need of an editor. And we, his readers, go romping through these stories with him, willingly, happily, because they are great tales. But, really, the least he could do, for our sake, is not be clearly, obviously bored by the very stories he sends us.
‘Fall; or, Dodge in Hell‘ is Stephenson’s latest. Clocking in at 883 pages, it is a story about the future of the internet, about the digitization of consciousness, about humanity, and about death.
Richard ‘Dodge’ Forthrast is a tech billionaire, a man who has made his vast fortune producing video games, imagining worlds, creating virtual realities. When, against doctor’s orders, he eats before an out-patient surgical procedure, he begins to asphyxiate on the operating table. When he is declared brain dead, his family and friends learn that, some decades earlier, under the influence of a Silicon Valley fad, Dodge left instructions in his will that his brain be cryogenically frozen and his consciousness preserved by any mean necessary.
The Forthrast’s learn that this provision in Dodge’s will is largely the work of El Shepard, a reclusive, mentally-ill billionaire. Originally, El had imagined that whole bodies would be cryogenically frozen and revived; it is clear now, however, that that is not feasible. Instead, the brains of subscribers will be scanned, synapse by synapse, and uploaded and reconstructed in the cloud. According to El, these synaptic connections, the ‘connectome’, should constitute the complete consciousness of the individual at their time of death.
‘Fall‘ is a novel about the Singularity (or, one version of it): namely, the intelligence explosion, when an uploadable (sometimes artificial, but not in this case) intelligence acquires the ability to self-improve so rapidly that it permanently and fundamentally alters human existence. In ‘Fall’, this fundamental alteration takes the form of a provable afterlife, a known, watchable digital life after the death of the body, and the novel takes place in two realities: our own, and the digital world that Dodge’s consciousness creates, the digital world that becomes the new afterlife, peopled with uploaded human souls.
It’s not a new idea, but it’s a compelling one. Science fiction doesn’t need to generate novel premises to be great – in the hands of the right person, it can work wonders with the same old problems.
But if you’re going to tackle something zeitgeisty, you have to either answer people’s expectations, or thwart them. You need to either show them a meaning, explicate their moment for them, dazzle them with hope or fear, or you need to swerve. Surprise them, make them laugh. Turn their zeitgeist into a joke.
‘Fall‘ doesn’t do either, really. It just tells a story, a story about how uploaded human consciousness might turn a digital afterlife into a new pantheon (literally: Dodge hurls thunderbolts). About how, in the cloud, after death, we all might have wings. And wouldn’t that be fun?
Sure, there are a few vague, unresolved gestures towards the big questions (What is a soul? Can a human intelligence orient itself without the information provided by a physical body? Are we simply the sum of our memories, or is there a self which will reconstitute itself, independent of learned experience?). However, as we all remember so well from ‘Seveneves‘, Stephenson doesn’t actually think biology is interesting, and so tends to gloss over questions involving genetics, or neuroscience, or even philosophy, with the shallowest of treatments.
As so often happens to me when I read Stephenson’s novels, I am left with the impression that he builds his stories not around moral dilemmas, technological problems, or human conundra, merely around stuff he finds cool. He likes space robots and encryption and the Greek pantheon, so why not write novels about those things? Not for any specific reason, not to answer any questions, but just to flex the old mental muscles over some neato shit.
Which is probably why it’s so easy to tell when he gets bored. Character development (or, heaven forbid, plot logistics) isn’t nearly as cool as space robots, and if you aren’t in it for the characters, why the fuck would you bother? Just move through the boring stuff as quickly as possible and get back to the space robots.
Which is how you get passages like this:
“A few minutes later, Weaver was struck by a lightning bolt and vaporized. The surviving members of the party scarce had time to become shocked by this turn of events before the sky turned nearly black. At first some of them looked to Fern, as one who had survived a lot of strange weather, but she was too fascinated by what was going on in the sky to be of much use. Corvus was busy changing himself into human form, maybe reckoning wings and feathers would only get torn off by whatever was going to occur next. Mab seemed unconcerned; Prim had a clue as to why, which was that she might not have a body at all. But she was in some form of communication with Edda that no one else was privy to. Edda thus became the leader of the Quest, at least for now.” (p. 812).
That passage, I’m sorry to be frank, is bad. It’s chaotic, and hurried, and abrupt. It’s not like the entire book is written that way, but big sections are, and during those sections neither you nor Neal Stephenson want to be there.
‘Fall‘ is, I don’t know, entertaining? I was entertained. There are villains and heroes, deaths and rebirths. Gods battle angels; ballads are sung. Thunderbolts are thrown; bad guys get their just deserts; human souls live in hives. Billionaires behave badly! It’s fun! It’s a fun book! And I like fun books, even ones that go one for 883 pages. I think fun justifies itself.
But I hope that I wasn’t supposed to learn any lessons, because, if I was, I missed them. I hope that this isn’t the deepest novel ever written about the Singularity. I hope it isn’t the smartest. Maybe it will be funnest, but I hope it’s not the best. I think we can do better.