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Crypto #3

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell

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The #1 New York Times bestselling author of Seveneves, Anathem, Reamde, and Cryptonomicon returns with a wildly inventive and entertaining science fiction thriller—Paradise Lost by way of Phillip K. Dick—that unfolds in the near future, in parallel worlds.

In his youth, Richard “Dodge” Forthrast founded Corporation 9592, a gaming company that made him a multibillionaire. Now in his middle years, Dodge appreciates his comfortable, unencumbered life, managing his myriad business interests, and spending time with his beloved niece Zula and her young daughter, Sophia.

One beautiful autumn day, while he undergoes a routine medical procedure, something goes irrevocably wrong. Dodge is pronounced brain dead and put on life support, leaving his stunned family and close friends with difficult decisions. Long ago, when a much younger Dodge drew up his will, he directed that his body be given to a cryonics company now owned by enigmatic tech entrepreneur Elmo Shepherd. Legally bound to follow the directive despite their misgivings, Dodge’s family has his brain scanned and its data structures uploaded and stored in the cloud, until it can eventually be revived.

In the coming years, technology allows Dodge’s brain to be turned back on. It is an achievement that is nothing less than the disruption of death itself. An eternal afterlife—the Bitworld—is created, in which humans continue to exist as digital souls.

But this brave new immortal world is not the Utopia it might first seem . . .

Fall, or Dodge in Hell is pure, unadulterated fun: a grand drama of analog and digital, man and machine, angels and demons, gods and followers, the finite and the eternal. In this exhilarating epic, Neal Stephenson raises profound existential questions and touches on the revolutionary breakthroughs that are transforming our future. Combining the technological, philosophical, and spiritual in one grand myth, he delivers a mind-blowing speculative literary saga for the modern age.

883 pages, Hardcover

First published June 4, 2019

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About the author

Neal Stephenson

141 books25.7k followers
Neal Stephenson is the author of Reamde, Anathem, and the three-volume historical epic the Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World), as well as Cryptonomicon, The Diamond Age, Snow Crash, and Zodiac. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

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Profile Image for Jason Pettus.
Author 24 books1,328 followers
June 15, 2019
So to establish my bona fides right away, let me mention that I've read and loved all 16 novels that Neal Stephenson has now written in his life (yes, even his disavowed 1984 debut, the now out-of-print The Big U), and consider him one of my top-three all-time favorite writers currently alive and publishing new work. So what a profoundly heartbreaking thing, then, to finish his latest, the 900-page virtual-reality morality tale Fall: Or, Dodge in Hell, and have to be forced to admit to myself, "You know, that book was...well, it was kind of crappy, is what that book was."

During the first half of the manuscript, I became convinced that this was because Stephenson turned in a clunker of an actual storyline here; because, for the first time in his career, Stephenson takes on here the very contemporary real-world issue of the "Red Pill" revolution of the 21st century (which I'm defining here as the interconnected throughline that links together the Bush administration, the rise of Fox News, the Tea Party, Gamergate, Sad Puppies, 4chan, the Meninist movement, incels, the alt-right, and the dark ascendency of "God Emperor" Trump). Seemingly not a single person in the last twenty years that opposes this movement has been able to write critically about the subject without just losing their shit and quickly devolving into lazy, badly written doomsday scenarios about the nightmarish hell our world will become if these people were to ever gain unstoppable power; and Stephenson too succumbs to this hacky temptation, painting an America 30 years from now that has essentially broken down into a civil war between "The Stupids" and "The Smarts*," in which the Stupids have forcefully overtaken large swaths of the Midwest through a Christian version of the Taliban (a brand-new strain of Protestantism which rejects the entire New Testament because it depicts Jesus as a "beta cuck," about the most lazily on-the-nose reference to the alt-right one can even make), who then proceed to literally crucify people from burning crosses for such Old Testament sins as wearing clothes that mix together different strains of animal fibers.

[*Also, let me confess that I lost my patience quickly with Stephenson's attempts in this section to paint autistic people as superheroes, through his unending self-righteous declarations about how much better he and his little STEM buddies are than the rest of us mouth-breathers. Autistic people aren't fooled by fake news! Autistic people's feelings aren't hurt by blunt opinions! Autistic people don't feel obliged to engage in pointless small talk! Thank God we autistic people are around to save all you blathering morons from yourselves!]

Then in the meanwhile, we also follow the fate of one of the characters from Stephenson's 2011 novel Reamde, billionaire videogame developer Richard "Dodge" Forthrast, who unexpectedly dies one day at which point it's revealed that, earlier in his life, he got convinced by a startup buddy to have his body frozen, so that maybe one day in the future his brain can be brought back to life if science ever invents a way to do so. And through a convoluted series of events, science does in fact invent a way, and just two decades after his death at that, by essentially scanning a complete digital copy of the trillions of neural pathways in his brain, then letting those digital pathways virtually interact again within a town-sized complex of newly invented "quantum computers." But this being a game developer, the first thing Dodge's digital brain does to make sense of his situation is to start building out a World Of Warcraft-type fantasyland for him to place himself in, with Stephenson burning through literally hundreds of pages in describing in excruciating detail just what it must be like when a brain has its consciousness wiped, then starts filling it in again bit by bit from the retained memories of its subconscious. "What are these two fleshy appendages underneath my torso? What are these ten smaller appendages attached to the bottom of these two? What are these squiggly symbols I keep picturing when attempting to count these appendages? What is this locomotive motion I seem to be engaging in when placing one appendage in front of the other? What is this hard gravelly surface these appendages seem to be pushing against during its locomotion?" Jesus CHRIST, Stephenson, ENOUGH already, we fucking GET it, WE FUCKING GET IT ALREADY!!!!1!!

It was at this point, already 400 pages in, that I finally lost my patience for good, and initially decided to abandon the novel altogether; but just out of curiosity I ended up flipping through the rest of it and reading the increasingly smaller non-virtual-world parts, because I was simply too interested in knowing how the story ends up finishing out. And that's when I realized that it's not actually the storyline itself that's the problem here; when you look at the overall plot in quick big-picture form, it's actually quite interesting, an attempt by Stephenson to do no less than retell the religious story of God's creation of the universe, his war with Lucifer, the manipulation of Adam and Eve as pawns of this war, the path towards self-sentiency and human technological progress that was the fallout of this war's manipulation, and the final battle between good and evil that's foretold in the Book of Revelations, but all seen through the filter of the speculative question, "What if our old religious stories actually came about because an alien race figured out a way to digitize themselves, and the first couple dozen people who got imperfectly digitized became the angels and devils of our Bible, and everything we know and experience in our universe is actually just the result of a giant computer running on this alien planet, and the aliens are actually watching and analyzing us in minute detail but have no way of communicating with us about it?"

Seen in this light, then, the real problem of the novel becomes immediately clear; because while Stephenson has claimed in recent interviews that his intent with the virtual-world part of this manuscript was to "bury a fantasy novel within the middle of a science-fiction novel," what he actually did was write a slightly altered 500-page version of the King James Bible. And as anyone who was ever forced to go through this during Bible summer camp as a kid knows, reading big chunks of the King James Bible as if it were a narrative novel is the most tedious activity in the entirety of human existence, which sadly turns out to be the case here too with Stephenson's rewritten version of it. When examined in Wikipedia form, Fall actually has a lot of fascinating things to say, not least of which is Stephenson's ultimate conceit at the end, which is that maybe the human race's fate is to live on in body-free, pure-energy form, cruising the universe in a self-perpetuating and self-repairing Dyson sphere long after the fragile biological version of our species is dead and gone back on Planet Earth.

If Stephenson had explored these topics through a tight, action-packed 350 pages, it could've been one of the best books of his already excellent career, exploring many of the same issues in his 2008 Anathem but through the prism of our real contemporary society. So what a shame, then, that he instead turned in this profoundly overlong, page-fluffing, endlessly rambling and pretentiously purplish version, a book that will be hard for even his hardcore fans to finish, and that everyone else will give up on long before that point. It pains me to have to admit that, because up to now I had thought of Stephenson as an author who could do no wrong; but alas, it turns out that he's just as capable of clunkers as every other author, his first major miss here in a career that's otherwise been full of hits. As much as I hate to say it, my recommendation here is to skip Fall altogether, and wait a few more years for what will hopefully be a return to his normal brilliancy.
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,310 reviews120k followers
June 20, 2020
“I’m a go-between. On the one side is Elmo Shepherd, who believes that brains can be simulated—and that once the simulation is switched on, you’ll reboot in exactly the same state as when you last lost consciousness. Like waking up from a nap. On the other side is Jake, who believes in the existence of an ineffable spirit that cannot be re-created in computer code.”
“What do you believe, Enoch?”
“Jake’s opinion is based on a theology I do not agree with. But like a lot of theologies it can do duty as a cracked mirror or a smudged lens through which we might be able to glimpse things that are informative. I don’t know about an ineffable spirit, but I do have a suspicion that there are aspects of who we are that will not come back when our brains are scanned and simulated by the likes of Elmo. It’s not clear to me that memory will work, for example, when its physical referents are gone. It’s not clear that the brain will know what to do with itself in the absence of a body. Particularly, a body with sensory organs feeding it a coherent picture of the world.”
Bitworld meets Meatspace in Neal Stephenson’s latest novel. Those of you who were around in the 70s and 80s may remember an ad campaign for Miller Lite. Two manly men would stage a faux argument over the best quality of the product. “Less filling,” one would say, the other responding with “tastes great,” the first repeating “Less filling,” but louder, and back and forth they would go. It was cute. And pretty successful for the makers of that product. For a more cinematic image, you might consider Faye Dunaway in Chinatown “She’s my sister. She’s my daughter. She’s my sister. She’s my daughter.” You might find yourself in a similar back and forth (hopefully without the slapping) with Stephenson’s latest novel. Its science-fiction. It’s fantasy. It’s science fiction. It’s fantasy. Stop yelling. You’re both right. Calm down. Have a drink, on me (but please not that Miller Lite swill).

Neal Stephenson - image from his Goodreads page

Stephenson begins where his 2011 novel Reamde left off. Despite carrying forward some characters, Fall is not really a sequel, but a totally different book, and can most definitely be read as a stand-alone. In the earlier book, Richard Forthrast was the creator of a massively popular multiplayer on-line game that was hacked by people whose game was theft, and led to a rollicking action-adventure tale that paralleled the real-world with the immersive on-line gaming experience. In Fall, a sixty-something Forthrast goes to an outpatient facility for what is supposed to be simple procedure. There are complications, and Forthrast’s game-over announcement is played. But hold on a minute. On checking his will, his bestie, one Corvallis, or C+ from the earlier book, learns that Forthrast had left instructions for just what to do in case of such an event. Along with other billionaire sorts known as Eutropians he had ensured that his brain would be preserved, and then, when the tech was available, scanned with the best available means, and uploaded to the cloud. (Doubt there are any harp-wielding angels there.)

Serial sectioning of a brain - image from Wikipedia

One of the things that Neal Stephenson does best is walk through the steps necessary to get from notion to reality in a very logical, scientific manner. He is for hard sci-fi what Arthur C. Clarke was in the 20th century, limiting himself to the scientifically possible (although he does take liberties from time to time, as in his explanation for the moon’s sudden demise in SevenEves). So, what tech will be needed to scan brains? What sort of algorithms might be needed to make sense of the scans? What sort of power might be needed, both in computational and real-world energy requirements, and how might that be provided? How would this all be paid for? Great stuff. Love this!

Stephenson gives serious consideration to what the experience might be like for a person, a consciousness, an entity, a what? that finds that their death is not quite so permanent as they’d thought, and now find themselves in a totally alien environment, floating in a sea of chaos, with little clue as to how to move on, in any sense of the word. How much does memory define personality? Can you have a meaningful being without a meaningful place? These discussions are going on as we speak read. Forthrast is eventually scanned and uploaded, Stephenson makes his best guess as to what this might be like, and it’s game on.

This is not so far out a notion as you might expect. There is considerable interest among the silicon valley gazillionaires in life extension through technology. A recent NY Times article told of attempts to revive decapitated pig brains. I will leave you to construct your own joke out of that. The article (link in EXTRA STUFF) also addresses the approaches to recording the brain’s layout and activity. All for neuro experiments that have immediate medical application, of course, but you have to know that such work will be gobbled up by those with the means to advance the work from the theoretical to the actual.

Stephenson’s stories tend to take place over protracted periods. This one covers about a century, well in real-world time, anyway, and we are kept abreast of some of the ongoing social and technological changes that occur over this period. In BitWorld, time sometimes runs faster and sometimes slower than it does in real time. Changes are considerable. I expect this also mirrors the author’s experience of how the writing of a book progresses.

Stephenson is also fond of carrying forward character and institutional names from earlier work. That continues here. The mysterious and very long-lived Enoch Root, for example, shows up, having survived untold ages in earlier books. Will he snuff it in this one? There are plenty of other links to the past. I did not keep track. He is also fond of cryptography. That shows up in Fall as well, although mostly in a symbolic form.

The first third, or so, of the book takes place primarily in what is referred to as “meatspace” in the extant culture. It is set a bit into the future, but not really all that much. In addition to looking at the technological possibilities for the digital extension of life, Stephenson offers a harsh satire of a United States that has become divided between the coastal, educated, better off, parts of the country, and Ameristan, a vast flyover area generated by the Facebookization of the nation, to the point where truthers insist that a fake nuclear bombing of Moab, Utah took place, despite the very obvious, provable truth that it did not. This dumbing down of the population, often deliberately and for dark purpose, has created a need for actual paid humans to serve as editors for people’s internet feeds. It helps to be well off. Those not so fortunate are left with an internet that is referred to as “the Miasma.” Religious kookery comes in for a look, very much a part of the triumph of disinformation and know-nothingism. It is way, way too resonant with contemporary trends in digital media and the impacts of those on our sociopolitical reality for comfort.
PC Mag: What's the larger message you were trying to get across through the Moab hoax?
Well I try not to be too message-y, because I think that people tend to turn on their deflector shields when they see that coming. But actually when I originally wrote an earlier version of the Moab section, it was prior to the events of the 2016 election and at the time I sort of was patting myself on the back for really being on top of things and predicting the future. And then I discovered that the future was way ahead of me. - from PC Mag interview
The middle of the book offers a back and forth between Meatspace and BitWorld, until it is taken over almost entirely by the goings on in the digital sphere, at which point it becomes, to my taste anyway, less filling. Back in the day, Ace published sci-fi books in pairs. They were called Ace Doubles. Read one, maybe 125 pps, then, literally, flip the book over and read an entirely other novella, maybe another 125 pages. You don’t need to flip this one over, and it would take particularly fit wrists to manage it, in any case, but it really is two books in one. The second is a fantasy, with battling gods, flaming swords, giants, angels, talking birds, a fortress, rebirth, a quest, secrets, familiar elements of many a fantasy.

In Reamde, Stephenson alternated between the real world and the gaming environment. The stakes are a bit higher in Fall as the alternating universes may flip between life and after-life worlds for the reader, but for the characters there is no such back and forth. The notions of consciousness inside the game T’Rain and the consciousness in the Bitworld of Fall, when you step back from it, do not seem all that different, as, even if one passes on in Bitworld, one’s connectome (map of a brain’s neural connections) can just be uploaded again. So, maybe the two are not so different after all. Just rebooting within one sphere of existence instead of going back and forth between bits and bods.

It would take a much larger review than even this one to go, in any detail, into what happens in BitWorld. Suffice it to say, and it should be pretty obvious from the title of the book, that the first man in Bitworld, the shaper of things, is cast out of his particular brand of heaven (it looks a lot like Iowa, no, really).


The D’Aulaires’ Greek and Norse myth books

In the beginning of the novel much is made of the D’Aulaire books about Greek and Norse mythology. You would do well to keep both volumes (at least) near to hand for tracking which names have been lifted from which book, and how they relate. And let’s not forget the good old-fashioned Bible (old Testament) in which Lucifer is cast down from heaven (a directional joke is made of this). There will be smiting! Adam and Eve put in an appearance, the firmament comes in for a bit of attention. There is a lot of destruction, rebirth, hubris, people failing to make it to the promised land. And then they get reborn after incurring their personal game-overs, so a single character can have several iterations, and names, as time in Bitworld moves along during their absence. Maybe in a book a third the length I would have been up to making a chart, but other books await. I am sure there is someone out there who has already begun. I did not find such a chart on Stephenson’s media sites, but I suppose it is possible there might be one somewhere in there. Regardless, it can be fun keeping track of who’s who, and who was who, through their sundry lives.

Things that bugged me. Let’s reiterate that I liked this book quite a bit. That said, is it really necessary for Stephenson books to go on for such duration? Unlike Stephen King, who has produced a considerable number of doorstops, and who will brook no editing, Stephenson allows his work to be edited. I am told this one came in at least a hundred pages heftier, so I take some comfort from the fact that it could have been even longer. Also, one wonders how a process that is, by all indications, extraordinarily expensive, and is able to accommodate enough people to cause, or at least assist in causing, a decline of Meatspace population, might be sustainable. No, this toy would have been reserved for the uber wealthy and the rest of us would have been relegated to our minimal single lives slaving away to produce sufficient profits for the one-percenters to continue exploiting us forever from their digital realm. Turns out, in this look anyway, you can take it with you. What would happen if, from catastrophes natural or unnatural, the machines were shut down? I could certainly see an angry Meatspace global mob doing all in their reach to cut the power cord to the BitWorld masters. Tough for the post-mortal to feel totally comfy about their eternal prospects if eternity were reliant on such variables. But I guess I shouldn’t be too irked at such things.

The point of the book is the ideas, and those are explored wonderfully. What might a digital afterlife look like, on an individual basis and a communal one? Any book informed, as this one is, by the author’s conversations with the likes of Jaron Lanier (originator of virtual reality, among other things) and technology historian George Dyson is bound to keep your gray cells whirring. On top of that, Stephenson’s extension of the current madness in media, looking at the impact of our current sociotechnical trends on civility, the organization of our nation, and on sanity itself, is quite wonderful, and hopefully not too prescient. Finally, while his bridge-crossing to fantasy from hard sci-fi seems odd, it is also very daring, and it is clear he had a lot of fun mixing sundry mythologies into a pretty interesting literary brew, regardless of whether you prefer to think it tastes great or is less filling. Dodge may suffer a significant demise in Fall or, Dodge in Hell, but you are unlikely to join him. I expect most readers will, instead, feel uplifted by the fun of tracking myths, and the intellectual excitement of considering the large ideas Stephenson has brought to bear. In short, Fall or, Dodge in Hell is, for readers, a bit of heaven.

Review posted – 7/5/9

Pub dates
-----6/2/20- trade paperback

November 28, 2019 - Fall is named to the NY Times list of 100 Notable Books of 2019

EXTRA STUFF has been moved to the comments section below the review.
Profile Image for Liviu.
2,284 reviews638 followers
June 6, 2019
After a great start, the book bogs down into gibberish that is neither sf (see P Hamilton Void series for that), not portal fantasy (see M Stover) nor theology (lacks any moral dimension); 5 star for the first third, 1 star for the last two thirds and a huge, huge disappointment after such an awesome start
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,108 followers
June 13, 2019
This is a very hard book to review, but one thing is absolutely true:

I'm absolutely blown away by this book.

Ameristan! Lol MOAB! lol

This is definitely one of Neal Stephenson's better books. Just for the ideas and the great twisting of several tales in one, I'm already looking forward to a glorious re-read. He does lead us down a few winding paths that eventually turn out to be VERY important to the whole, and I admit to laughing out loud several times when the important bits bit me on the butt. :)

All told, it's the hundreds of wonderful details, ideas, technological problems, and the nature of our world of Lies and Truth in the Miasma (Stephenson's term for the future of the Internet) that make this an extremely memorable book, but it's the depth of the themes that go well beyond the obvious Milton's Paradise Lost that make me grin like an idiot.

My favorite is the whole perception-as-reality by way of Philip K Dick, hitting all the big points AND even throwing the scholars a bone by setting up a fantastic Manichean Heresy (Real God and the Flawed God and the temperance of Sophia.) (And for you PKD fans, look no further than Divine Invasion.

The other obvious theme connecting it to Paradise Lost is actually a subversive red herring. There's a big twist to this that makes it a lot more like PKD, including the paranoia, the corruption, and the faulty memories.

I came into this kinda expecting a single viewpoint adventure like many old SFs that take on uploaded consciousnesses and/or Hell, but you know what? This is so much better. We have many viewpoints, great adventures, and very little actual Hell except in a (you brought this with you sense). Kinda awesome when you think about it. No cheap theatrics, only an in-depth issue revolving People doing what People always do. Character-driven, with a lot of added juice.

Like several ages of mythology run by high-speed processors in the ultimate game of Life (as an afterlife), skirting the edges of a technological singularity, and wrapping it all up with a reality-based hackathon by way of a Gamer's Ultimate Quest.

I think I see the point, here. For all of us future afterlifers, let's MAKE SURE THE GAME DESIGNERS retain control over it. Please? No one wants to live an (after)life CONTROLLED BY THE BEAN COUNTERS. :)

The book has some great mirroring going on, rooting itself in near-future meatspace with tons of corporate intrigue, funny/nasty worldbuilding that put the quality of Truth on trial. The whole SF of tackling perception-as-reality is taken to new heights and multiple threads that keep twining and intertwining in really great ways. And then it takes on HUGE significance in the digital realm. Nasty significance. :)

Lordy! The Moab disaster (in more ways than one) is the very thing that sparks the Heaven 2.0 disaster! I loved that! The whole mad-god theme is great! And perfectly in-line with regular corporate madness, too. :) Why shouldn't we bring all our usual messes into the afterlife? We are, after all, only human, even when some of us become gods, angels, or incarnations of DEATH. :) lol

I had such a fun time with this, I can't even begin... or rather, I have begun, but I could keep going on forever.

Like I said, it's a really hard one to review. :) It has a lot of great depth to it that is rather MORE surprising than I ever gave it credit for, and this is coming from an avowed fanboy of Stephenson. I definitely like it more than Seveneves and Reamde. I'd have to re-read Snow Crash and Diamond Age again to see where it ranks by those. :)

I will always have Anathem as my primary love, tho. :)

BUT I think I will have to nom this one for next year's Hugo. Just for its sheer audacity and richness. :)
Profile Image for Kemper.
1,390 reviews6,976 followers
July 29, 2019
If I wasn’t hoping that death is just an endless, dreamless slumber before then I sure am now.

Richard ‘Dodge’ Forthrast made billions with the video game company he founded, but money doesn’t help him when a routine medical procedure goes sideways and leaves him braindead. However, Dodge once signed up with a cryonics company to have himself frozen after death, and that old legal agreement becomes the impetus for his friends and family to pour resources into tech that eventually can digitally map Dodge’s mind as part of an uneasy alliance with an ailing billionaire, El Shepherd, who is desperately trying to find a way to cheat death.

Years pass, and eventually Dodge’s consciousness is brought back in a digital realm, but he has no real memories of who he was. Operating mainly on instinct, Dodge starts shaping the world he now inhabits into something approximating his old reality, and eventually the living begin adding more dead mapped minds to that space. Slowly, a community that Dodge oversees begins to grow, but Shepherd doesn’t like the world that Dodge and his people have made so he finds a way to make sure that he’ll be in charge once he dies and gets his brain plugged in.

That’s a lot of plot for one book, but since this is a Neal Stephenson novel there’s all that and more. In addition to the story of Dodge in his digital world there’s the stuff with his friends and family dealing with all the technological and legal issues that arise from starting and maintaining a virtual afterlife. There’s also a long subplot that details how the internet and social media eventually becomes so awash in bullshit that everyone needs a personal editor to weed out the nonsense they don’t want to see, and the trend of people only believing what they choose creates whole reality challenged zones of the United States based on ‘alternative facts’. All of this stuff takes up a good chunk of the first half of the book, and I was enjoying that part quite a bit.

However, in the second half the focus shifts much more to dead Dodge in his computer world, and that’s where it got incredibly tedious. Stephenson does a lot here that draws on various religious creation myths with Dodge essentially becoming a Zeus like figure before the thing shifts into a more Christian style story with Dodge being cast in the Lucifer part by Shepherd. That’s an interesting idea, but the execution of it goes on for so long that I lost patience with the whole thing because it starts reading like someone tossed a Bible and a copy of Lord of the Rings into a blender.

Another part of the problem is that Stephenson also baked in some video game influence here, and as a guy who helped create a huge MMORPG type game it makes sense that Dodge’s approach to building and living in a digital world would feel somewhat like that. However, while it can be fun to play a video game like Civilization yourself, it’s boring to just watch someone else do it, and that’s what reading this book felt like for a good part of it.

Oddly, Stephenson also never really deals with the big questions that the story brings up. Like, are Dodge and the others in the cyber world falling into the rhythms of Greek mythology and Christianity out of some subconscious instinct that recalls those stories, or is it possible that our reality is also just some kind of artificially created existence that and the creation of these kinds of places just plays out in patterns?

Another aspect I didn’t care for was using the characters like Dodge and some of his family and friends who were also in Stephenson’s thriller REAMDE. I really enjoyed that book as one of Stephenson’s more straight ahead stories, and I especially liked Dodge in it. So to just essentially kill him off in the early going here is a bummer that puts a retroactive pall over that book.

Maybe the thing that bugs me most about this is that it’s essentially two rich guys battling to control what happens to people after they die. As the book lays out it would take an enormous amount of resources to develop something like this so it’s just cold hard reality that the first people to be able to live on past death would be wealthy.

However, it seem incredibly unfair that the privilege they enjoyed in life would then carry over to the point where they literally get to shape reality to their view of how things should be. Even good guy Dodge never questions why he gets to choose how things are going to work once everyone who dies starts getting uploaded. We just know that Shepherd was a jerk in life and in death so we’re supposed to root for Dodge, not ask why he gets all the power.

We already live in a world where obscenely rich assholes get to make all the rules. I was really hoping that death would be the end of that so I didn’t much enjoy a long story about how these fucks could maintain control after we all croak. Can you imagine what happens if the Koch brothers were essentially gods who could shape reality to what they want it to be?

If that’s the way it was going to be then I’d take a hard pass on the afterlife and just settle for the comfort of a long dirt nap. Reading about that idea isn’t a lot of fun either even if Stephenson tries mightily to convince us that it’d be cool just so long as the right rich guy is in charge.
Profile Image for Eric.
516 reviews3 followers
May 23, 2019
So I had some issues with this book, overall I liked it, but I found it was easier to separate into the good and the bad:

The Good:
- One of his more readable books, so no heavy technical nonsense like in cryptonomicon
- Features the Waterhouses, the Shaftoes, the Forthrasts and Enoch Root
- Topic of discussion is really cool as its all about the afterlife
- Ameristan is the most hilarious thing

The Bad:
- As usual, its way too long, just under 900 pages
- When the book switches gears at the 3/4 mark and becomes a fantasy book it can be a pain to read (in that, the pace slows down, too many characters in the other world, can be difficult to follow and therefore slow and boring)
- The Meatspace (human world) parts of the book are the most interesting, so its a disservice when it becomes purely the other world for the half part of the book
- No ending, again

Overall, I did like the book, but its got some major strikes against it which keep it from being on the level of Snow Crash and Reamde.
Profile Image for Nick.
498 reviews20 followers
April 16, 2021
TL;DR: This is fundamentally a novel about people with morally obscene amounts of wealth fighting over who gets to be what kind of god in a digital afterlife. It does not engage substantially with any of the questions you might expect to arise in a world where people's consciousnesses can be saved and restarted in a virtual world after death.

Before I started this book, I read one review which said that Neal Stephenson had graduated from science fiction to "philosophical adventure novels," in which the action occurs against the backdrop of big, important ideas. I would reject the notion that big ideas are somehow out of bounds for science fiction, but I would otherwise agree with this as a description of Stephenson's recent work. But I would most certainly not agree that 'Fall, or Dodge in Hell' is a book of big ideas. On the contrary, I would say that 'Fall' almost completely fails to engage with the questions raised by its core concept, instead burying the reader in data dumps that are informative but don't really grapple with any interesting questions.

In brief, the book is about a very rich man (Dodge) who dies suddenly. His will, signed years earlier, stipulates that his brain should be cryogenically frozen with the intent that at some point in the future medical science will be capable of restoring him to some form of life. Another very rich man with aspirations to immortality (Elmo Shepherd) uses this to compel Dodge's family to use his vast fortune to develop the technology to digitize the contents of the brain, so that it can be brought back to life inside a digital simulation. It works--Dodge comes back to life inside a computer and builds a new world (the Land) through a process that draws on many creation myths ("let there be light," a 'serpent' in a garden bringing forbidden knowledge, etc). As more digital souls are brought online, a battle breaks out to decide whether Dodge or Elmo will shape the afterlife.

Part of the problem of the novel is that it jumps around a great deal: big decisions happen offstage, characters die unceremoniously, new characters appear in the Land and are later revealed to be digital reincarnations of people who have died in reality. All of this makes it hard to make any emotional investment in the story. As an example, when Dodge's family first learn about his will, their immediate instinct seems to be to try to find a way out of it--they don't like the idea of his disembodied head being locked in perpetual deep freeze, and his religious brother hates the thought of a soulless duplicate of him trapped in cyberspace. The decision that's ultimately made, to throw all of Dodge's wealth into developing more advanced preservation technologies, happens between chapters. Despite the very strong competing interests within the family, we don't see this decision happen. It's a wasted opportunity to explore some of the concepts around identity, and existence, that the novel purports to be concerned with.

Another issue that's never considered is whether it makes any sense that people would want this kind of an afterlife. After the first handful of 'early adopters' go online, the company running the digital infrastructure starts taking subscribers: rich people pay premiums in life to ensure that when they die their brains will be digitized. This is despite the fact that the 'souls' running in the afterlife are either unwilling or unable to communicate back to those of us on earth, and we can only imperfectly observe what they're doing, though what they do tends to be the kind of thing you might do if you were reborn into a world designed by someone who played too much 'World of Warcraft'. But by the end of the book, we're told that most people who die opt to join the digital afterlife, and that more and more of the solar system's resources will be used to add computational power. So the fact that you might be reincarnated as a latrine cleaner, or that you might be kept in storage until the powers that be decide they have enough processor cycles to boot you up, apparently doesn't dissuade people from signing up. Nor does the book ever meaningfully ask why, in a digital world potentially free of the limitations of our physical reality, people need to eat, or sleep, or poop, or in general live the kinds of lives they might have lived in 'reality.' The core conflict of the book is between a guy who creates an afterlife that's recognizably like our world (Dodge) and a guy who thinks the afterlife should transcend the mundane realities of our world (Elmo), and yet this conflict produces almost nothing in the way of a debate between these two opposing philosophies. It seems like a philosophical adventure novel might want to engage with the question of what kind of worlds human minds build and whether that's something that we could choose to change, but there's no time for that, because fully the last quarter of the book is about people we've never met following a magic crow on a quest to the hidden realms of the Land. High stakes, indeed.

But the thing that made me most angry about this book is the sheer moral obscenity of the the way it treats wealth. Any character of importance in this book has a net worth in the tens of millions; everyone else is a servant. I mean this almost literally: we're told that people who aren't rich enough to buy their way into the afterlife can instead opt for a kind of indentured servitude, working as security guards, or janitors, or otherwise doing the scut work of keeping the digital infrastructure running. The rich characters in this book don't even need to think about money: when one character realizes she needs more cash to expand her computing operation, she just has her family foundation's stock trading algorithm shuffle some of their billions around to produce billions more. It's so easy, anyone can do it! You know, as long as you've got a family foundation with billions of dollars and a specialized stock trading algorithm to begin with.

Meanwhile, on Planet Poverty, the near-future America of the setting is collapsing from within, with climate change, resource scarcity, and viral internet memes that are literally driving people who use the unfiltered internet insane, and not once do any of the rich folks consider that their vast fortunes might be better spent making the world better for people currently alive and in need, rather than in building an afterlife for the deceased ultra-wealthy. No one ever suggests that in a world where the oceans are boiling, maybe generating more power to run bigger computers is a social evil, rather than a good. None of the living characters ever once stop and ask why it is they owe their lives to preserving the continued existence of people who have already lived and died in utmost privilege. I guess when you're a peon it's hard to look further than your Lordship's upkeep, even when your Lordship is bits in a computer.

This is fundamentally a novel about the richest people who have ever lived deciding that they deserve more still, and that we, the reader, should be deeply invested in the battle to decide which group of rich assholes gets to shape the next life. If that sort of thing sounds good to you, then have at it. Personally I found it spectacularly tone-deaf and obnoxious.
Profile Image for M..
153 reviews2 followers
Shelved as 'later'
January 26, 2019
Where have I seen this before...

We Are Legion - We Are Bob (Bobiverse #1) by Dennis E. Taylor

Bob Johansson has just sold his software company and is looking forward to a life of leisure. There are places to go, books to read, and movies to watch. So it's a little unfair when he gets himself killed crossing the street.

Bob wakes up a century later to find that corpsicles have been declared to be without rights, and he is now the property of the state. He has been uploaded into computer hardware and is slated to be the controlling AI in an interstellar probe looking for habitable planets. The stakes are high: no less than the first claim to entire worlds. If he declines the honor, he'll be switched off, and they'll try again with someone else. If he accepts, he becomes a prime target. There are at least three other countries trying to get their own probes launched first, and they play dirty.

The safest place for Bob is in space, heading away from Earth at top speed. Or so he thinks. Because the universe is full of nasties, and trespassers make them mad - very mad.
779 reviews2 followers
June 2, 2019
'Fall, or Dodge in Hell' is a book that's hard to talk about because I find it basically fractally bad -- at any level I look at it, there's an interesting idea shot through with some fatal flaw, and so if I let myself I could go on at far too much length about any one of its problems. At the highest level, it's a story about uploading human consciousness and the creation and organization of virtual realms, told with a tech-bro's certainty in technology and obliviousness to anything else, plus also the casual misogyny; then there's the story told about the uploaded, that attempts to be biblical without an understanding of morality, and fantastic without ever surpassing the level of 80s Tolkien imitators. It's too bad the book wants to be Paradise Lost, instead of Frankenstein; there would be a really good metaphor in something like this, pieced together from various half-envisioned ideas, and brought to life as a monstrous whole that its creator cannot control. That's not to say you couldn't enjoy reading this -- the certainty and declarativeness of the writing can carry you through a lot if you don't think too much about it -- but it would be best if you've never read these ideas before, or if you're looking for something to reinforce your particular technological eschatology, or if you're a teenager with time on your hands.

On the other hand, let me offer some alternatives that have done better service to these ideas. First, Peter Hamilton's 'Void Trilogy': if you want long-spanning future history and an ever-expanding realm of uploaded consciousnesses, this has you covered, in spades. Alternately, Elizabeth Bear's 'Grail': it's much shorter, full of excellently realized characters, and deals thoughfully with the ethics of different ways of being human minds. And finally, Matthew Stover's 'Heroes Die': if you want a fantasy adventure in a world where modern people insert themselves to create epic drama without regard for the other inhabitants; it's only tangentially similar, but even its dystopian capitalist hellscape is more well-realized than the "realistic" political events going on in 'Fall.' So yeah, there's a lot better stuff you could be reading instead -- don't spend your time on this unless you have to.
Profile Image for Heidi The Reader.
1,389 reviews1,471 followers
July 25, 2019
"Not only can we defeat entropy, but the universe, in a way, wants us to use our powers as conscious beings to make things better. And part of that is defeating death." pg 50

I finally finished Neal Stephenson's latest book, an opus about the nature of reality that uses mythology, archetypes and technology as the instruments of that examination. Coming in at a hefty 896 pages, it will most likely be the longest book I read this year.

"Far from being a source of frustration, this comforted him, and made him happy — perhaps even a little smug — that he lived in a universe whose complexity defied algorithmic simulation." pg 19

Richard "Dodge" Forthrast, one of the many protagonists from Reamde, suffers an unexpected injury and dies — to the horror of his loving family. Immediate complexities reveal themselves in his will, which contains very specific instructions on what is to be done with his corpse and living brain.

These instructions will lead to a technological coalition of companies and big money in an effort to create another reality for the "recently diseased". And, what happens in that new world is beyond anyone's (among the living) control... isn't it?

Stephenson, as usual, has created a complex science fiction novel that not only makes you think again about where technology is headed, but also compels you to ask yourself what that exponential development means.

"It's really only since wireless networks got fast enough to stream pictures to portable devices that everything changed," Enoch said, "and enabled each individual person to live twenty-four/seven in their own personalized hallucination stream." pg 236

And lest one think such changes are so far off, you only need to take a look at someone else's Facebook newsfeed. The difference between what I see on that platform and what my husband sees is shocking. Our "own personalized hallucination stream" is already a reality.

Stephenson is at his best when he's mixing science fiction and fantasy in Bitworld. He's at his worst when he's clocking the changes going on in the real world or "meatworld", as his characters call it. One likes to think that he had reasons for including the myriad of details that he includes, but readers could also suspect that he needed a good editor.

The first portion of this book moves agonizingly slowly, which prevented it from being a five-star read for me. But that was its only downside in my view.

"So he went into the room where the disciples of Greyhame and Pestle scratched out words on paper, and told them to go through all of their documents and make him aware of any mention they might find of angels, or the One Who Comes, or Daisy, or death." pg 482

I can't say I completely understand the ending of the story, but it is epic. I find myself still thinking about it and taking pieces apart in my mind. And, for me, that's one of the hallmarks of a good read.

Recommended for science fiction readers who can tolerate a very slow build-up for a potentially puzzling end.
Profile Image for Ray.
Author 17 books315 followers
October 21, 2020
3.5 stars. A flawed, yet highly essential novel for the Neal Stephenson reader.

Interestingly, Fall or Dodge in Hell is basically a sequel to Reamde and contains the fate of many of those characters over entire lifespans. It's also in the Cryptonomicon (and apparently Baroque Cycle) universe. Reamde was an excellent and fun romp but not quite as philosophical and into the BIG IDEAS. Fall, however, is very much into the BIG IDEAS.

This book gets deep into many themes that have pervaded the Stephenson mythos for decades: virtual reality, transhumanism--both pros and cons, religious symbolism in a techie context, and of course extremely deep dives into advanced role-playing games.

I found the beginnings of the story eminently fascinating. The near-future predictions of how dystopian it will get with fake news and social media echo chambers are downright eerie. You'll also learn a lot about neurology and quantum computing theory. Then, it's time to go in a somewhat different direction, as the whole online afterlife thing becomes the focus. Unfortunately, this is where it gets rather unreadable. Neal is quite talented at deconstructing the fantasy genre, but he's just not really good at actually telling those kinds of engaging narratives. Personally, the last third of the book lost me.

That said, there's certainly enough value in the rest of the novel to make it very much worth the price of admission. And frankly, Neal Stephensons never did have the best endings. That was never the point. If you want a standard protagonist character arc and three-act structure, go watch a movie. If you want a hell of a lot to think about, read a thick Neal Stephenson.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,685 reviews347 followers
July 17, 2019
Neal Stephenson has written some great books over the years. This isn’t one of them — but it’s pretty good, except for his total lack of writerly discipline. 885 pages! A good editor would have blue-penciled half of these — including 3/4 or more of the boilerplate fantasy-quest stuff, most of which I skimmed or skipped. Gah.

The techie stuff, as usual, is well-researched, interesting and thought-provoking. Though my WSOD took a serious beating at (basically) all the rich people on the planet lining up for an afterlife in a Medieval/magic MMRPG sim that would go on forever. I guess that’s the titular hell? Would be for me. Can’t imagine giving up rule of law, sanitation and mod cons forever, even in BitWorld. He does hint that this is changing, at the end.

Aside from the literary bloviation and fantasy-quest yard-goods, the most objectionable thing here was the “Ameristan” stuff, which was pure Coastal Elite condescension, making fun of the hicks from the sticks. OK, satire, but BAD satire. IMO.

So. I did finish it, with some heavy-duty skimming. The good parts were first-rate. But, my God, Neal. “It’s a sin to waste the reader’s time”. Weak 3 stars.

Nature's reviewer liked it more than I did: https://www.nature.com/articles/d4158...
Profile Image for Campbell.
548 reviews
June 13, 2019
Well, this is different. It's not at all what I expected (a fault, I admit, of my own Creation), given its connection to Reamde. It's a Giant, shambling, shaggy dog mess of a story and completely all over the place.

The first third Mr Stephenson was in technology heaven, riffing freely on all manner of deep questions concerning death, the continuation of consciousness, the digitisation of the (for want of a better term) 'soul' and all that jazz.

Then there comes a point where, over the course of the second third, the narrative focus shifts almost entirely to the Bitworld and the doings of its denizens. This is not fun. It's like Moby Dick but with dead people instead of whales and feels interminable. Moëbius Dick, if you will.

The final third, out of left field, is a mythic quest story. Now, don't misunderstand me, I genuinely believe Mr Stephenson to be a gifted science fiction writer of many and diverse talents. However, if he wrote the Lord of the Rings it would be 900 pages of how the ring works and its mechanisms of interaction with matter, followed by a tick-list itinerary of the journey to Mordor (completed). Safe to say it's not like any other fantasy quest you've read, certainly outside the realm of fan fiction.

But, you know what? None of that matters. The ending is fine (despite what many here are saying) and there is definitely an ouroboric quality to it which makes for an ultimately satisfying conclusion.

Edit: after sleeping on it I've decided to knock off a star. I can't in good conscience give the fourth star to a book that bored me for such a significant portion (a 20% chunk midway through) no matter how much I enjoyed the ending.
Profile Image for Radiantflux.
430 reviews411 followers
June 21, 2019
77th book for 2019.

After an initially interesting start, the book rapidly dwindles into a bit of a snooze fest with a digital afterlife strongly reminiscent of a MMORPG like World of Warcraft, which made little sense when looked at carefully. Greg Egan and Ian M. Banks have explored ideas about digital afterlives in far more interesting ways.

For those who like Stephenson's early books, this one can be skipped.

Profile Image for Lindsay.
1,275 reviews227 followers
June 18, 2019
A loose continuation of the author's other contemporary novels (Cryptonomicon, Reamde) sees brain-scanning and uploading become a reality along with a digital afterlife modeled on Paradise Lost. The story follows Richard "Dodge" Forthrast just before he dies, the events preceding his uploading and then the fate of the digital world he finds himself in while the real world changes around the existence of life after death.

The book is interesting enough, although it engaged me much more in the early stages as we look into Dodge's death, his upload and the actions around it, particularly with Corvallis and Sophia. When most of the action moves to the bitworld it gradually lost me until the point where it just became a fantasy quest story filled with character after character that I didn't care about.

In terms of Stephenson-tropes, this one feels a little lighter on with the infodumps than usual, but there's a lot of wry humor and poking at political realities that disturb the author. In particular there's a section early on that's set in "Ameristan" that simultaneously addresses the fragmentation of US society between secular urban and rural religious while also having a poke at just how un-Christian most of the performative Christianity of conservative America actually is. The other Stephenson-trope of hugely bloated and meandering prose is in full effect.

Overall, while it has interesting elements and good characters in the first half, the characters in the bitworld are only caricatures at best and that whole sequence I found quite disappointing.
Profile Image for Martin.
443 reviews27 followers
April 12, 2019
I devoured this book immediately after receiving it. Absolutely top shelf Stephenson. This novel is absolutely overflowing with ideas and questions, any one of which would make me put the book down and have a bit of a think for a while. The amount of research and the presentation of knowledge is tremendous but not overwhelming. This is a book I will return to in a few months or so. Very highly recommended.
Profile Image for Lisa Wright.
448 reviews21 followers
March 5, 2019
Richard "Dodge" Forthrast, the creator of the world's most popular video game, dies suddenly, unexpectedly, and without updating his will. So his heirs are obligated to cryogenically freeze him or find a way to upload his mind to a computer. So begins this fractal of a novel filled with computer science, mythology, eschatology, corporate dirty tricks, life, death and what might come after. Stephenson's digs down through layer after layer of what-ifs. Themes appear, disappear, and reappear. A wild ride of unexpected ramifications that held my interest through all 800 pages. So set aside some serious time because you will not want to put it down. Oh, and you might want to brushup on your D'Auliare's before you start.
Profile Image for Tomislav.
1,002 reviews68 followers
August 26, 2019
I think Neal Stephenson must mean something different than the rest of us by the word “novel.” Always, his works are sprawling monstrosities, more akin to several braided novels in one. When it works, it is superlative, and well worth any diversions into side stories or obsessions with details.

The initial setting of “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell” is a familiar one of obsessive/compulsive software game developers, who have become rich as a side-effect of their uncontrollable geekiness. Then enter the profiteers. It is several novels’ worth of set-up, whose purpose is apparently merely to enable the final magical quest story. For those of us who were expecting something the stature of Stephenson’s sophisticated “Crytonomicon”, that simplistic story is less interesting than the set-up itself.

Now, I'm well aware that there many readers who do enjoy magical quests. For such a reader, the idea that it is all built over the top of a technological platform mostly unseen by the participants, may be an intriguing one. Although, of course, it has been done before. Within that fantasy trope, I may not be a particularly discriminating judge, hence I am not warning away all readers by use of the lowest rating. But for readers like me, it will be a big disappointment.

With regard to the broader Stephenson canon, we have incidental contemporary representatives of the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families, and a significant appearance of the recurring character Enoch Root. I note the sudden disappearance of Enoch Root, implying that our “real” world could be a simulation created in some more foundational world, as yet unexplained.

I read Neal Stephenson’s latest novel “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell” in kindle format. I have previously read a half dozen of his other novels, and particularly liked Cryptonomicon and Anathem. While “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell” is set in time after Reamde, it is not a direct sequel. I have not read “Reamde.”
Profile Image for Maine Colonial.
653 reviews174 followers
June 24, 2019
This is a mix of techno-thriller, Creation/Gods myth and quest fantasy. I liked the techno-thriller, especially because it features Zula Forthrast and Corvallis Kawasaki (from Reamde, though you don’t need to read that first), Zula’s daughter Sophia, and several other full-fledged and interesting characters.

As the book description says, tech billionaire Richard “Dodge” Forthrast dies suddenly, his brain is preserved and, when turned back on, he (and others in the same circumstances) inhabit an eternal afterlife that the book refers to as Bitworld.

Meanwhile, in the regular world, aka Meatspace, Dodge’s friends, family and his adversary, El, are able to observe and support Bitworld in a digital fashion. As more “souls” go to Bitworld, this becomes a big deal and the topic of increasing interest and disagreement.

The story of Bitworld is told as a kind of mythic Genesis/Paradise Lost story and then, later, an epic quest. The Bitworld story has its fascinating moments, but too much of it is told in faintly ludicrous biblical or Tolkein-ish sounding language and, yikes, the last third of the book is pretty much all quest and no Meatspace.

Let’s face it, you know that the quest is going to end in an epic showdown and you know how it’s going to end. When it comes, though, after so many pages of quest (10 hours on audiobook out of 32 hours total), the showdown is over in nothing flat. Just a brief vignette in Meatspace, another one in post-showdown Bitspace, and bam, you’re done.

I felt bad sometimes about getting irritated with the excessive detail and the switch to all-quest, because Stephenson explores some important philosophical ideas. I just wish he could have edited it and livened it up a little.
Profile Image for Greg.
162 reviews6 followers
June 13, 2019
Fall is occasionally exceptionally poignant, when Neal Stephenson chooses to engage with his near-future real world, with the wide implications of AR, automation, post-truth, culture-divides and even the implications of running an after-life simulation.

Most of the time, it's bogged down in it's own self-mythology created from the patrons of the transhumanist afterlife, with a few "I kid you not" moments of old-gods resembling greeks being ousted by judo-christian replacements souls complete with Adam & Eve and garden of Eden. Stephenson seems quite preoccupied with his rather-bizarrely-paper-thin allegories. The bigger crime is it's just not that interesting. I suppose Stephenson purposely is making a point for how much humans are trapped in their own frames of reference, and the commonality of myth is an outgrown of our limited conceptions but man.... I just wanted to get it over with. I was always waiting for the book to return back to the real-world instead of the snoozy VR world.

I was impressed/entertained and then bored in equal quantities. Meatspace is good near future sci-fi, bitspace is boring fantasy, spanning eons and hundreds of pages for lame-duck lore. Like even the best of Stephenson, he’s never quite sure how to wrap it up with a cogent and poignant ending... and it hurts more as half of the story isn’t that good. The last 1/3rd of the book I just wanted to end.
Profile Image for SAM.
253 reviews5 followers
September 17, 2020
Unfortunately I'm having to follow suit and agree with the majority. The first 700 pages were brilliant and easily 4/5 but everything after is boring AF. I skimmed the rest and I'm not ashamed to say so. Just a predictable drag.
Profile Image for Oleksandr Zholud.
1,121 reviews112 followers
June 15, 2019
This is a SF novel about digitalizing consciousness.

The author, Neal Stephenson, often writes books, which in paper version can be used by powerlifters. 896 pages, over 31 hours of audio! Just like late Robert A. Heinlein he is in urgent need of an editor, who will cut the manuscript in half without losing all the great ideas. To answer a question whether other books (Reamde, Cryptonomicon) should be read to enjoy this one, No.

Richard “Dodge” Forthrast is a Silicon valley billionaire, who founded Corporation 9592, which made a successful massively multiplayer online game TRain. Now he lives for fun, investigating different questions of interest for him, from how sleep works to a common source of Norse and Greek myths. One day he goes though a routine medical procedure, which unexpectedly leaves him in coma. In his living will, there is a remnant of the late 90s, just before the dot-com crash, hype among suddenly wealthy geeks to save their bodies for a resurrection in a sufficiently advanced future. Nothing new here, other SF authors used the idea to ‘send’ their protagonists on an adventure, from The Door Into Summer to We Are Legion to name just two. However, if in other books this is just means to an end, here we have pages and pages on how to do it and what we’ll get at the end.

The first half of the book is great, one gets a lot of interesting ideas, like for example that scanning brains alone probably won’t work if we recall that from hormones made by our bodies to chemicals produced by bacteria in our guts, there are tons of out of brains stuff, which affects (determines?) us and our decisions. The initial creation of a bitworld, made subconsciously based on allusions to Norse and Greek myths and the Old Testament is pure gold. However, as with most of his other novels, story bogs down around 2/3 through the book and starts to wander aimlessly.

A five star start with a two star finish.

it’s one thing to simulate a brain. It’s another thing to talk to it. We forget this because our brains are hooked up to bodies with handy peripherals like tongues that can speak and fingers that can type. As long as those work, you can always get some idea of what’s going on in a brain. But a brain in a box doesn’t have those. Which is probably another reason that no one has tried this yet.”
Pluto, well aware of his own social ineptitude, had obviously pored over an etiquette manual before showing up, and so, during his rote interactions with Zula and other immediate family members, had acquitted himself well if bizarrely, addressing them in high-Victorian grief speech straight out of whatever scanned and archived Emily Post book he’d memorized.
“So, Martin Luther was running a false-flag operation for the Pope,” Phil said. “In that case—” But he broke off as he felt Sophia stepping on his toe, under the table.
He looked down at her. Having caught his eye, she panned her gaze across the entire scene, asking him to take it all in. Reminding him that this wasn’t Princeton. This was Ameristan. Facebooked to the molecular level. “Professor Long,” she muttered, “the Red Card.”
It was a reference to one of their teachers at Princeton who had gone so far as to print up a wallet card for people to keep in front of them during conversations like this one. One side of the card was solid red, with no words or images, and was meant to be displayed outward as a nonverbal signal that you disagreed and that you weren’t going to be drawn into a fake argument. The other side, facing the user, was a list of little reminders as to what was really going on:

Speech is aggression
Every utterance has a winner and a loser
Curiosity is feigned
Lying is performative
Stupidity is power
Profile Image for Steven Mastroyin.
320 reviews1 follower
June 10, 2019
I'd like to give a little more than 3 stars but it's hard.

Generally though, 5 stars for meatspace, 2 stars for Bitspace. This seems to be the general consensus of reviews, and while I hate to agree with consensus, it's hard to find fault. I suppose like others I completely missed the point because the stories of Bitspace I found to just be so uninteresting, derivative, and boring. I guess the idea that the human mind would not be able to escape the trappings of human experience is interesting, but I don't feel it was really explored. It was kind of like the entire point of Bitspace was to recreate the creation myths of the past. But, I was just so completely overwhelmingly bored. The long middle chapters about the journey of Adam and Eve I had to just start skipping entire paragraphs of text for want of literally anything interesting happening. The final act which people have mentioned being bad I actually at least found more fun to read, if still also pretty rote and kind of lame.

I don't really want to go about too many spoilers, but I was really disappointed in what he chose to explore,and I feel it left a lot of questions. So, some spoilers ahead.

First, if everyone in meatspace is privy to the events in Bitworld, WHY WOULD ANYONE WANT TO GET UPLOADED?

Second, what was El doing other than being a "bad" god? He seemed to have almost literally no plan. I get it, he wanted the resources for himself, hence enslaving so many souls to low cycle drudgery or just hibernation in the hive. But, it really doesn't make a lot of sense. In the real world he talked so much of what he would want to do absent the bounds of physical laws...and then his vision is just to become a dictator? This is really weak sauce. Probably the worst villain of any Stephenson book.

Third, the entire idea of a quasi-eternal life should be upending the physical world. And yet, we only get very narrow views of what is going on with the characters, who make less and less sense as the book goes on. I understand that this may be part of the point. But I didn't like it.

Fourth, we have a subtitle "Dodge in Hell" but get almost literally nothing about Dodge's experience other than his ability to create. I don't know, I thought maybe we would have more about his journey and the journey of awakening consciousness.

The only enjoyable thing about the entire finish is the idea that Meatspace in this book was actually always another bitworld, and it was bitworlds all the way down going back who knows how long. But even this is pulled from like, three lines of the book and I'm probably over-extrapolating.

I love Stephenson generally and I like his prose. I really like seveneves, I loved REAMDE, etc. I don't need him to write exceptionally complicated claptrap to be satisfied. But, I think he really missed here.
Profile Image for Rob.
853 reviews540 followers
June 23, 2019
Executive Summary: This book starts out quite strong, but as it goes on it becomes essentially two interconnected stories and I liked one of those stories a lot more than the other. 3.5 stars.

Audiobook: Malcolm Hillgartner did a solid job with the narration. I checked and he's the same narrator as Reamde so I appreciate the continuity. He does some voices, but nothing that really blew me away. Audio is a good option, but not really a must listen.

Full Review
Neal Stephenson has been one of my favorite authors since I first picked up Snow Crash in college. I've enjoyed just about every one of his books. He has a writing style that tends to meander at times, and is prone to tangents. I always seem to find this just as entertaining as the main plot.

This book didn't seem to have any major tangents, but it did follow his other typical pattern of telling multiple connected stories in one book.

This book is a loose sequel to Reamde and shares characters and history with Cryptonomicon. If you haven't read those books, you can probably read this stand alone, but of the two Reamde would be the better one to have read as some the characters at the center of the plot for this book were also at the center of that.

I enjoyed Reamde and the start of this book as it feels much the same. However by the end of the book more time is spent inside the simulation and less out in the real world. Things feel far more like a fantasy book rather than sci-fi. Now I love a good fantasy story, and that makes up the majority of the books I read, but I found this one to be far less enjoyable than the sci-fi story that preceded it.

Overall I found this book good, but not great. I'll happily pick up his next book and more than likely enjoy it. If you've enjoyed most of his past works, you'll probably enjoy this. If you haven't ready any of his work, there are better books to start with.
Profile Image for Alan.
1,124 reviews112 followers
August 24, 2020
I picked up the first library book I'd been able to check out for five months on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and by Sunday night I had already finished reading it.

That's right; it took me only a bit more than 24 hours to burn through Neal Stephenson's 883-page novel Fall; or, Dodge in Hell (that semicolon in the title appears and disappears, by the way, depending on where you look, but I like semicolons anyway so I'm leaving it in).

Maybe I should have paced myself.

On the one hand, Stephenson immersed me deeply and immediately; I spent hours that weekend doing nothing but reading Fall, which speaks volumes (heh) about Stephenson's fluid prose, and about how well this novel meshed with my own science-fictional interests.

On the other hand, though... I shouldn't have been able to zip through Fall so quickly. Despite its length and deep philosophical underpinnings, this novel was not nearly as challenging, nor as original, as I'd hoped it would be. Much of it, in fact, reads like an extended cutscene from some online role-playing game.

Which isn't a coincidence...


We last saw Richard "Dodge" Forthrast, along with his daughter Zula, in REAMDE. Familiar names like Waterhouse, Shaftoe and even Enoch Root also appear, connecting this novel directly with Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle as well. It seems that Stephenson has fallen into the expanded-universe trap, or contracted the continuity virus, or... whatever metaphor you like for the all-too-common urge authors get, later in their careers, to tie all of their fiction together into one grand "future history."

In case you can't tell, I think that the contortions this usually requires are unnecessary at best.

Anyway... as Fall begins, Dodge—introspective billionaire, dispassionately monitoring his sleep cycle—awakens in his not-quite-penthouse condominium in Seattle, and starts getting ready for a routine medical procedure. He's been told not to eat anything, but this Vietnamese immigrant baker he knows makes the most amazing croissants, and the bakery's on Dodge's way...


So Richard Forthrast dies—no spoiler to us, although it was rather a surprise to Dodge, as well as to his family and friends. His untimely expiration triggers provisions in his will that require every effort be made to preserve him cryogenically and secure his eventual resurrection. And since Dodge was a billionaire (he made his pile pioneering a massively-multiplayer role-playing game), those efforts lead to his brain being frozen, then scanned and uploaded to a quantum-computational server farm in central Washington, just about as soon as it's possible to do so.


If you haven't already twigged to this, let's lay it out clearly: Fall is incredibly awash in privilege. Dodge is just one example—all of the primary characters are at the very least millionaires. These are people who think nothing of hiring a private jet, and then redirecting it midflight, for just one example. Maybe it had to be that way—the amount of storage and computing power required to reproduce an entire human mind (or even a reasonable facsimile of its connectome) ain't gonna be cheap, at least at first.

But it is weird, how comfortable Stephenson felt showing us this future almost entirely from above.

I also wondered about uploading's popularity—Stephenson portrays this process, once it got cheap enough, as eventually affecting the human birthrate!


So Dodge—or something very like Dodge, anyway—awakens to... nothing. The trauma of death seems to have wiped out his memories, and the environment he finds himself in is completely unstructured... just a field of zeroes. Chaos. The phrase that comes to mind from Genesis is "without form, and void." In a physical sensory-deprivation tank, there are at least a few cues (one's own heartbeat, if nothing else) to focus on. Dodge has nothing—nothing except what he creates for himself.

So he creates. But, of course, what Dodge creates is still shaped by his limitations and (though he can't remember much about them) his experiences. And when other uploads inevitably begin arriving, they are obliged to accept the parameters that Dodge has already chosen—and it quickly becomes clear that Dodge's game-design experience has a very real effect on the sort of post-mortal digital paradise he can devise.



With everything I disliked about Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, what did I like? Well, quite a lot, actually. I did find it compulsively readable, after all—and if I'd read it more slowly and thoughtfully, I might well have fallen through some of the many plot holes that I escaped noticing at the time.

I even liked the relatively slow section just after Dodge's upload awakens in that empty environment, with its sly references to Greek mythology and the timeline in Genesis. I thought the way Dodge's connectome had to build everything around him anew, from scratch, with multiple handicaps along the way, was... well, "realistic" isn't precisely the right word, but certainly plausible.

And when the ensuing Quest starts looking like a second-rate fantasy novel... well, that's plausible too—after all, Dodge's role-playing experience both in this novel and its predecessor is more than a little derivative. It's unsurprising that a relatively faithful copy, unable to remember much about the source material for his ideas, would recapitulate a lot of time-worn tropes.

And while I have deep reservations about the practicability of the notion that an amnesiac copy of my dead brain might be in any way immortality for me—at best, a scanned-and-uploaded mind is a copy of the original, whose fidelity begins to diverge as soon as it's booted up—I still like the idea, and it does make for some good science fiction.


It's taken me far longer than 24 hours to write this review; I've been struggling with my ambivalent reactions to the book. So no, I'm not going to tell you to trot right out and read it. Too many people have already bounced off of it (and there's a lot to bounce off of—my Goodreads friend Peter T., for example, reacted rather badly to the satirical sections set in "Ameristan," although I saw that part more as a cautionary tale).

But if you like Stephenson's work anyway, and are willing to turn off some of those pesky critical faculties for a few hours, you might enjoy Fall every qubit (heh) as much as I did.
Profile Image for Nooilforpacifists.
872 reviews38 followers
June 15, 2019
This book is a death spiral into boredom. It starts off with a technological bang, and ends as a whimper of a Monty Python farce. “Seveneves” held my attention longer, and I hated that.

The idea is good—and a masterful triple entendre. A Seattle multibillionaire named Dodge dies, and his will turns out to demand cryogenic freezing of his body—or whatever better technology is available at date of death. Dodge’s brain is scanned, destroying the organic material in the process, but preserving the bits. He becomes Dodge’s Brain, or DB, which also (as explained in the novel) means database. But it’s actually a nod to a 1942 novel by Curt Siodmak called “Donovan’s Brain”—the first SF to propose removing and keeping alive the brain of the dying. Clever, Neal. The same plot appears more recently in “We Are Legion (We Are Bob)”, to much better effect.

The flashes between “meatspace” and the cybernetic afterlife are fun, until the latter funnels into a quest and dominates the pages. They have to assemble the proper cast of characters: a mariner, a raven, a giantess, a Princess-who-doesn’t-know-she’s-a-Princess, a key, two stout young men who will be dead by the end of the second reel, etc. The quest seems endless, although it covers only about a quarter of the book. But it’s a boat anchor, too heavy for the mariner to ship or the giant to carry.

I hate to bash a Stephenson book—Cryptonomicon is about my favorite novel, and (unlike many) I like the “Issac Newton trilogy.” Yet, last night, I was 96% finished, and preferred sleep to story. That says everything.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for John.
327 reviews14 followers
June 24, 2019
Rounded up from 4 1/2 stars. I loved this book & found it thoroughly engrossing. It’s sad to ponder but probably true that giving humanity a reboot into a digital universe would probably result in reformed superstitions & prejudices with the few using this to rule & the many falling back into subservient roles. Neal Stephenson in fine form.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
816 reviews2,586 followers
August 17, 2020
I have loved all of the books I've read by Neal Stephenson. Up until this one, that is. This book is quite disappointing. Maybe it's the length; it's 883 pages long, and it would have been much better if it had been half that length.

The beginning of the book is fun; sort of science fiction, I would say. then the cast of characters shifts abruptly, and there is no continuity during Sophia's trip across the country. This lack of continuity just lost me.

Then the book gets interesting again, as the protagonist, Dodge, finds himself in a new plane of existence. At this point, the book is mostly fantasy; For a while this part of the book is fascinating, a blend of the Bible, Greek and Norse mythologies all wrapped into one. Then, a major portion of the book is a quest--which starts out just fine, but drags on and on. I didn't feel for any of the characters at this point, as the members of the quest simply faced one obstacle after another. Of course, The Quest is taken from a blend of mythology and modern video games. But it drags on and on, without any rhyme or reason until the end.
Profile Image for Chaunceton Bird.
Author 1 book98 followers
October 16, 2019
It's true what they say about Neal Stephenson writing fiction by the pound. This one here is probably about three and a half pounds of fantasy with a sci-fi premise. The post-life mind uploading premise had me thinking I was in for a Neuromancer/Snow Crash type of cyberpunk story. However, while there are a few cyberpunk slivers, this book is largely fantasy based. Medieval world building type of stuff. And maybe I've lost my stomach for massive books, but I had a hard time getting through this one. It began to feel like a chore to read. Anyway, good book, but not up to snuff with the usual mind-blowing work of Mr. Stephenson.
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