A sequel of sorts to both Cryptonomicon and Reamde, Stephenson’s most recent novel, released at the start of summer, 2019, begins like his best.
That proves a challenging thing to maintain when writing a book of Stephensonian lengths.
Title: Fall or, Dodge in Hell
Author: Neal Stephenson
First published in June, 2019.
After his death, Richard “Dodge” Forthrast has his consciousness preserved, though this does not go as well as one sees in most other fictional depictions of uploaded consciousness, and for a time he remains shut down. Real doubts exist as to whether the thing preserved will in any sense know it was Dodge when it can be awoken.
Meanwhile, the meatspace world continues, with the apparent destruction of an obscure town, cultural and political fragmentation, and the increased power of certain corporations, including one controlled by the Waterhouse family.
When Dodge does awake, he sets about creating a virtual world, which other preserved consciousnesses eventually find. Will it be heaven, hell, or something else? And who shall rule among the new gods?
The first few hundred pages rank among the best Stephenson has written, and create high hopes for the novel. As with most of his long works—and this one clocks in just shy of 900 pages—you have to experience the story to understand it. We enter a near-future both satiric and chillingly plausible. The Moab incident reflects with brilliance contemporary concerns about the nature of understanding in a world where people believe their social network feeds and the people shouting Fake News! the loudest are often those who most benefit from it. The off-the-grid explorations of Sophia and her friends enters credible speculative territory, and cleverly presages the crazed religious/mythic explorations of the novel’s second half.
The initial handling of reawakened, duplicated consciousness plays like nothing else I’ve read on the subject and, I suspect, may be closer to what might actually happen than most other explorations of the technological singularity and related concepts.
The best portions of this book are excellent, as impressive as anything you will read this year.
In Anathem, Stephenson recreating a version of the history of western philosophy (with some influence of other traditions). Here, he recapitulates a western-heavy version of the history of mythology and religion (with some influence of other traditions). From there we end up in an epic fantasy that plays an awful lot like a videogame or last year’s RPG. None of this is surprising, given the novel’s themes, the relevant characters’ backgrounds, and the author’s polymathy. That Stephenson can do these things remains outstanding. That he does them in such ponderous detail, often at the expense of story and character, is something else entirely. When the virtual world becomes a Tolkienesque fantasy the novel should have taken off in yet another new direction. Unfortunately, I found those pages required heavy slogging. They’re not as interesting as authentic examples of the genres on which they riff, and not helped by the sheer number of characters and incarnations that come and go. And we are talking here about a sizable novel’s worth of pages.
Given the strong, classically Stephenson opening and the effective final chapters, I wish the quest and the events leading to it had been edited and revised.
Originality: 5/6 Even when he’s being derivative—he acknowledges some of his sources in a afterword– Stephenson reads like no one else.
Imagery: 5/6 Stephenson creates worlds without getting any further than near-orbit. Curiously, he’s better at describing the real one than he is at conjuring the fantasy realm—but then, that may be the point.
Story: 4/6 I am amazed anyone can maneuver around this many plots and concepts. That ability does not consistently equal good storytelling. My main reactions, positive and negative, may be found under High and Low Points.
Characterization: 5/6 Characterization varies quite a bit. I should mention that Enoch Root appears in this novel, and comes closer than anywhere else to explaining who he is and why he has survived centuries.
Emotional Response: 4/6 The book, often excellent, gets bogged down in its own cleverness and excesses. I had to graph my reactions and find the average.
Editing: 4/6 I don’t care how famous a writer becomes; a good editor can be invaluable. Fall required a good editor.
Overall: 5/6 I initially thought I would be starting this review by calling Fall Stephenson’s best in years. I had to disabuse myself of that notion. But when Fall is good, it is very good.
In total, Fall receives 32/42