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Fall; or, Dodge in Hell
by Neal Stephenson
William Morrow, $35.00, 883pp
Published: June 2019

Yes, this is a massive tome.  But it is Neal Stephenson, after all.  The man of really big ideas.  And this one is a whopper.

It’s been said that man never imagined a god that was better than himself.  Most gods are, by their nature apparently, petty and vengeful.  And it’s been argued that we’ve created all gods in our own image.  So…if we could control our own reality, what kind of afterlife would we create?  Can we get it right?

Dodge is a very rich man. Dodge is a sick man.  Dodge is a man who once, on a whim, signed himself up for a cryogenics-type program.  Now that Dodge is dead, he becomes the poster child for a new process whereby his brain is scanned and uploaded into a bit-world.  Now all that sounds rather comicbook-ish but not when Stephenson is calling the shots.

By the time the process has been refined, Dodge’s little 5-year-old niece has grown up and is running his business.  Sophia is the one who finally flips the switch and causes Dodge to wake up in a void.  And, oh boy, does it start to get weird.  So much has been written and speculated upon as to whether humans could transcend their base desires.  Apparently, Stephenson doubts as much as I do.  When Dodge ‘wakes’ he has no memory of himself but gradually comes to ‘remember’ certain things; like the beauty of fall leaves.  So, out of the void he creates a tree and causes the leaves to change color.  After that, comes a quiet street lined with trees where he can walk to the woods at the end.  And, gradually, comes the understanding that he can literally create anything. And that’s where we have to understand that if man was to really transcend his base desires, he would need to have an awareness of a different reality. And how could that be possible?  Even our imaginations are limited by our understanding of our reality.  Dodge and, later, the next small group that are uploaded, are able to explore other possibilities and it appears the experiment may be a success.  It’s what happens later that argues we can’t really change who or what we are.

But before we can go there, Stephenson has to blow up the internet.  Really.  Imagine, then, the resultant dystopia that would create.  A lot of truly weird stuff ensues and I confess, at the end of 883 pages, I am unable to connect the need to destroy the internet with the experiment except to give us some background on certain characters.  So, I’ll skip past that and go to what I consider the meat of the story…pun intended, and you’ll have to find that one on your own.

It is inevitable that any story about creating an afterlife would have to include elements of Christianity – the prevailing religion in this country – with maybe just a soupçon of eastern thought. And the gentle reader might be inclined to roll one’s eyes at the clichéd usages…but, please: if we maintain the idea that our beliefs and fundamental faith in ‘facts’ cannot be discarded from what we might describe as our mind or our soul, then those comparisons are absolutely necessary for the story.  So, roll with it.  The journey will be worth it.

I wanted to tell more about how the experiment progressed but I see now that, aside from giving spoilers, it is just too daunting.  I can say that the character motivations are true, the plot progression logical, if convoluted. It just took a lot of paper and ink for the author to fully explore the theme.  At times, the pace was slow and the plot seemed irrelevant.  I suspect that should I go through the book again, I would have a greater appreciation.  As it is, a day later, my mind can’t let go of how beautifully he presented his ideas. ~~ Catherine Book

For other titles by Neal Stephenson click here

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