Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: A Novel
Have you ever entertained the idea that we could “download” ourselves into a computer and then keep living in a digital world? Yeah, me too. What I imagine with great discomfort, Neal Stephenson brings to life in his latest book.
The book starts with a near-future setting in the U.S. where you follow the key players living through the creation of a new digital afterlife. Intermittently, then, the reader follows the events in this digital world itself. Because I want you all to read this book, I will be light on the plot details here. Even without spoilers, I would like to highlight four big themes that jump out of the story. Since Stephenson is a master of speculative fiction that is heavy in science and math, these questions play out in the book in an interesting way.
1. Are we living in a simulation?
As Stephenson plays out the plot about humans moving into a giant simulation, he implicitly asks this question, now quite familiar to philosophers and technologists. He makes two moves that bring the question to the fore. First, when people enter this new digital world, he has them lose most of the memories from their previous lives. This puts the reader on the outside viewing characters who are most definitely in a giant simulation but do not realize it. The second move he makes you will have to see for yourself.
There are many difficulties with the hypothesis that we are, right now, characters in a simulation. If this simulation has humanity at its center, the sheer size of the universe is a bit inefficient, to say the least. If you want to dig into this more, though, the internet is full of commentary to digest.
2. Who needs government when you have tech billionaires?
One of the odd parts of this story, and almost all of Stephenson’s stories, is the notable absence of functioning government. In this book, humanity moves toward a totally new era of history, but there is never a peep from government regulators, even (arguably) one figure engaging in massive afterlife fraud. The book is culturally set in silicon valley (actually Seattle), where there are many lawsuits, but otherwise, governments are irrelevant. Certainly, there is no reason to believe that we need a government to build computer simulations, but it is difficult to believe that, in real life, these tech titans would have the free reign that is portrayed in the novel.
The subtle assumption of this world is that major changes happen at the whims of smart, passionate nerds. If you want a world-shaking change, you just need those nerds to be rich. Libertarian tech-optimists will love it, but there is just a hint of Ayn Rand’s literary style here, with industrialist heroes driving the world forward, even if the prose and plot are orders of magnitude better.
3. What if social media and fake news got even worse?
Part of the charm of Stephenson’s writing is that he takes the liberties of sending his characters into interludes that are not strictly necessary for the rest of the story. One such interlude in this book is one of the most fascinating social commentaries of the book. Stephenson runs our current disinformation/political bubble trajectory out a few decades, and it isn’t pretty. In this future, a big portion of the country has totally lost touch with reality, choosing to spend their lives in a fundamentalist, violent anarchy. Perhaps inspired by some of the alt-right’s rejection of Christianity, these folks have created an alternate theology that would make the most politicized Westboro Baptist member squirm.
Conservatives may dislike the caricature, and wonder why, in this future, the liberals have preserved wealth and civilization while the red states have collapsed. If you can get past that detail, you will see that Stephenson captures well a piece of what makes our current internet-political-culture so disturbing.
4. Is mythology an essential part of human nature?
One of the most creative things about the digital afterlife is that Stephenson gives a plausible origin story for a greek-style pantheon of gods, a grand epic, and a re-enactment of classic myths. The conceit here is that these stories are baked into our subconscious and that they are deeply human stories. When the characters are set in a place where the basic rules of existence are up for debate, what falls out is very familiar.
This part of the story creates a nice narrative counter-balance to the “real world” part of the story, which is dripping with technological hubris and a sense of inevitability that only feels natural in Seattle and San Francisco. I am not sure if the author intended it, but the epic tale of the rise and fall of gods in the afterlife makes the project of building a permanent afterlife itself seem all the more precarious.
If you are already a Stephenson fan and want more commentary on the book, I can give a weak recommendation to this podcast interview with Tyler Cowen (transcript available). If you are thinking of reading something by Stephenson, I also highly recommend Anathem, Snow Crash, and Seveneves.