Welcome to our first iteration of the Niche reading nook. As we try to expand into covering more news and content within nerd/geek culture as a whole, we figured now would be a great time to introduce book reviews for those that love to read. In the upcoming months we will cover science-fiction, fantasy, nonfiction titles that delve into the world of gaming and tech, and anything else we think our readers will enjoy.
Widely known for taking readers on some of the most incredible journeys in books today, few authors are as consistent when it comes to churning out great content as Neal Stephenson. Snow Crash, Seveneves, The Baroque Cycle, Cryptonomicon, Anathem, The Diamond Age, and a handful of other titles make up a library that is not just universally acclaimed, but which is also unique, thought provoking, and intriguing. So how does his newest release, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, stand up when compared to his past work?
Quite well, actually.
Taking place within the same universe as The Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon – though don’t worry new readers, the connections are minor and just a treat for fans of his previous work to latch on to – Fall takes place in a future where death is seemingly defeated, as brains begin to get uploaded into a digital realm called ‘Bitworld’.
The story begins with Richard ‘Dodge’ Forthrast going in for a simple outpatient medical procedure where he abruptly goes brain dead, resulting in close family and friends needing to decide whether to pull the plug or not. Or, they would, until his last will and testament is read, and it’s revealed that he’d requested his body be given to cryogenic company in the hope that one day he may be revived. Naturally, things aren’t quite as simple.
Technology isn’t there yet to give Dodge new life, and so the early half of the book follows the years and decades of a foundation built in his family’s name as they chase the goal of creating a technological environment where brains can be uploaded to a digital world.
It goes without saying but eventually souls do begin to become digital versions of their former selves, or at least, versions of a portion of their former selves, and what should be a happy place where no one can die quickly becomes another facet of human creation where greed, envy, pride, and all the other deadly sins of the human psyche take root, and things don’t go as well as they could, or should.
To say much else would be to dive into spoiler territory, but as anyone who is fan of Stephenson’s work already well knows, he doesn’t go light on the philosophy or science behind the ordeal.
The medical procedure Dodge goes in to have completed is a card held close to the author’s chest, and in many ways I enjoyed not knowing. Death is often sudden and unexpected, and as an existential person myself, there’s a fear that even the most simple of surgeries can end in a life being snuffed. Was it a vasectomy, wisdom tooth extraction, or even a cataract repair? Ultimately it doesn’t matter, and thematically it’s important to remember that death’s scythe is always chasing us.
Dodge dies very early in the book’s nearly 900 page length, and for quite awhile he isn’t even a main character. Filling up the first half of the book is his adoptive niece Zula, her daughter Sophia, and his friend Corvallis. There’s also the introduction of a man who may or may not be playing the villain, but the less said about him the better. He’s mysterious, and his role later in the book will certainly make you question whether he is noble in his pursuits, or not.
This early content takes place before the Bitworld is even a thing, and this is where the novel is at its strongest.
The real world, or ‘MeatSpace’ as it becomes to be known, is a satirized but all too real vision of what our future is quickly becoming. Everyone is tuned into social media feeds, and thanks to editors and algorithms, no one is shown anything they don’t want to see. Neal Stephenson dissects our current internet culture, and the partisan division that is taking place between us; more so, he delves into the bubbles we’ve let ourselves become trapped within.
On one side are elite-fearing, gun-toting, hyper-religious truthers who don’t believe a massive plot pivotal internet hoax is really a hoax, and on the other are characters who complain about ‘mansplaining’, and who carry red cards around that remind them of how to act when facing uncomfortable conversations; the first thing it tells them is “speech is aggression.”
I’m almost surprised one of the characters didn’t go into a monologue about privilege.
There’s just enough there to offend people from one side or the other who so choose to get uppity, but I had a blast with it and genuinely laughed out loud while reading this section of the book. So much so that while reading it at the gym I must have looked like a total dork trying to stifle my laugh as I lightly jogged on a treadmill holding the tome.
Similar to the over-the-top nature of reality outside the Metaverse in Snow Crash, Stephenson does a great job of going into the absurdity of our modern life, but upped to the nth degree.
One big complaint I have is that the introduction of a new version of middle America, called Ameristan, never got an adequate payoff. It’s not designed to have one, but the machinations of the world were fascinating to me, and I’d have loved to know more about it. Honestly I hope the author writes an entire book set once again within this world, as there’s so much he could explore.
That’s not to suggest the Bitworld isn’t any less interesting, however. To avoid spoilers I don’t want to say too much, but what’s presented is a great look at the good and bad of technology, the human psyche, mythology, philosophy, and oh so much more. Just as Snow Crash made heavy use of Sumerian mythology, Fall makes strong use of everything from Genesis to The D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.
One question posited by the book is if given the ability to create a world as you see fit, would you try something entirely new, or would the memories of the world that came before tempt you into falling into the same trappings humanity constantly finds itself within? It’s a good question, and I think many will find the exploration of it tantalizing.
Although the ending might leave people split. As the book moves further along, it begins to spend more time within the Bitworld, and near the end it takes on a fantastical edge. There are literal battles between winged angels, after-all. I personally enjoyed it, but I do see it leaving some people feeling cold.
For the most part, Neal Stephenson has done it once again. Fall; or, Dodge in Hell is a novel worth the read, especially if you’re already a fan of his work. It’s certainly not a book for everyone, and no doubt many understandably find his past works a bit complicated, but if you already know you enjoy this level of content, then definitely seek it out.
As for those that struggled with Cryptonomicon or Anathem and the sheer amount of information presented, just know that Fall is nowhere near as complex. It’s a good jumping in point for this particular author, but keep in mind that this isn’t your usual sci-fi romp. It is enjoyable and thought-provoking as hell (ironically so) but the big ideas come no less and there is still some technical jargon. It’s a mostly easy read, but still not as digestible as other books within this genre.
Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, was reviewed using a review copy provided by Harper Collins. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.