The Books of 2020, #2: Fall; Or, Dodge In Hell, by Neal Stephenson

The second book I've read this year was this fuckin' brick. As a Gen X tech dork who got into computers as the Internet grew up in the 90's, I'm genetically predisposed to liking Stephenson's novels. His breakthrough book, Snow Crash, which I literally got for free with a video game (Spectre VR, for the record), has basically been Usenet's favorite novel forever. And I've generally enjoyed all of the books he's written since.

Fall is quite possibly his most Stephenson-ian novel yet. It's got the world-building and future tech extrapolation that I consider his strongest strengths. It's got the iffy characterizations and wildly meandering multiple main and sub-plots that are his biggest weaknesses. You'd think, at almost 900 pages, that it also could've used a strong editor, but then, like most of his books, you ask yourself "what the hell would you have cut and still kept this even slightly coherent" and realize that the answer is "this book needed to be this long".

I have no idea if he's explicitly said this, but the book seems to serve as a conclusion, mostly fitting, to the long run of loosely-related novels he's written about the Shaftoe and Waterhouse clans. It's also a direct sequel to 2011's README. And it's... hit or miss as to how well it does that.

The book is in large part an extended meditation on the nature of consciousness and what death means for that. Along the way, we get:
  • a very trenchant analysis/satire of what the Internet is doing to people's ability to discern truth and how that might manifest itself in a near-future America (this was, frankly, the best part of the book for me)
  • a not-very-successful reworking of Milton's Paradise Lost as a vehicle via which the concept of an afterlife that actually exists is considered
  • a full-on Lord of the Rings-assed fantasy quest. No, seriously.
I don't think all of these pieces meld together very well, though the first one works extremely well as a stand-alone piece and I enjoyed that part tremendously. 

The near-future imaginings are also quite good; his vision of Seattle 150 years out is very intriguing and has that Stephenson-ian knack of feeling quite plausible and believable. Dude does homework and doesn't just plop his first vague SWAG onto the page.

Where the book falls down for me is in the digital afterlife plot, which is unfortunately a pretty big chunk of the work. *MILD SPOILER*: if souls in the afterlife can't really die, as they're simply *NIX processes that auto-restart if terminated, all of the stakes are removed from any danger. Stephenson tries to engineer some exceptions and dodges (lol) around this primary fact he's established about this universe, but it doesn't really stick.

It also doesn't help that Stephenson isn't great at writing completely invented realities; he's at his best when things are at least tied to some kind of real-world analog. Given absolutely free rein, what he came up with here is... pretty lukewarm fantasy fare with a thin scum of extrapolated near-future tech janked in on top of it. It's a mishmash and it doesn't gel as a sub-story very well.

But, oddly... the endings aren't the main point of Stephenson novels, at least not for me. He's not known for sticking the landings, story-wise, but... I don't care. Even with the sub-par fantasy part making up a lot of the back nine of Fall, I enjoyed the entire journey quite a bit. I just didn't enjoy it anywhere near as much as I did most of his other books. And I'm not just being "his early stuff was better"; Seveneves is my favorite work of his, and that came out in 2015.

I feel like he really, really wanted to express his thoughts about how human consciousness might survive in a post-human future environment, and a lot of the ideas he presents regarding that are fuckin' fascinating, but the story-telling analogy he decided to use to do that, just isn't successful.

I often feel like I have sunk-cost fallacy with my less-favorite Stephenson books; "I've already read 300 pages, might as well see if the next 650 change things around here...". I don't regret having stuck through Fall to the end; the very very ending epilogue is particularly warm and sweet in a way the author is almost never successful at conveying, and a nice pin dropped in the entire Shaftoe/Waterhouse universe. I just wish the entire execution matched the ambition more than it does.




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