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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell

Neal Stephenson

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To purchase Fall; or, Dodge in Hell

Title: Fall; or, Dodge in Hell
Author: Neal Stephenson
Genre: Novel
Written: 2019
Length: 883 pages
Availability: Fall; or, Dodge in Hell - US
Fall; or, Dodge in Hell - UK
Fall; or, Dodge in Hell - Canada
Corvus - Deutschland
La caduta all'inferno - Italia

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Our Assessment:

B : lots of interesting ideas and some solid stories and adventures, if not entirely satisfying

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A- 1/8/2019 Adam Roberts
Locus . 6/2019 Wolfe/Martini
Nature . 4/6/2019 Paul McEuen
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 7/7/2019 Charles Yu
Publishers Weekly . 21/2/2019 .
Reason . 5/6/2019 Peter Suderman
TLS . 23-30/8/2019 Paul Quinn
Wall St. Journal A+ 12/7/2019 Tom Shippey
The Washington Post . 16/6/2019 Paul Di Filippo

  From the Reviews:
  • "Fall is the best thing heís written in ages. (...) The info-dumping is still there, of course -- fans would expect nothing less -- but this time itís mixed in with an old-school fantasy novel, exploring the exotic, magical world of its virtual afterlife, Bitworld. (...) He doesnít usually write fantasy. On the evidence of Fall, he ought to do it more often. (...) Fall is, among other things, an interrogation of our lamentably post-truth world, and Stephenson rolls history a couple of decades into the future to depict a US completely unmoored from factual reality." - Adam Roberts, The Guardian

  • "Itís a wildly and admirably ambitious novel, but, in its own way, itís an Ethical Network Sabotage Un≠dertaking of the whole notion of narrative unity." - Gary K. Wolfe, Locus

  • "I like big books and I cannot lie. But bigness sim≠ply for the sake of bigness tests even my tolerance. (...) A couple of the scenes are thrilling, like the destruction of Moab and the rescue of Enoch Root. But the Dodge parts: oooof. Itís clear that Stephen≠son is telling a creation story, one that includes the battle between good and evil and the poor luckless souls who get in the way. There is epic poetry and mythic beasts." - Adrienne Martini, Locus

  • "Fall is a doorstop. At almost 900 pages, Stephenson takes his time in laying out the story. Itís a mash-up of fantasy and sci-fi, with some flavour of J. R. R. Tolkien and William Gibson, and the author is not afraid to go off on tangents that donít advance his tale." - Paul McEuen, Nature

  • "(A) staggering feat of imagination, intelligence and stamina. For long stretches, at least. Between those long stretches, there are sections that, while never uninteresting, are somewhat less successful. To expect any different, especially in a work of this length, would be to hold it to an impossible standard. Somewhere in this 900-page book is a 600-page book. One that has the same story, but weighs less. Without those 300 pages, though, it wouldnít be Neal Stephenson. (...) This is a case of author and substance and story and style all lining up; a series of lenses perfectly arranged to focus the power and precision of Stephensonís laser-beam intellect." - Charles Yu, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Fans of Stephensonís passion for the minutiae of technological innovations will revel in the intricacies of his construction, but unwieldy dialogue, uneven pacing, and a narrow-minded view of the future betray the storyís promise." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Fall may not be Stephenson's best novel, but it might be his most Stephensonian. At roughly 900 pages, it is a smorgasbord of acronyms and ideas, action and exposition, characters and subplots. It sometimes feels more like a dozen novels, and a binder full of white papers, stuffed into a single book. It is sprawling not in the way of a city, but of a country or a continent" - Peter Suderman, Reason

  • "(I)t develops into a dystopian near-future science fiction novel, then metamorphoses into a cosmological creation myth that plays out, in part, as a gamification of Paradise Lost, before transforming, once more, into a quest. Underpinning it all is a smartly metafictional imagination that weaves these different worlds together, and allows us to see the join. (...) Fall never delves very deeply into the ethical questions provoked by its premiss. Similarly, when it comes to theology, despite Sophiaís claims that at Princeton she switched from studying theology to neuroscience and computing because "those are just more technical ways of getting at the same questions", Stephenson is really more interested in juxtaposing or transcoding these diverse ways -- in the media not the message -- than in attempting to answer such questions. (...) Fall , too, can be read as an ambiguous escape narrative." - Paul Quinn, Times Literary Supplement

  • "English professors love to tell us that reading James Joyce is difficult but rewarding. Ulysses is a walk in the park for difficulty compared with Fall, but Mr. Stephenson isnít just playing with words, heís playing with ideas, and he isnít joking either. He is sci-fiís great contrarian, and Fall deserves to be rated as one of the great novels of our time, prophetically and philosophically." - Tom Shippey, Wall Street Journal

  • "Leave it to this master trickster to have us board a cruise ship we expect to voyage to Club Med, but which instead delivers us to the Twilight Zone. (...) Although its plot points are many and captivating, it is more metaphysical. Two interlocking worlds rather than one share the screen. Its pace is deliberate and leisurely." - Paul Di Filippo, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Fall; or, Dodge in Hell opens describing, at a leisurely pace, the last hours of Richard Dodge's life. The Seattle-based billionaire founder and chairman of video game giant Corporation 9592 has a minor medical procedure scheduled for that day; it is: "a thing done a thousand times today", but in this particular case it is not going to go well.
       Dodge is still in bed when the novel opens, an excuse for Stephenson to offer some exposition on dream and waking states and human consciousness -- prefiguring questions and issues that eventually are at the fore of the novel. It's a while, however, before they take center stage.
       Modern medical technology means that Dodge's 'death' isn't of the good old absolute sort. While unable to function on his own any longer -- brain activity has come to a screeching halt -- a ventilator and other assorted mechanical support are enough to keep that body-shell up and running, at least at a basic level. And though Dodge remains the focal point of events, since he's not really there in any meaningful form as a character -- he's pretty much just dead weight, at this point -- he recedes into the narratorial background for a long stretch; it won't be the last time the title-figure isn't front and center in (t)his story.
       Dodge had arranged to be picked up after his procedure, by old business partner and friend Corvallis Kawasaki -- often called C-plus -- and since Corvallis is already on site when things go south, he's the first to know and take action. He also contacts the relevant family members -- specifically Zula Forthrast, Dodge's niece. (Dodge and Zula -- along with some of the other Forthrasts -- figure prominently in Stephenson's earlier Reamde, but familiarity with it is not necessary to follow Fall.) Adopted when she was seven, her adoptive mother died and Zula had become: "a ward of the whole extended family"; she was particularly close to Dodge -- and also lives in Seattle, with husband Csongor and young daughter, Sophia (whom Dodge had babysat the previous weekend).
       Zula more or less takes charge of what needs to be done -- but one of the first things that needs to be determined is what Dodge's wishes were in a situation like this, as well as, more generally, the terms of his will (as there is a lot of money at stake here). So the lawyers get called in, and in short order Dodge's will, his health care directive, and a directive regarding the disposition of his remains are brought to the hospital. And that's where things get complicated.
       It turns out that Dodge had signed up with a group that preserved human remains cryogenically, with the hopes/plans to eventually re-animate them, when technology was advanced enough to cure whatever killed them, etc. The original group had had some problems, but there were successor-entities still active and involved. And while complete-body storage on ice was the original plan, there was a bit of leeway here:

The contract that all eleven of these people had signed, while they were alive, when they gave Ephrata Cryonics their money, contained an out. It said that the remains were to be preserved in cryogenic storage -- or through whatever means, in the judgment of Ephrata Cryonics, were best suited to the desired goal of eventually bringing the deceased back to life.
       And Ephrata Cryonics' -- now a subsidiary of Ephrata Life Sciences and Health (ELSH) -- judgment and focus soon quite sensibly zeroed in solely on the brain: preserve that, first physically -- and then in electronic form. That's what they did:
They took each of those eleven brains and scanned them. Reduced them to data structures. Stored the data in the cloud.
       And that's what they plan to do with Dodge's brain, too .....
       The scanning process is, however, destructive -- and was, in the case of these first eleven trailblazing heads very rudimentary ("running it through a deli slicer and taking pictures" is the succinct description of the basic process). But ELSH are looking towards improved technology -- ion-beam scattering -- which, while also destroying the tissue, promised much higher resolution in 'capturing' the brain, as it were.
       ELSH is run by Elmo 'El' Shepherd, who has grand visions of the singularity and happens also to be terminally ill -- suffering from an incurable genetic disorder that runs in the family, whose: "inevitable results is a degeneration of the brain". I.e. he is going to lose his mind -- unless, of course, he can preserve it -- preferably still in good condition -- first. He is incredibly wealthy, and has big, big plans -- and Dodge's brain, under contract, presents a huge opportunity. And while he doesn't get his hands on it immediately, the Forthrasts come to an agreement and, when the technology seems up to snuff, allow him to do his thing with it -- paving the way, he hopes, for his own way-to-eternal-life.
       Part of the fun of Stephenson's novel is his awareness of and interest in the legal issues. Lawyers are quickly on the scene in the story, and contracts and wills play a significant role in how the story unfolds. Legal disputes and tugs-of-war between the two (conveniently incredibly wealthy) power-bases that eventually control what spins out of Dodge's brain-remains continue throughout the story. (Trying to explain the division of her family's estate to her college friends: "'Per stirpes,' Sophia said, and then spelled it out. 'Look it up. Read it and weep. Those of you who finish early may wish to refamiliarize yourselves with the storyline in Bleak House.'".) El, in particular, shows himself adept at using the law to his advantage -- not least in ensconcing himself, for the last years of his life, in a bit of unclaimed terrestrial territory, a tiny bit of land between Belgium and Netherlands which they never settled sovereignty over, called Zelrijk-Aalberg -- a self-made safe haven.
       It's a while before Dodge's remains are ... settled, and meanwhile, during the waiting years, Stephenson offers a few other incidents and adventures. After Dodge's brain-death, the book jumps ahead three years, and the part after that is already set seventeen years after his 'death'; the actual transition of the brain -- the technical uploading of the brain (and destruction of its physical form) -- is mentioned in not much more than passing, like some incidental step. More is made of the change of the world at large, specifically the United States, where a large-scale Internet hoax has for once and all undermined the basics that allowed for cohesive society, bringing to an end a: "three-hundred-year run when there was a way for people to agree on facts" and making for something of a free-for-all, which includes large swaths of middle American where the thinking had become rather backward (conspiracy-embracing, god-focused, gun-obsessed -- with the occasional crucifixion to make a point ...). The Miasma -- the Internet -- had been replaced by a new system, notable also for requiring editors to keep it anywhere near clean or useful, a costly add-on that many can only afford if they share the cost (with a corresponding decline in usefulness and privacy).
       Stephenson keeps this -- and all the other -- technological advances humming (and advancing) in the background, as it were -- introducing and using them, but without focusing too much on how or why the developments progressed as they did, beyond the obvious; technological advances in 'Meatspace' -- the familiar physical world -- are of some but ultimately only secondary interest for his story, though along the way they do allow him to make some points about society, technology, information, and the choices we make. (Yes, there is a feel of some of this being rather tangential, with both characters and concerns brought to the fore and then left dangling as he continues elsewhere, but they tend to be both entertaining and thought-provoking, which almost feels like enough to justify them .....)
       It is Sophia -- Dodge's grand-niece, who was very much on his mind in his last conscious hours but was not much more than a toddler back then -- who, seventeen years later, as a Princeton student, comes to study Dodge's uploaded brain -- and sets in motion what amounts to turning it on: not just keeping the brain running, as it were, but turning on the self-modification capability. The nudge which pushes bit-brain Dodge into (a form of) consciousness.
       Stephenson has some fun imagining what it's like for consciousness to establish itself -- especially given this peculiar mind-body set-up (all mind, no body) -- and it takes Dodge quite a while to ... come to himself. So, for example, he longs identifies as 'Egdod' (Dodge backwards). Stephenson indulges in this world-building, throwing new twists in along the way, as the novel now moves back and forth between Meatspace and this rapidly evolving and increasingly crowded and more elaborate virtual 'Bitworld'.
       Part of the fun is how the living outsiders perceive what's going on in the virtual world, beginning first just with the energy consumption they monitor, and then, for example, with a Landform Visualization Utility that allows them to map what is being 'built' in the virtual world. For a long time it's unclear to the outsiders whether the deceased have taken memories with them into their new world, or whether they can, and the (after-)'life' enjoyed by the uploaded remains largely a mystery to the still-living.
       Time-scales/speeds differ in the two worlds -- one leap in the story is of: "four years in Meatspace, but hundreds in Bitworld" --, with time speeding up or slowing down in Bitspace from the perspective of Meatspace (the 'Time Slip Ratio'), depending on the major constraint: energy usage. So Stephenson can conveniently make big leaps in time in his story -- much bigger in Bitworld than in Meatspace. Even in the still-physical world, however, the story tends to hop ahead rather than unfolding steadily -- including with the characters aging, and dying, in spurts, evermore of them joining the gang in Bitworld.
       Getting uploaded into the virtual cloud proves to be a popular and soon nearly universally desirable procedure: everyone wants to get scanned and archived in Bitworld. The promise of (a form of) eternal life seems at hand. Though, of course, it's remains hard to tell for the living to tell what the after-living are actually experiencing .....
       Stephenson imagines an elaborate virtual construct -- rule- and (physical) law-based, with foundations in familiar myths, stories, and experiences. The other-world is very earth-like -- and some of the local myths and conflicts clearly echo familiar mythology. When El passes into this hereafter a conflict that had been simmering in Meatspace can be played out more closely -- as El always felt that the button was pushed too early, and that Dodge wasn't, in that state, the ideal founder for this other-world. Dodge has some great powers as the first on the scene -- as creator of the scene -- but late-comer El comes with some advantages too. Yet there are others, too, with special powers derived from when they arrived -- or, in the case of Sophia, the fact that she is the original token-holder for the whole damn program, giving her a life-and-death power no one else, not even Dodge or El, have.
       Bitworld takes on a very 'natural' look, recreating the feel of life on earth in many ways -- albeit with a few unusual twists. Those who populate it tend to do so in more or less human form -- but others are possible; some characters are also winged, for example, and capable of flying. Some are also more powerful than others, with different forms of power, often taken from myth -- yes, there's some thunderbolt-hurling, there are giants, there are (kinds of) angels.
       A major turning point comes with the appearance of two new creatures in Bitworld, human(oid)s who eventually take the telling names of 'Adam' and 'Eve': "the first two souls that were created anew in the Land with no trace of what went before, save a certain necessary commonality in the organization of your minds". Previously, every new being in Bitworld was one that had been uploaded; Adam and Eve came into being solely in this space. El sees that as fundamental problem: he's focused on replicating outside (Meatspace) existences in Bitworld, and doesn't want any independent souls coming into being there. For one thing, they're problematic free-riders of a sort: every being needs energy (computing power, still all found (if increasingly automated) in Meatspace), and while a pair alone isn't much of a burden, if they have offspring the threat of overpopulation suddenly becomes very real.
       Adam and Eve start out in a garden, but of course they're banished; Eve does become pregnant -- and has a litter of kids (not just the one ...). And El wants to ensure that that's pretty much the end of the line .....
       If the first third of the long novel was pretty much entirely in Meatspace, almost all of the final two hundred pages take place in Bitworld, the local story there one of a grand quest in search of the key that could unlock ... well, what had seemed to be locked away forever. It is, of course, the avatar of a cryptographic key, the last remaining way to access the program running the whole show at its most basic level.
       Many of the real-world characters have, by the time of the quest, physically died and now are, in various forms, part of Bitworld; time has moved at a different pace, so much more has gone by in the virtual world -- eons, of sorts -- while a creaky Zula still putters around (with the help of an exoskeleton-cum-support-robot) in the real world, for example. Over this great length of time, this other-world has developed into an elaborate one -- including also in its power-structures. Those who venture forth on the great quest -- several not even quite sure of their specific roles -- face both great natural and human(oid) dangers.
       The quest-tale is almost straight out of fantasy fiction -- with a few connections to the real-world foundations to all of this that also come into play. Good and evil are clearly differentiated, sacrifices must be made, remarkable abilities come in handy. It is an entertaining story within the story -- fitting on and into the bigger picture (which, after all, also extends into Meatspace), but also standing quite well on its own as grand adventure story, complete with spectacular (if not entirely surprising) conclusion. That it is played out in a virtual world doesn't make the stakes any lower.
       So Stephenson does a lot in Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, and the pieces -- or rather chunks (they tend to be big ...) -- are well done, compelling stories and adventures, on various scales. The balancing act, between real and virtual worlds, is a difficult one; the two are almost entirely separate and, for example, communication, of any sort, whether bringing some into Bitworld (in the form of memories, for example) or trying to communicate in some sort of real time between the two worlds, is very limited. Stephenson also chooses to keep them very separate -- to the extent that it seems surprising how little attention there is to trying to establish forms of communication (though the outsiders apparently do spend a lot of their time peering in, to the various extents possible). So also, early on, the novel takes place almost entirely in the real world, while most of the last stretch is in the virtual one, with no back and forth even just in narrative perspective.
       Quite honestly, for much of the novel, it's the outside perspective that is the far more interesting one. Turning to Bitworld, Stephenson begins in very basic form: he has to build up a whole world anew, and though he allows for some leaps and zooms through advances, a lot of this world-building is pretty boring. The narrative voice also takes on a different tone -- echoing the mythical (and biblical) bases for what comes -- which can sound like a bit of a drone. Things do pick up, and the adventures do get more exciting, culminating in the quest-tale -- but most of this still has a bit of a medieval-fantasy-tale feel (and sound), long less compelling than the technological and cultural shifts in the real world.
       Stephenson presents some significant events in the real world too, especially in the novel's early sections, -- notably the Internet hoax, and then, more than a decade later, the resulting restructuring/retrenching of (parts of) American society -- but leaves much here underdeveloped. For a while he considers the broader fall-out of the undermining of the Miasma (the Internet), but then it doesn't play much of a role any longer. Similarly, technological advances simplify life, but are also only generally briefly highlighted; the changes to Meatspace remain more background than one might have hoped for.
       Strikingly, there's little discussion in Meatspace of the implications of creating the virtual eternal resting place. It's taken for a given, for example, that pretty much everyone wants to get on board; there's neither a policy nor even much of a philosophical debate about what's going on. Similarly, surely there would be competing systems -- and its hard to imagine governments wouldn't be active in at least monitoring all this better; the novel is also entirely US-focused, and it's hard to imagine that, say, the Chinese wouldn't have a different take on all this.
       Finally, the virtual world seems ... amazingly unimaginative. True, Stephenson's founder-figure is a man who made his mark with video games, so perhaps one shouldn't expect anything more than an elaborate video game, and Stephenson highlights Dodge's interest in mythology, which eventually echoes in that other-world. Still, in many ways Bitspace turns out to be little more than a somewhat fantastical recreation of earth. The mind-body problem apparently did matter, with all these minds opting to try to re-inhabit familiar old body forms, and build up a familiar-looking world around them, rather than developing in any truly novel ways (deciding they want wings, and working towards ensuring they'll have them when they cross over into that other world is about as novel as it gets -- interesting, but limited). This is all plausible -- but it's a shame there's not more discussion -- much less exploration -- of other ways this could have gone.
       It all does make for an entertaining story -- and/or clumps of overlapping stories --, mostly well-presented. There's a good deal of quite engaging adventure here, albeit much of it traditional and familiar in both its outlines and specifics -- but then that seems to be part of the point Stephenson wants to make, about the very basics of humanity (including that that we share basic stories).
       Stephenson does throw in more than he can adequately deal with -- and that includes characters, some of whom are left dangling a bit (not least of which is Dodge him/itself, for long stretches of the novel) even as they also reïnvent themselves and/or are 'revived' when they move from the real to the virtual plane -- and that's a shame, because he brings up fascinating issues; of course, more follow-through would have bloated the already sizable novel even more.
       Even as is, there is both a lot to chew on and lot simply to enjoy. Fall; or, Dodge in Hell isn't entirely satisfying -- far from it, in parts -- but it is a substantial and solid entertaining read, rewarding enough.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 May 2019

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Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: Reviews: Neal Stephenson: Other Books by Neal Stephenson under Review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Neal Stephenson was born in 1959. After his novel about academia, The Big U, he wrote "the Eco-thriller" Zodiac and then began writing true science fiction, with which he has had great success.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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