Fall, or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
If I wasn’t hoping that death is just an endless, dreamless slumber before then I sure am now.
Richard ‘Dodge’ Forthrast made billions with the video game company he founded, but money doesn’t help him when a routine medical procedure goes sideways and leaves him braindead. However, Dodge once signed up with a cryonics company to have himself frozen after death, and that old legal agreement becomes the impetus for his friends and family to pour resources into tech that eventually can digitally map Dodge’s mind as part of an uneasy alliance with an ailing billionaire, El Shepherd, who is desperately trying to find a way to cheat death.
Years pass, and eventually Dodge’s consciousness is brought back in a digital realm, but he has no real memories of who he was. Operating mainly on instinct, Dodge starts shaping the world he now inhabits into something approximating his old reality, and eventually the living begin adding more dead mapped minds to that space. Slowly, a community that Dodge oversees begins to grow, but Shepherd doesn’t like the world that Dodge and his people have made so he finds a way to make sure that he’ll be in charge once he dies and gets his brain plugged in.
That’s a lot of plot for one book, but since this is a Neal Stephenson novel there’s all that and more. In addition to the story of Dodge in his digital world there’s the stuff with his friends and family dealing with all the technological and legal issues that arise from starting and maintaining a virtual afterlife. There’s also a long subplot that details how the internet and social media eventually becomes so awash in bullshit that everyone needs a personal editor to weed out the nonsense they don’t want to see, and the trend of people only believing what they choose creates whole reality challenged zones of the United States based on ‘alternative facts’. All of this stuff takes up a good chunk of the first half of the book, and I was enjoying that part quite a bit.
However, in the second half the focus shifts much more to dead Dodge in his computer world, and that’s where it got incredibly tedious. Stephenson does a lot here that draws on various religious creation myths with Dodge essentially becoming a Zeus like figure before the thing shifts into a more Christian style story with Dodge being cast in the Lucifer part by Shepherd. That’s an interesting idea, but the execution of it goes on for so long that I lost patience with the whole thing because it starts reading like someone tossed a Bible and a copy of Lord of the Rings into a blender.
Another part of the problem is that Stephenson also baked in some video game influence here, and as a guy who helped create a huge MMORPG type game it makes sense that Dodge’s approach to building and living in a digital world would feel somewhat like that. However, while it can be fun to play a video game like Civilization yourself, it’s boring to just watch someone else do it, and that’s what reading this book felt like for a good part of it.
Oddly, Stephenson also never really deals with the big questions that the story brings up. Like, are Dodge and the others in the cyber world falling into the rhythms of Greek mythology and Christianity out of some subconscious instinct that recalls those stories, or is it possible that our reality is also just some kind of artificially created existence that and the creation of these kinds of places just plays out in patterns?
Another aspect I didn’t care for was using the characters like Dodge and some of his family and friends who were also in Stephenson’s thriller REAMDE. I really enjoyed that book as one of Stephenson’s more straight ahead stories, and I especially liked Dodge in it. So to just essentially kill him off in the early going here is a bummer that puts a retroactive pall over that book.
Maybe the thing that bugs me most about this is that it’s essentially two rich guys battling to control what happens to people after they die. As the book lays out it would take an enormous amount of resources to develop something like this so it’s just cold hard reality that the first people to be able to live on past death would be wealthy.
However, it seem incredibly unfair that the privilege they enjoyed in life would then carry over to the point where they literally get to shape reality to their view of how things should be. Even good guy Dodge never questions why he gets to choose how things are going to work once everyone who dies starts getting uploaded. We just know that Shepherd was a jerk in life and in death so we’re supposed to root for Dodge, not ask why he gets all the power.
We already live in a world where obscenely rich assholes get to make all the rules. I was really hoping that death would be the end of that so I didn’t much enjoy a long story about how these fucks could maintain control after we all croak. Can you imagine what happens if the Koch brothers were essentially gods who could shape reality to what they want it to be?
If that’s the way it was going to be then I’d take a hard pass on the afterlife and just settle for the comfort of a long dirt nap. Reading about that idea isn’t a lot of fun either even if Stephenson tries mightily to convince us that it’d be cool just so long as the right rich guy is in charge.
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