Neal Stephenson has a new book out, called Fall, or Dodge In Hell.
For some of you, that means nothing. Couldn't care less. For some of you, it's a curiosity — Stephenson is a big deal among sci-fi fans of a certain taste and vintage, and adding a new book to his canon is, at the very least, noteworthy.
But I know that, for a few of you out there, this is monumental. A fully-fledged nerd holiday. Doesn't matter what it's about. Doesn't matter where it's set or what weirdness it concerns. Content be damned, you can tell the true fans by the Wile E. Coyote-style person-shaped hole in the wall right now, which they made blasting off in the direction of the nearest bookstore.
For the record, I am none of those three things today. I am neither disinterested nor fanatical. When it comes to Stephenson I have been (in the past, and in the way past) both, but today I am Goldilocks's middle porridge — not too hot and not too cold.
I can say, for example, that I hated the first few pages of Fall. Hated 'em like poison. It took the main character something like ten pages to get out of bed. Another half-dozen to take a shower. There were wild digressions on soap bubbles and the angles of light; about autumn leaves and mythology and books about mythology and who had read certain books on mythology and why. It was tiresome, terrible blather that could've, with very little loss, been reduced to a single sentence: "Dodge Forthrast woke up, took a shower, went down the street for a routine medical procedure and then, for very convenient plot-like reasons, just freaking died."
There. Just saved you probably 50 pages of work.
Stephenson purists will complain that all that bloviating was required reading — that the master's words are careful and wise and, further, serve to set up the many recurring themes and motifs which occur later. But no. It wasn't.
Stephenson apologists will claim that this just happens — every book he writes, you have to just kinda gloss over the first chapter and let the man collect himself before he really launches into the main thrust of his narrative. But I call BS on that, too.
Because I am the middle porridge here, I can tell you that Fall starts bad, recovers slowly, builds to a level of awesome not seen since Stephenson's early days of sound and fury when he wrote things like The Diamond Age and Snow Crash, then settles for an achingly long time, into a kind of back-and-forth narrative discursion on immortality, the singularity, chaos, life and death.
The story is, in essence, a kind of backwards retelling of Milton's Paradise Lost with Dodge (one of Stephenson's most Stephenson-like recurring characters — a super-rich, powerful and very independent video game designer) as the first man to have himself (not just his brain, but his entire Dodge-ness) zapped into the digital realm, stored on a bunch of very fancy computers, and then switched back on. He comes back to a kind of life there, in a world of his own creation, soon populated by other "souls" who have followed in his wake.
Meanwhile, in the real world, Dodge's grandniece Sophia, her mother Zula, and a whole assembly of brilliant, rich, powerful and shifty supporting characters culled from the pages of REAMDE, Cryptonomicon or elsewhere, try to position themselves in ways to best take advantage of this new technological immortality, even if they, from the outside, can't quite understand what it might be like. The Waterhouses and Shaftoes, Enoch Root, El Shepherd and the Forthrasts — a rogue's gallery of Stephenson's faves — all make vital appearances. Largely, they begin in the real world. By the end, many of them have ended up in the afterlife.
And that's when things get really weird.
So for any of you out there who have ever wondered what the world would be like if it started over again from scratch with Neal Stephenson as an addle-minded, angry, horny, amnesiac God, Fall will answer that question. In sometimes excruciating, sometimes fascinating detail. There's no part of this book that doesn't chug and hum with that big-brain energy of near-future extrapolation that Stephenson's fans love him for. There's no part not drenched in his didactic obsessions and love of the world's underpinning minutiae. He can (and does) riff for paragraphs on women's fashion, for pages on quantum theory and systems analysis. He gives equal weight to religion, mythology and technology in a way that, by page 600 or so, feels almost revolutionary.
But his best bits are still those when he is firmly rooted in the real, looking out over a too-near horizon of history and telling us what is coming. There is actually a run in the first third of Fall that is flat-out amazing — a riff on fundamentalism and the weaponization of false information in post-fact America that I haven't stopped thinking about (or telling people about) since I put the book down. It is, all alone, nearly novella length — a satirical road trip story unspooling with just a few characters and the same manic, genius energy that propelled Snow Crash at its best moments.
It doesn't last. Isn't built to. But it is a section that reminds me that Stephenson's greatest strength as a writer has always been that he sees just a little bit further and a little bit clearer than the rest of us do. He can't always seem to decide what's worth rhapsodizing about. But when he focuses, he can show us some truly amazing things.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.