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the cover of neal stephenson’s fall or dodge in hell novel William Morrow/Harper Collins

Neal Stephenson’s Fall, or Dodge in Hell asks pressing questions about our digital future

A ‘beach read’ for a society on the brink

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The question of what happens after we die, fused with our religious traditions and our secular philosophy, haunts most of human life. From book writing to skyscraper design to imprinting your hand in sidewalk concrete or writing graffiti in a bathroom stall, there’s a strong human desire to be remembered when we’re gone to some other existence.

Fall, or Dodge in Hell, the new nearish-future novel from science fiction writer Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash), takes a Silicon Valley approach to inevitable demise: At the moment closest to one’s death, the brain is preserved and scanned into a data structure that is then uploaded into a mass array of servers. Following adherents of the Singularity like Ray Kurzweil, the novel extrapolates what it might be like to live forever in a digital world created by simple, fallible human beings. As the title suggests, all hell breaks loose.

Fall is a quasi-sequel to Stephenson’s 2011 novel Reamde, a geopolitical techno-thriller that balances Tom Clancy thrills with World of Warcraft fanfiction. Centered on Richard “Dodge” Forthrast and his niece Zula, the book bounces back and forth between Russian mobsters with ransom demands in the real world and strange warfare happening in the fictional MMORPG that Forthrast created, T’Rain. Bluntly, it is a thousand pages of Stephenson working through how widespread this MMO is and how obscenely rich Forthrast is because of it.

The core of Fall is the fact that the wealth and technical friends that Forthrast accrued in his MMO-creating life become resources that allow him to live on after death as data.

Another author might flash this up some way, leaning into the science fiction by having new miraculous processes appear overnight. But in a move reminiscent of Stephenson’s Seveneves, a key agent in Fall is the slow grind of time and money guided by human decisions that are chasing a specific, difficult goal. For everyone living after Richard Forthrast, that goal is the creation of a place for your brain to live forever.

To talk about what’s so special about Fall, I’m going to need to spoil some big, broad ideas that just don’t make their way onto the book jacket. The promo for the novel, after all, simply says that a place called Bitworld is invented, a place “in which humans continue to exist as digital souls.” But that doesn’t address the scale of what happens, or the timeline, or the circumstances from which these things emerge.

[Ed. note: This article contains spoilers for Fall, or Dodge in Hell.]

In Fall, Dodge dies, but the technology to scan his head just isn’t there. And rather than miraculously creating it, Stephenson just skips through time. So we’re treated to the horror of the near future. Some nefarious actors create a viral sensation of mocked-up images and videos that convince the world that Moab, Utah, has been hit with a nuclear attack. Taking deepfakes to their logical limit, the novel presents the potential for faking reality itself. In the next time jump, after the population has augmented reality glasses that constantly dump a data stream about the world into its eyes at all times, this becomes a normal part of the social experience. What reality are you projecting? Who can see your reality?

Through the eyes of Silicon Valley tech geeks and their progeny, Stephenson presents us with a future that is clearly in crisis, and it’s both illuminating and terrifying. The oncoming crisis is presented well in the first half of the novel, when Zula’s daughter Sophia travels through Iowa 17 years after Forthrast’s death. Escorted by a pickup truck with a machine gunner and a surveillance drone, Sophia sees “Remember Moab” stickers, roads ripped up to protest the federal government, and an entire part of the country that has been “Facebooked.” The ubiquity of the internet has produced a different feed, a different reality, for the people in this part of the country. Years later, they still believe Moab was attacked with a nuclear weapon. A new Levitical religion has taken to crucifying people.

Anyone who lives in rural America can feel the stereotypes piling up here, but Stephenson presents this as a byproduct of class as much as geography. His future is one where money continues to be funneled from the interior of the U.S. to the coasts, and from the coasts it drains upward into the coffers of the investment and tech classes. The reality is that this future is dominated by bots that invest significant sums of money and, in turn, make even more money. The protagonists of this novel are people who are afforded the ability to think by a massive capitalist production that is completely hidden from their view. Money accrues, and they spend it.

What they spend it on is Bitworld. It takes a long time for a high-definition ion scanner and a data storage facility and quantum computing to be perfected, but after they are completed, there’s an opportunity to turn Dodge’s brain on. And he creates a digital world around himself that replicates the things he has known: his hometown, his vague religious upbringing, and his expertise in video game design. He creates a world in his own image, and as more brain scans are added to the mix, it starts looking a lot like a fantasy world with a healthy dash of religious allegory.

In Stephenson’s words, Bitworld is striking. Created whole cloth by a game developer, it’s a heaven that mimics the dystopian hell it emerged from, where a titan class of investor-geeks vie for power. As one character says, Dodge “stupidly recreated something very much like the world we live in now.” The problem of humanity, the book seems to say, is that we can’t help but replicate our conditions even if we have a little bit of creativity. This is never more apparent than when game references crop up in the novel: A character throws a key into a rip in reality in a bid to destroy everything, like Atrus does in the backstory for Myst. Late in the novel, some questing characters make ample use of fast-travel exploits to avoid some patrolling Lighting Bears.

This is, charitably, 10% of the novel, which continues to extrapolate, hopping into the future of afterlife management. Stephenson spins up this entire narrative through these strange acts of willful technological explanation. He’s a writer who is known for getting in the weeds (Anathem has two appendices just to explain the math), and while this book is complex, his work as a stylist is in rare form here. The religious allegory, technological detail, and fantasy drudgery all dovetail together with a care that doesn’t always seem like a priority for Stephenson. You get the sense while reading that he wanted to make the language really pop in a book about the fidelity of the digital to the material.

And yet Fall, or Dodge in Hell never loses sight of the complex moral lesson: What do we want to create for the future? It seems to me that Stephenson has grasped the splintering landscape of public reality well, and he presents the problem of consensus as one of construction. How do you build something that people all agree on? How do you create a world that can be lived in?

Stephenson explores the Silicon Valley version backed by extreme wealth, but Fall should force us to ask questions about who gets to decide consensus and what it might mean to build our way out of it. At best, it is the most extrapolated warning sign of all. On a long enough timeline, the Mark Zuckerbergs and Jack Dorseys of the world might end up creating your afterlife. If that’s not a reason for more people to start thinking through the problem of building a better world, I don’t know what is.