Book review: Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, by Neal Stephenson

posted: July 29, 2023

tl;dr: One possible scenario for the world of a digital afterlife...

Admittedly I am intrigued by the concept of a digital afterlife. There are many forms that this could take. One simplistic approach, which is already possible now, is to train a chatbot on the writings and other digital digital artifacts created by a person (such as these blog posts), so that the chatbot can impersonate that person and respond to queries after the person has passed away. Whether friends and family of the person would actually find such a chatbot to be of any value remains to be seen. The trained chatbot technique, of course, does not preserve the thread of consciousness of the original person.

Neither does the technique used in Neal Stephenson’s book Fall; or, Dodge in Hell. That technique does, however, reconstitute an imperfect model of a person’s consciousness in some sort of brave new digital world (called Bitworld, in the book). That’s the most intriguing aspect of Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: what would life in this new world consist of and feel like to the disembodied digital intelligences who populate it? What would they do, how would they interact, and what aspects of their prior human lives on planet Earth would they recreate?

A black book cover featuring an image of a white bird in flight, with a faint echo image of the bird, superimposed with lots of ones and zeros, with the author's name in large white print and the title in red, with the first word of the title very prominently displayed

As the book’s title suggests, that digital afterlife world is not necessarily heaven running in a large computer cloud. Stephenson’s book made me aware of one of the challenges of transposing one’s consciousness from meatspace into cyberspace: at first it may seem wonderful to be free from the limitations imposed by the human body; yet that body, its limitations, and how it interacts with the physical world, impacts many of our thoughts and memories. Boot up a digital consciousness in a brand new, blank slate world, and that consciousness may have to recreate many aspects of human life on Earth, just to have a frame of reference in which to operate. Instead of being free from the limitations of human biological life, we may end up recreating some or most of them.

At nearly 900 pages in length, there are many other themes that Stephenson explores in Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: the Genesis story from the Bible, and other biblical stories and figures; competition and hierarchy among groups of humans; what is means to be free; whether we’re all living in a simulation; the impact of social media; and the red/blue political divide in the United States. As he always does, Stephenson sprinkles in enough real-world science to make the futuristic aspects of his storyline quite believable. It’s hard to fault him for holes in his plot, since it is science fiction after all, but I would have thought it would be easier for the characters in Bitworld to communicate with those still living in meatspace, and that the characters would have woken up in Bitworld with more of their meatspace memories in place. Perhaps those are plot choices that Stephenson made to create a more interesting story.

A good portion of the final part of Fall; or, Dodge in Hell is fantasy more than it is science fiction, and I’m not the biggest fan of fantasy books. So Fall; or, Dodge in Hell is not my favorite Stephenson book: Cryptonomicon retains that title. Still, I am glad I read Fall; or, Dodge in Hell and look forward to reading Stephenson’s next book, Termination Shock.