Friday went a little sideways on time, and I found that it was already almost midnight by the time I got a few minutes to upload this post. Decided that it made a little more sense to wait until Monday.
I have to admire that Neal Stephenson has created an entire science fiction world to serve as framing stories for fantasy novels that take place in virtual worlds. Stephenson previously used Richard “Dodge” Forthrast in the novel Readme. Fall is a novel about the singularity, or more importantly, what happens when humanity finally gets a digital afterlife.
At nearly nine hundred pages, this is a huge book. There is an entire epic that makes up the final third of the book that has a beginning, middle, and end all its own. If you’re a Stephenson fan, you’re probably down. I don’t know that I can tell everyone to commit. I enjoyed this book, but I think I enjoyed the stories between the story Stephenson wanted to tell.
The framing story is about Dodge, a man who died with a considerable amount of money. The kind of money that created foundations upon foundations to deal with how to digitize his brain for resurrecting him digitally. A few years ago, Bruce Sterling talked about the High Tech Gothic. Where technology continues to be wondrous, but society gets this tinge of old-world weirdness. Fall captures a world full of money that is basically self-sustaining for a certain class, and how it changes the rules of society.
Fall captures some current anxieties about technology in a unique way. Stephenson frequently takes a moment to create a clever caricature of the current world and give us a clear, “I told you so.” It doesn’t linger long, and it figures well into the overall plot, but it’s there. I suppose when your flavor of commercial fueled dystopia comes true, you get to gloat about your prescience. No one even remotely related to Star Trek ever shuts up about the StarTAC, when all every one wanted was replicators and space communism.
The main problem with this book is that from the halfway point where the virtual world becomes more of the plot, the book drags. A mixture of impressionistic descriptions and blatant biblical allegory, these passages are well crafted. They just didn't have any place to grab on to. It's a choice made to reflect the nebulousness of the world. The characters do manage to be more interesting when you get to that final epic arc, but the book loses the spark that makes the first third or so a fun read.
This is in no way to implore that Stephenson should stick to sci-fi or whatever. He writes fantasy as allegory perfectly fine, and retelling Milton as a battle between insane, undead zotta-rich is an inventive idea. It's just that the devices needed to build up the world slowly pales in comparison to Stephenson tossing around ideas and settings in the real world section of the book.
Fall is a significant investment of time. I don't want to criticize the length, but there are a few places the book does laps over the same territory. If you haven't read Stephenson before, it probably isn't the best place to start. You don't need knowledge of ReadMe to jump in, but this book isn't indicative of the style that defined his career. If you are a fan, this is a good read. Just be prepared to ride out some slower spots in the middle. There's a nice surprise waiting at the end as well that makes me want to go back to ReadMe to see if there are clues.
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