Review: Neal Stephenson – Fall or, Dodge in Hell (2019)

Did not finish at around 50%

This monster of a novel starts with tech-billionaire Dodge dying in a hospital, and his family finding out that Dodge’s will states that upon his death, his body should be cryogenically frozen. In these first chapters, Stephenson gives us a protracted romp around the town with lawyers and tech firms with the goal of giving us a realistic scenario of a moment, not too far into our future, when a tech billionaire conceivably has the funds and technology to have his brain scanned and uploaded into the cloud. There’s a lot of Nealsplanation, but that is a feature. It’s immersive and believable. 

Ancient history and myth are alive and well in Stephenson’s novel. Not only does Dodge ruminative about the Greek muses and underworld, but Corvallis (another major character) reenacts his historical fantasies as live action role-playing games in the Montana mountains, and all the while religion has a strong presence in this future’s America, transforming the land and social fabric. Stephenson likely took his idea of social enclaves from Snow Crash (1992) and updated it with a heady mix of conspiracy theories and social media bubbles. This is all setup, thematically, for the other part of the book. 

Because we do meet Dodge again in his uploaded state in some virtual reality world. The myth- and religion-infused reality of future America makes the point that humans always tend to seek out, loose or find themselves in understandings of reality on another plane. Everyone is already living in their own version of reality, enforced by social media too. This future America is hilarious to me but also a foreboding hellscape of what might be coming. A virtual reality, then, is only one step further; a playground of infinite possibility that will be shaped by the same yearnings, the same psychological or spiritual tendencies, of humans seeking meaningful experiences like they do in the real world.

So, thematically the book escalates from one reality to the next in nicely argued steps, but the reading experience isn’t all that smooth. We frequently jump into the future to new characters that we have to familiarise ourselves with, and the greatest jump comes with Dodge’s experiences in virtual reality, which feel like myth or some world of warcraft game. Stephenson tries to mix this with his near-future world, but it feels like oil and water and ends up a troubled emulsion of blobs of fantasy and blobs of science fiction. All the fantasy blobs sink to the bottom of the book.

This is where I started skipping – sentences at first, and then whole paragraphs. I skimmed through the rest to see how it would end, but in truth the book totally lost me. Dodge in cyberspace starts creating his own world – trees, landscapes, appendages, a palace – and it just goes on forever. Never-ending chunks of tedious description, page after page, that is just about nothing. It’s like reading a description of someone making a Minecraft world. It is fantasy without a story and mythology without morality. I pushed ahead to the chapters about the real-life characters but those got few and far in between. All the interesting characters of the first half of the book end up dedicating their time to figuring out what Dodge is up to, and that is where their story arcs end. 

The idea behind it is pretty neat: Dodge and eventually the other uploaded people end up living together in a mythology-inspired virtual world, that is all nicely set-up and thematically prepared by the first half of the book, but the execution is unreadable. The first half of the book about tech-bros and Ameristan is actually fun and would have made a fine novel if he had chosen to make that the main focus. The worst thing about this is that Stephenson apparently learned nothing from the criticism levelled at Seveneves (2015) in which he abandoned his story at the 2/3 mark and asked his readers to invest in an entirely new cast of characters. The problems with Fall or, Dodge in Hell are very comparable.

I would like to redirect everyone to Greg Egan’s Permutation City (1994). Almost 20 years old but goes further and deeper into the same topics, within the span of only 300 pages.

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28 Responses to Review: Neal Stephenson – Fall or, Dodge in Hell (2019)

  1. Ola G says:

    Ah, a pity. The idea sounds very interesting and I remember Bart was quite pleased with this book – but your comparison to the last third of Seveneves pushes it firmly way down my TBR.
    Cool review, Jeroen!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks! I think the main take-away is that the first half is really cool and worth reading. And then it just… grinds to a halt and changes in a bad way.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ola G says:

        Yeah, it seems this way. Though for me it’s usually the second half that ultimately sets the tone for the reading experience – I can forgive a weak beginning if the book improves, but the other way round is a hard deal to sell to me 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        • Who knows, you might like it! Like Seveneves it is divided into a “book 1” and “book 2”. I find it really hard to abandon books because I want some closure. I read the final two chapters and that was enough to understand what Stephenson was going for. So at least I understand the intentions behind the book and looking at it from a distance it has some good ideas. But yeah.. I’ll just pretend that the second half was 300 pages shorter or doesn’t exist.

          Liked by 1 person

    • bormgans says:

      I was lukewarm, not pleased. In a way, the first part is practicaly must read satire. Very on the money. The second part is tedious, I strugled too. I’m more or less on the same page as Jeroen on this one.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Andreas says:

    Dang, another Nealbummer 😬 Thanks for your review! I still have a few other Stephenson books on my shelf which need to be read.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bookstooge says:

    Glad you didn’t spend more time on it than you did…..

    Liked by 1 person

  4. savageddt says:

    Great review Jeroen. Ive not read any Neal books, but will be sure to give this one a skip

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Neal Stephenson – Termination Shock (2021) review | A Sky of Books and Movies

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