Award-winning bestselling author Neal Stephenson puts forth unique ideas about the singularity in his latest novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell. Richard “Dodge” Forthrast (carried over from his 2011 Reamde novel) is a gaming developer who made it big after founding a gaming company in his youth, making him a multi-billionaire in present times. A screw-up during a standard medical procedure leaves him dead, and it’s only postmortem that Richard’s family discovers an unusual request in his will: he wants the contents of his brain scanned and uploaded into the cloud, to be “reawakened” at another time.
First off, I’ve never read any of Stephenson’s other novels (Reamde, Seveneves, Cryptonomicon, etc.) so I had no idea what to expect. The premise certainly sounded enticing enough and I was excited to finally experience a Stephenson novel as the author has built a reputation for bringing forth ideas around death and the possibilities of what humans can do in the future once the singularity is in place.
Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed nearly from the start, and for reasons I hadn’t expected. From the very beginning, I found it hard to empathize with the main character – which is never a good thing. Stephenson goes deep in describing everything about Dodge but does so using a strained stream-of-consciousness style I wanted to cut off. It feels as if Stephenson didn’t want to miss out on describing the sense of Dodge’s world but, as a reader, it bordered on overkill, and gets boring after five pages. Consider the book is nearly 900 pages long and you’ll see my pain.
Also confusing is how Stephenson plays things out, switching between using Richard and ‘Dodge’ without any apparent reasoning. Though he had introduced Richard as ‘Dodge’, I still had to go back several pages to see why he would switch between the two. At first I thought it was because Richard’s friends were referring to him by his nickname but further into the novel, his friends also keep switching back and forth. This sounds like a small thing, but it was quite frustrating to keep track of when there’s so much else going on already. If you’re calling someone by their nickname, keep it consistent.
And while this is a science-fiction book with technical aspects to it — the singularity, virtual realms, technical eschatology, all of which I am an avid fan of — events quickly became bogged down by minute details Stephenson seems to have been compelled to insert into the storyline. I found myself flipping through pages of excess just to move the story along and because I ended up not caring about any of these details as I felt they were, again, unnecessary.
Several of Dodge’s friends and family feel inserted into the storyline, which was great as I started to become invested in their stories…until they were abruptly cut short. One major subplot that I really enjoyed dealt with Dodge’s great-niece, Sophia, who essentially turns Dodge’s brain back “on”. Not only did I find this bit more interesting than what actually happens later in the story, I also sensed a slight misogynistic tone around her character.
Worst of all, much of the actual storyline doesn’t even start until several hundred (!) pages into the novel, which meant wading through passages that feel endless. What Stephenson does well is offer up the existential question of whether we can upload our consciousness to be awakened at another time. This otherwise fascinating thread runs throughout but, unfortunately, gets lost in exposition. Fall; or, Dodge in Hell may not have taken me on the winding science-fiction saga I would have liked, but it definitely lead me straight to fantasy hell.