If anyone can fuse near-future science fiction and the mythologically epic within a single novel, it’s Neal Stephenson—even if he needs 1,000 pages to do it.
Never one to restrain himself, especially lately, Stephenson has long favored works that strive toward the titanic—widescreen battles and larger-than-life characters tossed together with advanced technology that seems far-off, but never far-fetched. But with Fall; or Dodge in Hell, the followup/not-quite-sequel to his globe-spanning techno-thriller Reamde, he truly goes all out, managing to expertly combine a family saga, a Paradise Lost pastiche, brain uploading shenanigans, internet terrorism, and so much else into a singular maximalist work about mortality and the impact one person can have on the lives of their family and friends. The result is a massively epic, even for this author, deploying a memorable cast into a deeply imagined world.
As the novel opens, eccentric tech billionaire and onetime adventurer Richard “Dodge” Forthrast (last seen in Reamde) is undergoing a routine medical procedure when something goes terribly wrong. Dodge ends up braindead, medically speaking, and in accordance with his will, he is immediately put into suspended animation until such time as his mind can be scanned and digitized and his consciousness uploaded into a virtual system. In the intervening years, with our protagonist’s life on pause, the world and technology march onward and upward until the Forthrast Foundation (formed moments after Dodge’s death by his family) can finally make the man’s dream a reality. Dodge is uploaded into the Bitworld, a virtual afterlife where a human consciousnesses can live forever. Any piece of software is bound to have its kinks, and an afterlife is no exception, but if anyone can be relied on to find the most unorthodox solutions to the most unorthodox problems—and figuring out the ins and outs of a virtual afterlife certainly applies—it’s Dodge Forthrast.
While the elevator pitch—”Paradise Lost in a virtual world”—promises enough excitement, Stephenson goes one step further in detailing how the wider world is changed by Dodge’s death and his desperate grab at immortality. The decision of the Forthrasts to scan his brain kicks off an odd and incredibly impactful chain of events, including a social media war over a small town in the Southwest, the mainstreaming of wearable technology, the destruction of the internet as we know it, and, even further afield, the wholesale creation of new worlds, as eventually someone’s entire brain is simulated in a server farm and begins to create its own virtual reality. Along the way, the Forthrasts remain central to the plot, playing major roles in shaping this new future, eventually contributing to Dodge’s decision to rebel against his virtual demesene.
Stephenson has an unmatched ability to ground his wild sci-fi in the plausible, and he’s careful to detail how the world and its technology grow organically from the start, bringing a sense of history to the narrative as you watch it mutate chapter by chapter. But while Fall might cover the changes two worlds go through as virtual immortality becomes a possibility, it is the saga of Dodge and his family first and foremost, and Stephenson imbues the Forthrasts with the larger-than-life qualities needed to make them every bit as epic as the story he’s telling. Dodge isn’t simply an eccentric billionaire, but someone whose presence and impact is felt throughout, his myth only growing after his “death” as his friends, family, and associates work to bring his dreams to fruition. He’s the reason his grandniece Sophia chooses to devote so much time to attempting to simulate how his brain works. He’s the reason Corvallis “C-Plus” Kawasaki, Dodge’s business partner and executor, finds himself tackling increasingly bizarre logistical problems, from carrying out his friend’s insane last wish to aiding a group of rogue hackers in an attempt to destroy the internet.
But while Dodge might be the catalyst and the figure that looms largest, like any good mythology, Stephenson’s ensures that each and every character has their epic moment (one of them is introduced via being rescued from his own crucifixion and occasionally speaks in conversational Latin). Over the course of these many pages, Dodge and the Forthrasts are forged into the epic heroes a saga like this one deserves.
Fall; or Dodge in Hell takes the technothriller to cheeky new heights, as Stephenson’s unique talents build a decades-spanning epic about humanity, mortality, the unyielding march of technology, and the battle for the (virtual) human soul. It’s an absolutely towering achievement in a career filled with them, a modern-day saga of gods and mortals from an author well-versed in the possibilities of the future.