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Neal Stephenson. Photo/Supplied

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: Neal Stephenson's epic tale of digital life after death

Cyberpunk pioneer Neal Stephenson invokes Milton and Dante in his latest book.

If transhumanism has to begin somewhere, it might as well be with a slice of tarte tatin. The temptation of the apple dessert is a casual sensory pleasure for middle-aged tech billionaire Richard “‘Dodge” Forthrast – who realises partway through that he’s just broken a nil-by-mouth order for a medical procedure and brushes it off as precautionary advice. It isn’t, and the disastrous results trigger a will that makes Dodge the accidental pioneer of a digital afterlife.

There’s a pleasing irony in Dodge being a returning character, having featured in an earlier Stephenson novel, Reamde, as the magnate behind a blockbuster online game. He is reawakened decades after brain-death as an uploaded amnesiac consciousness.

Named “Egdod”, he’s the first digital soul to inhabit a virtual space that becomes known as Bitworld. The mindset of a game developer runs deep, though, and Dodge/Egdod effectively writes Bitworld’s primordial rules from scratch, sketching its outlines for what feels like aeons before other souls arrive with ideas for reshaping eternity.

Dodge’s postmortem odyssey isn’t the epic conflict Fall has to offer. Bitworld might be humanity’s best assurance of eternal life, but it’s also a commercial venture, the result of haphazard legal wording and an ethically dubious computer-science experiment, and subject to familiar tech-giant imperatives: scalability, cost to serve, and the need to keep the overall package attractive to new customers.

Like today’s social-media magnates, Bitworld’s nominal guardians can barely keep up with the momentum of what they’ve created, occasionally reaching in to stir things up and not realising the degree to which it’s begun to reach back and reshape the world on which it was based.

Stephenson riffs freely on Paradise Lost, Dante’s Inferno and any number of religious and philosophical systems, all played off against futurist thinking on the scope of human (and post-human) possibilities and the free-wheeling irony of gaming and digital culture.

The genius here isn’t so much the wild brew of ingredients as the way Stephenson delivers them with apparently effortless skill, across multiple levels of storytelling and numerous shifts in time, perspective and setting. Fall’s characters and events share some of the anarchic spirit common to cyberpunk works, a genre Stephenson largely defined, but its borrowings and reference points aren’t cynical or one-dimensional and there’s a genuine emotional core with a surprising punch.

In lesser hands, Fall might have grown into a cautionary tale about the presumption of wanting to live forever. Nothing here is close to being that clear-cut or obvious, but what comes through is a note of qualified, cautious optimism, emerging from the chaos of technology, culture and human behaviour nudging each other in unexpected directions.

At the same time, Fall leaves two rather lovely questions in its wake that bridge futurist ideas about technical possibility with ancient hopes and fears about eternal life: in some future existence, who would we still be, and what would we still mean to each other?

It may take Stephenson nearly 900 pages to leave us pondering those thoughts, but the epic scale of Fall and its cyberspace hereafter is more than worth the price of admission.

FALL; OR, DODGE IN HELL, by Neal Stephenson (Harper-Collins, $36.99)

This article was first published in the September 7, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.