Richard “Dodge” Forthrast –last seen in REAMDE – is puttering through the beginning of another day-after-tomorrow in the early 21st century. It’s an intimate, engaging scene that stands on its own, which is to say that Fall is a follow-on to REAMDE, not a sequel. In short order, he dies, and before readers have belted themselves in, the pages and plot acquire super-sonic speed, hurtling one into a gripping, unsettling and prescient makeover of today as tomorrow. Stephenson does not slow down, and those 880 pages seem more like 320 even as you achieve escape velocity and are hurtled from a visionary science fiction story into an equally visionary fantasy novel.
Stephenson is firing on all cylinders in Fall, handing family tensions, international intrigue, and unfettered imagination with equal ease. Starting with the basics, he demonstrates his power with prose in the opening, where he conjures a palpable nostalgia for the present. It’s a nice way to open a science fiction novel, especially since Dodge’s death requires that his body be preserved for resurrection in some unknowable future. The path to that future is lined with a truly terrifying extrapolation of the dangers of the dissolution of consensus reality. As truth becomes personal, divorced from the measurable and external, marketing and promotion become weapons of mass destruction. Without a doubt, this will be for many the most powerful section of the novel. Don’t read it in the vicinity of the news. It won’t end well for you.
When next we meet Dodge, he’s Egdod, a nascent intelligence in a world unformed, until he takes a look around. Stephenson lets us slip into his online fantasy novel as Egdod lets there be light, sound, a mixmaster of human mythos, and wildly fantastic action that manages to break boundaries in post-Tolkien fantasy fiction. And while Stephenson’s afterlife is a deep dip into our religious human tapestry, complete with Miltonesque verses, its plot takes a page from 20th-century anti-religious philosophy; hell is, indeed, other people.
The joy of Stephenson’s fantasy novel-within-a-novel is that it is informed by and intercut with a toe-tapping tale of near-future intrigue. Every coin in the fantasy world has two sides as characters from the supposed real world (assuming we are not a simulation), find themselves reborn in a world that manages to be weirder than ours. Stephenson uses the fantastic not just to externalize our world into his near-future, he uses his fantasy to externalize the characters in his novel. It’s an economical means for him to entertain the hell out of us (you’re ignoring the so-called real world when you’re immersed in this tense-in-all-worlds narrative) while providing a great dose of exploding-head thought experimentation. Fall, or Dodge in Hell wallops your brain while it whips you into a future that is all to reminiscent of today.
Follow this link to hear my conversation with Neal Stephenson’s meatworld incarnation.