Neal Stephenson’s Fall; or, Dodge in Hell has one big thing in common with Seveneves, and it’s that it has a wildly unconventional and unpredictable structure to it, such that saying absolutely anything at all about the book feels like a huge spoiler—and sort of is, because taking the book in totally naive is just going to be this wildly surprising experience that you can’t get if you’ve been spoiled for the shape of the thing.
But, fuck it, I’ve got stuff to say, and I’m going to say it. So I’m going to go ahead with book jacket level spoilers here. If you want the totally unspoiled reading experience (probably only if you’re a dedicated Stephensonphile), stop reading now, and come back later. If you’ve already read the Amazon description of the book, though, I’m not going to really be worse than that.
All right, then. So I had actually been spoiled for this myself, having read an article that mentioned that this was a science fiction story that contained a fantasy story, and so I thought this was going to be some kind of “play within a play” thing, where there’d be an exterior story and an interior story, but nope, it turns out to be one big story that just shifts genres repeatedly.
It starts out as a current-day novel, where it’s Stephensonian in its close, almost pedantic observation of mundane details and is focused on geeky characters, but is otherwise unremarkable. Then it slips into near-future SF, where it’s addressing some very of-the-moment themes about social media and echo chambers and conspiracy theories; and the throughline through both of these parts is a kind of interest in cryonics and brain-scanning and so forth, which eventually gets relevant in the less-near future part of the book; and as we move into the perspective of the simulated brain, it ends up gradually drifting from big-idea SF into straight-up quest fantasy—which means, really, that all the SF part of the book is just the Techbro Silmarillion.
The quest fantasy taken as a straight quest fantasy is fairly banal and generic. But because of all that SFnal context that we bring to the table—the grand sweep of history, if you will—it ends up being interesting anyway.
At least to me. Because the thing is, a lot of Stephenson’s books feel like they should be wildly unpopular and as if he’s writing for a small audience of people who like that sort of eccentric thing, right. But whereas I’d go to bat for the excellence of Anathem or the Baroque Cycle even as I totally understand why a lot of people dislike them, here I think this might actually just be a kinda-bad book that I happen to like a lot.
Because, I mean, the SFnal part of it is really awfully long for how many ideas and/or interesting characters it has; and both it and the fantasy part are almost pathologically focused on the handful of billionaire characters in the book, even at one point having one of the characters explain to another that they shouldn’t feel guilty for using their money to get ahead, that’s just how the world works. Which is not wrong, exactly, but also not the sort of thing that you usually have your sympathetic characters saying in an approving fashion.
And then plus, even beyond the weirdness of this book’s structure, it’s also tying together Reamde and the Baroque Cycle universes in a way that seems to be making a metaphysical point about that larger shared universe. It’s basically never a good idea when authors start tying their franchises together late in their career; it probably isn’t here, either, even though I kinda like it.
So yeah, this is probably Decadent Late-Period Stephenson at this point, and certainly this doesn’t have anything like the verve and brilliance of his best novels, and has some very noticeable warts on it. But for all that, I still liked it immoderately, and powered through it quickly. Recommended for diehard Stephenson fans only.