Neal Stephenson “Fall, or Dodge in hell” book review

Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of darkness” is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature (even though it was technically written in 1899). It directly inspired one cinematic masterpiece (Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 “Apocalypse now”) and was allegedly an inspiration for another masterpiece-adjacent one (James Gray’s 2019 “Ad Astra”). I personally consider it to be rather hollow, and thus allowing a talented artist to use it as a canvas to draw their own, unique vision on rather than a masterpiece in its own right, but I’m not going to deny its impact and relevance.

Moreover, Conrad managed to contain the complete novella within 65 pages. Aldous Huxley fit “Brave new world” into 249 pages. J. D. Salinger fit “Catcher in the rye” in 198 pages, while George Orwell’s “1984” is approx. 350 pages long (and yes, page count depends on the edition, *obviously*). I seriously worry that in the current environment of “serially-serialised” novels these self-contained masterpieces would struggle to find a publisher. This, plus we’re also seeing true “bigorexia” in literature: novels have been exploding in size in recent years, and probably even more so in the broadly defined sci-fi / fantasy genre. Back when I was a kid, a book over 300 pages was considered long, and “bricks” like Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” or Frank Herbert’s “Dune” were outliers. Nowadays no one bats an eyelid at 500 or 800 pages.

And this is where Neal Stephenson’s “Fall, or Dodge in hell” comes in. At 883 pages it’s a lot to read through, and I probably wouldn’t have picked it up had it not been referenced by two academics I greatly respect, professors Frank Pasquale and Steve Fuller in their discussion some time ago. I previously read Stephenson’s “Snow crash” as a kid and I was pretty neutral about it: it was an OK cyberpunk novel, but it failed to captivate me; I stuck to Gibson. Still, with such strong recommendations I was more than happy to check “Fall” out.

I will try to keep things relatively spoiler-free. In a nutshell, we have a middle-aged, more-money-than-God tech entrepreneur (the titular Dodge) who dies during a routine medical. His friends and family are executors of his last will, which orders them to have Dodge’s mind digitally copied and uploaded into a digital realm referred to as Bitworld (as opposed to Meatspace, i.e. the real, physical world – btw if you’re thinking “that’s not very subtle”; well, nothing in “Fall” is; subtlety or subtext are most definitely *not* the name of the game here). It takes hundreds of (mostly unnecessary) pages to even get to that point, but, frankly, that part is the book’s only saving grace, because Stephenson hits on something real, which I think usually gets overlooked in the mind uploading discourse: what will it feel to be a disembodied brain in a completely alien, unrelatable, sensory stimuli-deprived environment? This is the one part (only part…) of the novel where Stephenson’s writing is elevated, and we can feel and empathise with the utter chaos and confusion of Dodge’s condition. There was a very, very interesting discussion on a related topic in a recent MIT Technology Review article titled “This is how your brain makes your mind” by psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett, which reads “consider what would happen if you didn’t have a body. A brain born in a vat would have no bodily systems to regulate. It would have no bodily sensations to make sense of. It could not construct value or affect. A disembodied brain would therefore not have a mind”. Stephenson’s Dodge is not in the exact predicament Prof. Barrett is describing (his brain wasn’t born in a vat), but given he has no direct memory of his pre-upload experience, it is effectively identical.

One last semi-saving grace is Stephenson’s extrapolated-to-the-extreme a vision of information bubbles and tribes. His America is divided so extremely along the lines of (dis)belief and (mis)information filtering that it is effectively a federation of passively hostile states rather than anything resembling united states. That scenario seems to be literally playing out in front of our eyes.

Unfortunately, Stephenson quickly runs out of intellectual firepower (even though he is most definitely a super-smart guy – after all, he invented the metaverse a quarter of a century before Mark Zuckerberg brought it into vogue) and after a handful of truly original and thought-provoking pages we find ourselves in something between the digital Old Testament and the Medieval, where all the uploaded (“digitally reincarnated”) minds begin to participate in an agrarian feudal society, falling into all the same traps and making all the same mistakes mankind did centuries ago; a sci-fi novel turns fantasy. It’s all very heavy-handed, unfortunately; it feels like Stephenson was paid by the page and not by the book, so he inflated it beyond any reason. If there is any moral or lesson to be taken away from the novel, it escaped me. It feels like the author at one point realised that he cannot take the story much further, or, possibly, just got bored with it and decided to wrap it up.

“Fall” is a paradoxical novel in my eyes: on one hand the meditation on the disembodied, desperately alone a brain is fascinating from the Transhumanist perspective; on the other I honestly cannot recall the last time I read a novel so poorly written. It’s just bad literature, pure and simple – which is particularly upsetting because it is a common offence in sci-fi: bold ideas, bad writing. I have read so many sci-fi books where amazing ideas were poorly written up, and I have a real chip on my shoulder about it, as I suspect that sci-fi literature’s second-class citizen status in the literary world (at least as I have perceived it all my life, perhaps wrongly) might be down to its literary qualities. The one novel that comes to mind as a comparator volume-wise and author’s clout-wise is Neil Gaiman’s “American gods”, and you really need to look no further to see, glaringly, the difference between quality and not-so-quality literature within broadly-defined sci-fi and fantasy genre: Gaiman’s writing is full of wonder with moments of genuine brilliance (Shadow’s experience being tied to a tree) whereas Stephenson’s is heavy, uninspired, and tired.

Against my better judgement, I read the novel through to the end (“if you haven’t read the book back-to-back, then it doesn’t count!” shouts my inner saboteur). Is “Fall” worth the time it takes to go through its 883 pages? No; sadly, it is not. You could read 2 – 3 other, much better books in the time it takes to go through it, and – unlike in that true-life story – there is no grand prize at the end.

What are the lessons to be taken away from 5 months’ worth of wasted evenings? Two, in my view:

Writing a quality novel is tough, but coming up with a quality, non-WTF ending is tougher; that is where so many fail (including Stephenson – spectacularly);
If a book isn’t working for you, just put it down. Sure, it may have a come to Jesus revelatory ending, but… how likely is that? Bad novels are usually followed by even worse endings.



(1)  Another case in point: Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter series of novels – it’s mediocre literature at best, but it allowed a number of very talented artists to develop fascinating, charismatic characters and compelling stories, both in cinema and on TV.

(2) In my personal view, both novels are on the edge of fantasy and slipstream, but I appreciate that not everyone will agree with this one.