A text-based role-playing game built on big philosophical ideas

Speculation about a cyber life after death offers fertile ground for the seeds of Neal Stephenson’s imagination to grow in his novel Fall Or, Dodge In Hell.
Speculation about a cyber life after death offers fertile ground for the seeds of Neal Stephenson’s imagination to grow in his novel Fall Or, Dodge In Hell.

SCIENCE FICTION

FALL OR, DODGE IN HELL

By Neal Stephenson

William Morrow/883 pages/ $54.30 with GST from Books Kinokuniya

3 stars

Neal Stephenson is a hardcore geek. This is a fact worth reiterating if you are to plough through this new novel, weighing in at almost 900 pages. The narrative is, in essence, a very lengthy text-based RPG (role-playing game) built on a foundation of very big philosophical ideas.

Fans will not be fazed by the length. But depending on whether you are a fan of his riproaring action adventures (a la Reamde and Seveneves) or his brainier nerd books (Quicksilver and Anathem), you will find this book either tedious (former) or thought-provoking (latter).

The titular protagonist, Richard "Dodge" Forthrast, will be familiar as the video game tycoon has appeared in Reamde. It is not a spoiler to say that his death triggers the events of this novel although things do not really get going until about 100 pages in.

To cut a long story short, Dodge's death creates complications because his will contains a clause which dictates the preservation of his brain with the expectation that there will be life after death.

Speculation about a cyber life after death offers fertile ground for the seeds of Stephenson's imagination to grow. The book explores, in sometimes painful detail, the lengthy start-stop process through which technology, the law and people interact to produce a cyberworld inhabited by human consciousnesses that get uploaded.

And it is not a case of a technological wand being waved over and, voila!, a conscious mind. Stephenson depicts, in excruciating detail, the slow awakening of Dodge's parallel consciousness in the cyberworld and how it strives to construct a reality in the chaos of cyberspace.

He also introduces an antagonist for Dodge: another bazillionaire, El Shepherd, who has vested interests - both financial and personal - in the cyberlife after death business.

Once you let go of the idea that there has to be a linear plot, Fall is easier to follow. There are meandering detours aplenty, some of which could, if written by lesser mortals, be the basis of an entire novel.

The elaborate conspiracy theory hoax in the first third, where a mysterious troll engineers a viral story about the American desert city of Moab getting nuked, is an intriguing hypothetical exercise that illustrates how easy it is to hijack the online narrative.

An extended subplot revolves around Dodge's niece Sophia and her college friends taking a road trip through a near future American Mid-West that has been Talibanised by a combination of right-wing conservative militants and conspiracy theorists.

This fictional apocalyptic landscape is horrifying because it reads so plausibly as an extrapolation of a likely future based on current scenarios.

The life after death section, which takes up a good half of the book, should be gripping as an imaginative leap from one of the foremost visionaries of sci-fi. Yet it reads like a lengthy demented retelling of Milton's Paradise Lost meets an elaborate Dungeons & Dragons game, complete with quests, accumulation of powers and keys.

Dodge In Hell as a title proves prophetic as the reader, depending on his threshold of tolerance, might find himself lost in this narrative quagmire.

If you like this, read: Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle (comprising three books - Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System Of The World, Arrow Books, $22.95 to $25.04 each, Books Kinokuniya), which attempts to set 17th and 18th century European history as European civilisation's move from mediaeval beliefs to modern rational, scientific thought, centring on a small ensemble cast, including an illiterate adventurer, a freed female slave and the mysterious Enoch Root, who appears in Stephenson's Cryptonomicon and this latest tale.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2019, with the headline 'A text-based role-playing game built on big philosophical ideas'. Print Edition | Subscribe