Neal Stephenson is one of the great authors of contemporary sci-fi—not only because he’s widely read, but also because his work unabashedly high-fives working scientific theories. Never one to underestimate his readers, Stephenson loves to wade in and explain interesting ideas kicking around the worlds of science, technology, and engineering, and then wrap them all up in a gripping speculative tale.
His newest work Fall: or, Dodge in Hell actually opens in modern-day Seattle (Stephenson is a Seattleite), and playfully jabs at his chosen city before setting to its purpose of exploring the future of social media, online identity, and the pursuit of eternal life. Like his 2015 space epic Seveneves, Fall tallies up nearly 900 pages, which I read at a running pace before conducting the following interview.
What are your feelings on spoilers? Should we avoid spoilers?
It’s almost impossible, with this one, not to do some spoiling.
Fall: or, Dodge in Hell centers on wealthy tech company founder Dodge Forthrast, who has his brain scanned and uploaded to a multiplayer game for dead people. The game ends up taking on a Dungeons & Dragons meets John Milton-esque Paradise Lost adventure scenario. Is that too spoilery?
That’s fair. But although we might define it as a game, the people that are in it think it’s real. As real as you and I believe our world is.
Fall includes characters from your 2011 “techno thriller” Reamde, but it stands alone and has a very different tone. Do you consider Fall a sequel to Reamde?
I avoid calling it a sequel because that raises expectations that it’s going to pick up where that one left off and be a similar type of story. It’s not really like Reamde. Fall is a combination of science fiction and fantasy. It transitions from one to the other. There’s a lot of readers of science fiction that also really like fantasy—and vice versa—so I’m hoping that they enjoy the blending of those two ways of writing.
Fall follows the death of a wealthy man whose will stipulates he be preserved for future reanimation and the people trying to work that out. They are aided by the massive wealth of various tech entrepreneurs who feel like parallels of our own real world—ultra-powerful CEOs shooting cars into space and restructuring our economy. Is Fall commenting on our powerful elites or the amassing of resources for technological leaps?
In the particular case of this book, it was a handy narrative device. I was trying to set up a story where, as you say, a dead person—and, later, more dead people—could be scanned and uploaded into the cloud. Practically speaking, that’s a hard thing to justify or explain unless the first people who do it have tons of money. It’s not really a comment on whether that’s a wise way for things to be, or a wise use of money. It’s just the reality of how things are today, so it was convenient for me to use as a springboard.
There’s a good amount of research supporting theories that our consciousness doesn’t just live in our brains. There’s our genes, which might carry memories or traumas from our ancestors, and our gut microbiome, which seems to influence our moods and actions. Did you decide to shove all that to the side and just go with: I’m writing a science-fiction book about uploading a guy’s brain?
Yes, that is what I did. I actually do talk a little bit about what you just mentioned over the course of the book. At the beginning, they’re totally brain-focused, so they believe they can get everything they need just by scanning the brain. Later on, they improve their procedures and they start doing full body scans. That’s an example of me trying to take a page out of real science, as I understand it, and work it into the book, but there’s a lot of other ways in which I’m taking liberties.
Fall paints some lovely character portraits of personality types we often find in the tech industry. Is Fall a love letter to tech nerds?
Clearly there’s lots of nerds in my books, and the landscape of the modern tech industry is a common setting for a number of the books I’ve written. I’ve definitely got some affection for some aspects of that culture, but I’m not trying to be one-sidedly positive about it. There’s some downsides, which I think I touch on as well.
Right. The main antagonist, Elmo Shepherd, is also a tech mogul.
The whole struggle between those two is a big theme. The clash of management styles, if you will.
What are the two styles?
In the one case, you’ve got [Elmo] who has an extremely strong vision of how he thinks it all ought to work. When it goes wrong, he intervenes into what he sees as chaos. Then you’ve got Dodge, who’s just sort of making it up as he goes.