The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “underwhelm” as “Fail to impress or make a positive impact on (someone)” and “disappoint”. The opposite of that, then, would seem to be ‘succeed in making a positive impact’ but, like much in the English language, the obvious is not actually proven to be accurate. Much in literary fiction is underwhelming – failing to whelm, I suppose – due to a range of factors, including not living up to an author’s past performance or perceived potential, and failing to meet expectations or increased hype.
Nevertheless, the word “overwhelm” – though not used in the same context as its apparent opposite – is the perfect descriptor for Neal Stephenson’s most recent mammoth entry into his larger oeuvre, Fall, or Dodge in Hell. Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “bury or drown beneath a huge mass of something” or “give too much of something”, the word “overwhelm” is thus a perfect way to describe my experience with Fall.
Because, there are two things that must be made immediately clear: I loved Fall, and yet I have absolutely no idea how to review this book.
Even taking into consideration the specific lens through which it is best to read and review a Neal Stephenson novel – which I recently dealt with in my review for Stephenson’s Reamde – Fall, or Dodge in Hell is both a masterful tour de force and a horribly convoluted mishmash of novellas. Again, to be very clear, I loved this book, but I spent the entire book absolutely baffled as to how anyone is supposed to make sense of this long enough to review it in a way that is in any way beneficial to others.
I guess, as a young Austrian nun once opined, we should start at the very beginning, for it is a very good place to start.
As is already widely known – though, as someone who does not follow the necessary blogs and Twitter accounts, it was not widely known to me – Fall, or Dodge in Hell is, in many ways, the culmination of much of Stephenson’s writing over the past two decades – ever since he published Cryptonomicon back in 1999, and followed it up quickly thereafter with the three-part Baroque Cycle. There are links to all of these books, as well as a much more direct and sequel-ish link to 2011’s Reamde – which, for me, when I came across those hints, forced me into a position where I had to go and actually finish reading Reamde (see the aforementioned review).
Thus, Fall follows on from where Reamde leaves off, and the events hinted at in the book’s blurb quickly come to fruition, though not in the way I had predicted (and dreaded).
Given the way in which Seveneves was written – Stephenson’s most recently published book, which read as a full-length novel with a novella-length coda tacked on at the end – the blurb for Fall certainly provided us with a certain sense of how it would be written. This sense – I had assumed we would be provided with a novella-length story tacked onto the beginning of the story Stephenson actually wanted to tell – was entirely incorrect, and instead, we are given a well-paced, very Stephenson-esque development of ‘the singularity’ – defined again by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence and other technologies have become so advanced that humanity undergoes a dramatic and irreversible change.”
Fall, therefore, remains a lesson in whatever Neal Stephenson has been reading lately, and what Neal Stephenson has been reading lately obviously has a lot to do with the technical, legal, sociological, and religious ramifications and repercussions of whole brain emulation – which is to say, a point in our not-so-distant future (or so suggests Stephenson) when technology advances to such a point as to enable human brains to be wholly scanned, coped, stored, and uploaded to a virtual world.
This, then, is where Fall falls apart – so to speak – but it falls apart in a very Stephenson-esque manner which, for those of us who like his writing and relish any opportunity to undergo a crash-course in Whatever Neal Stephenson Has Been Reading Lately 101, is eminently enjoyable. The only problem for me, therefore, was how to review what essentially amounted to a collection of Tolkien-esque fantasy novellas surrounded very loosely by a framing narrative that, by the end of the book, serves very little purpose but to provide a few technical insights as to the goings-on in the digital afterlife which had long been front and centre.
And, I want to make it clear, I am not using the phrase “Tolkien-esque” lightly: There were numerous times throughout Fall where I got the incredible sense that I was reading Tolkien – and not just any Tolkien, but specifically Silmarillion Tolkien, focusing on creation narratives and mythic deities. Stephenson works really hard to create a fully functioning Secondary world – defined by Tolkien as a world “which your mind can enter” and inside of which what the author “Relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, p. 132) More than just the depth of Stephenson’s narrative and storytelling, however, was the manner in which he cribbed on Tolkien’s views and own fictive threads, such as the link between music and creation, or the mythic governance and battles of this new digital afterlife.
Throughout the novel, then, the “real world” begins to fade into insignificance as the digital afterlife begins to become the priority. This, of course, is likely an intentional reflection of the way in which Stephenson sees and portrayed the flesh-and-blood humans stepping aside in favour of their digital counterparts. Breeding becomes something of an odd human quirk, rather than the instinctive drive we see around us. And while this can at times make for disjointed storytelling – when you are jumping literally between two parallel yet interconnected (and let’s not even begin to try and work out the place of characters like Enoch Root) storylines, and where actions on the outside not only impact, but translate into the digital afterlife and define the actions of its inhabitants – Stephenson does hold onto the thread, and you are never left confused as to where you are or what is going on.
In many ways, then, Fall, or Dodge in Hell is both Stephenson’s most concentrated and focused narrative, reliant less on multi-page-long discursive discussions (though in no way absent of them, either) and more on the author’s ability to keep a consistent narrative thread in a story specifically designed to cut those threads. And while the disjointed nature of the storytelling leaves this reviewer perplexed as to how to judge the whole, and the scale of what is being written seems to overwhelm the page at times, this same reader was nevertheless thrilled with what – at least on the surface – appears to be a magisterial conclusion to two decades of masterful storytelling.
Review by Joshua S Hill
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