Neal Stephenson’s New Novel — Part Tech, Part Fantasy — Dazzles
From there, Stephenson begins to leap forward in time, in fits and starts, the story eventually spanning several decades. Along the way, he manages many sharp bits of social satire. An elaborate DDoS attack exploits the filter bubbles through which reality is mediated for large portions of the population. A portrait emerges of an America divided: the United States enclosing within it another nation, Ameristan, the borders of which are “not a line on a map,” impossible to demarcate and having “no official reality” but nevertheless all too real in effect. A country in which those with means can afford to hire personal “editors” whose “sole job was to filter incoming and outgoing information,” while those who can’t afford the privilege are more likely to have unfiltered exposure to “flumes … of porn, propaganda and death threats, 99.9 percent of which were algorithmically generated.”
For a good long while in the middle, the novel alternates between realms, digital and analog. Early choices, or sometimes relatively arbitrary initial conditions, end up shaping future events and technologies. In this case, the cosmology, topography and even the theology of an entire universe — Bitworld — affect Meatspace, and the two realms are linked in a feedback loop of cause and effect, resources and outcomes (dollars, computing power).
Without spoiling too much, the last quarter of the book, itself the length of a fairly decent-sized novel, reads like high fantasy — expertly written fanfic of some long-running swords-and-wizards epic. Or an exhaustive transcript of every turn, saving throw and dice roll of the most elaborate Dungeons and Dragons campaign of all time. Has Neal Stephenson flipped genres, mid-book? What is this fantasy doing in my science fiction? Although the action lags a bit in this final section, narratively it is the inevitable (if surprising) endpoint of the story that began all those years ago when Dodge died. No matter how far afield it might seem, it’s all of a piece, derived rigorously from Stephenson’s initial premises. This is hard sci-fi, but it goes so far in its speculative extrapolation toward that end of the spectrum that it hits the end, goes through and comes back around the other side. The result is a story that touches on society, technology, spirituality and even eschatology, a far-reaching attempt at a grand myth that is breathtaking in scope and ambition.
There are clunky bits. Segues into “techsposition” barely even try to disguise themselves. Infelicitous acronyms pile up like tech scrap in the back of a computer repair shop, bits and pieces, capitalized letters strung together. And for all of the scrupulous detail paid to certain aspects of the world-at-large of the story, other aspects are completely ignored. Understandably, perhaps — otherwise this book might be twice as long.
Early on in “Fall,” Stephenson describes what he calls the Hand met Spiegelende Bol Problem, or Hand with Reflecting Sphere, based on M. C. Escher’s lithograph:
“It was a self-portrait depicting the artist reflected in a mirrored sphere supported in his left hand. Escher’s face was in the middle, but a geometrically distorted rendering of his office could be seen around it. In the background of that was a window. This, of course, was gathering in light from at least 93 million miles away. The point being that in order to make a faithful 3-D computer graphics rendering of an object as simple as a shiny ball, you would, in theory, have to take into account every object in the universe.”
It’s as good an example as any of the fractal complexity of “Fall,” a work that, like David Deutsch’s “The Fabric of Reality” (which Stephenson cites in his acknowledgments as an influence), is a one-of-a-kind synthesis of daring and originality, unafraid to venture into wild and unmapped conceptual territory.