Talking to Neal Stephenson, Whose New Novel, ‘Fall,’ is at No. 14
There’s some real movement on the fiction list this week: “Where the Crawdads Sing,” which has been ensconced at No. 1 for months, has been bumped to No. 2 by Elin Hilderbrand’s “Summer of ’69,” while Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut, “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” enters the list at No. 10. Neal Stephenson’s heady “Paradise Lost”-inspired epic, “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell,” sits at No. 14.
In his review of “Fall” for The Times, Charles Yu writes, “The mind-melting density of detail in Stephenson’s work can sometimes overwhelm or bog down the narrative, but in ‘Fall’ it is very much in service of the book’s subject: reality, and how it might one day be simulated.”
Stephenson admits that he’s “fascinated by deepfakes” and, as he says, “by the prospect that, in a few years, all mediated experiences — anything you see on a screen, basically — will be completely delegitimized. The only experiences that people will consider real are ones that they have in the flesh. That’s a complete reversal of the direction we’ve been going since the invention of television.”
In “Fall,” after a billionaire dies during a routine medical procedure, scientists scan and store the contents of his brain. Years later, when technology improves, they are able to restore his consciousness, giving him a kind of digital afterlife.
“Unlike some of my hard science fiction books, such as ‘Seveneves’ — where I sweated the details of orbits, rocket engines, etc. — ‘Fall’ is meant to be read as more of a fable,” Stephenson explains. “I’m not making any pretense in this book that the neuroscience and the computer science are plausible. My approach was to take a particular way of thinking around brains and the uploading of human consciousness into digital form, and just say, ‘Suppose this is all true; let’s run with it and see where it takes us on a pure storytelling level.’”
Just as “Fall” came out, Reason magazine published a piece posing “the possibility that Neal Stephenson is Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous inventor of Bitcoin,” pointing out that Stephenson had sketched out the basics of cryptocurrency in a book long before Bitcoin appeared. We aren’t going to touch the Stephenson-as-Nakamoto theory; we’ll just note that it’s not the first time someone has pointed out the novelist’s knack for predicting the future.
“The best way to write predictive fiction is to predict a large number of different things, wait a few years and then take credit for the ones that sort of came true,” Stephenson says. “For me, any illusions that I was a reliable predictor of the future were dispelled by the 2016 election.”