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Talking to Neal Stephenson, Whose New Novel, ‘Fall,’ is at No. 14


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.”

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