Saturday, November 26, 2022

Neal Stephenson, "Fall" (2019)

So just suppose we really figure out how to scan dying people's brains so they can live again in a digital world. What would that be like?

In Fall: or, Dodge in Hell, Neal Stephenson approaches this question from several angles, which is the sort of thing you can do when all your books are 800 pages long. The story begins in the near future, with the death of billionaire videogame company founder Dodge Forthrast. It turns out that many years ago, apparently without thinking very hard about it, he signed a contract with a group that planned to put bodies in cryofreeze for future revivification. But that entity went bankrupt, and anyway the contract said that the preservation should be done with the "best available" preservation technique. After a legal struggle, it is decided that the best available preservation technique is to scan Dodge's brain with an electron beam, recording all the connections between his neurons. The vast file containing this data is stored on a computer at the Forthrast Family Foundation, where nobody knows what to do with it.

Then, 15 years or so later, Doge's grandniece crosses a strange America divided between civilized cities and rural areas where civilization is collapsing because of conspiracy theories run amok. This was actually my favorite part of the book, although it is short and not relevant to the main story. Then the niece, working as an intern at the foundation, decides to "flip the switch" and activate Dodge's brain.

This action will be controversial forever after, but what is done is done. Dodge comes to life, or a sort of life, alone, in a world of chaos. He has only vague memories of his previous existence, and as he brings a world into being around him, he draws on his half remembered time on earth. Starting from a single red leaf, he slowly creates a continent. 

From there we enter the realm of myth: a bit of Genesis, some Titanomachy, a hint of Ragnarok. A world takes form in a digital space, and as more and more people are scanned, it has more and more inhabitants. To the disappointment of many who are watching from meatspace, the world becomes depressingly like our own, with a ruling class, race slavery, the punishment of heresy, murder, war, etc. Billionaires are able to launch their avatars with extra resources, ensuring themselves leadership spots.  

In the final section the world is dominated by a vengeful god (a former billionaire) with an army of angels and another of human slaves, and a plot is hatched at the Forthrast Foundation to somehow overthrow him. Then the story switches into another sort of mode, as a group of Characters embark on a Quest, almost a parody of Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft.

Fall is a puzzling book. It is extremely inventive and the writing is good, but everything about the digital world and its inhabitants disturbed me. I kept thinking, why that? Why not something totally different? And, the thing that bothered me the most: without your memories, are you really you?

No answers are given as to many details, but I suppose if Stephenson had explored questions like "Why only one continent? Why didn't someone else make another one?" the book would have been even longer. He does have an answer to one of the biggest questions, why the digital world has to end up something like our own: because we made it, and that is the only world we know how to make.

So, some questions: 

Would you like to live another life as a digital avatar?

Would you want your digital avatar to live in an earthlike world, with gravity, land, sea, and sky, with plants and animals and food and work and sex? Or would you want something completely different?

Can you imagine something completely different?

If, instead of a life in an artificial world, the system just made you feel blissfully happy, would that be better? What would your blissful happiness be like?


Shadow said...

If you don't have your memories, you don't have your experiences, so you can't share remembrances, which is a big part of being who you are. So I say no, it isn't you. But what does it mean to say, we copied the pathways, so they are the same? I'm not looking for a description of the process; I'm looking for what it really means to do that?

szopeno said...

Damn, another telepat. With a time machine. That's sort of question I am struggling with since thirty years or so. Always wanted to write a book with quite similar themes as you described, in fact, including the plot to overthrow ruling "avatar" of the unreal world.

szopeno said...

Yet another proof I live in a simulation and none of you is in fact real :P