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CNET Book Club: Neal Stephenson explores the long, weird future in Fall, or Dodge in Hell

We talk about virtual worlds, the terrors of social media and what uploading our minds after death even means.

Neal Stephenson's latest book is intimidating.
Sarah Tew/CNET

If you're looking for a long, dense, wild read this summer, here's one that's 880-plus pages. The weirdly named Fall, or Dodge in Hell is just waiting for you to arrive.

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Neal Stephenson, whose 1992 book Snow Crash defined virtual worlds and the "metaverse" as much as William Gibson's Neuromancer did cyberspace, has written a number of amazing and challenging books: The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, Anathem, Seveneves. His latest book shares the same characters as Reamde, a 2011 book about online game worlds, gold farming and terror cells. But Fall also stands on its own. Richard Forthrast, a legendary game designer, dies and ends up having his brain scanned and uploaded. His consciousness lives on in a virtual afterlife. Meanwhile, the real world keeps going on...and getting increasingly strange.

Stephenson is the master of long-scale science fiction: his book Anathem explored civilizations spanning eons, Seveneves starts in the present, and follows the survivors of the destruction of Earth over thousands of years. Fall, or Dodge in Hell starts about now, and moves forward about a hundred years... or more. I won't spoil the rest. "It's not a conscious thing," Stephenson says about his recent trend toward time-spanning books. "I think it's true of a lot of fantasy and science fiction that it's all about world building. And a lot of the time, in many cases, those worlds span long periods of time."

Part of Fall, or Dodge in Hell feels like a nightmare critique of current life: a meme-destroyed America can no longer tell truth from fiction, and augmented reality glasses make reality bend even further. To battle the overbearing flow of information, everyone has personal editors that curate their feeds... which leads to more reality bubbles. Stephenson admits that our current reality has gotten stranger and darker than most science fiction: "People talk about dystopian fiction and dystopian writers. But we're in the dystopia right now, because of what social media is doing to our civic institutions and our society."

But Fall goes further, spinning past that. A good half of the book takes place in a digital afterlife patterned on Forthrast's fantasy online game worlds, and starts to become a sprawling fantasy novel. Biblical overtones abound, with angels, Adam and Eve, and a storyline that Stephenson says is inspired by Paradise Lost. 

It's not easy sailing. The book's level of detail is often daunting. Some sections seem to last forever. I found myself glued to it all, though. And, weeks after I finished reading, the ideas are burning in my brain. Some chapters have ideas that could seed full novels of their own.


The inside cover of Fall, or Dodge in Hell, with a mysterious map.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The book has maps, by the way, a tip of the hat to sprawling epics like Lord of the Rings. "I've always loved fantasy and science fiction books with maps in them: you know, ever since Lord of the Rings, and Dune, and so on," says Stephenson. "I've always wanted to do one of those. And the new twist, in this case, is that instead of the landscape being a fixed thing that's always been there, it...kind of gets built out over time into a fully realized world." While a digital version is far more portable, seeing the occasional maps pop up in the book (there's a reason for them) makes the physical version worth it. 

And by the way, if you're a frequent Stephenson reader, this book shares many familiar characters as other books: the Shaftoes and the Waterhouses of the Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon, and the ever-enigmatic character Enoch Root. Fall shares the same universe with those books and Reamde, but Stephenson says that this might be the end of that: "I mean, never say never. But right now, I would say it's a cycle that I have written. I think we've kind of wound that up with this latest book."

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About CNET Book Club

The Book Club is hosted by a pair of self-proclaimed book experts: Dan Ackerman (author of the nonfiction video game history book The Tetris Effect), and Scott Stein, a playwright and screenwriter. We'll be announcing our next Book Club selection soon, so send us your suggestions and keep an eye out for updates on Twitter at @danackerman and @jetscott.

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