Book Review: Fall, or Dodge in Hell

I always look forward to a new Neal Stephenson book. I love how he takes ideas and builds around them. His books make me think in ways few other books can and Fall is no different. Except . . .

The book’s first half was completely solid. Stephenson explores a whole slew of different concepts. What “identity” really means, and what it might be like to have your consciousness uploaded to the cloud. It’s a near-future science fiction book that ultimately asks the question: “What would it be like to live inside a simulation,” and the natural follow up: “Are we living inside a simulation right now?”

That’s a concept I’ve already devoted some thoughts to, so it was great to be able to read Stephenson’s take on things. (As far as my own personal thoughts, I find it fascinating that computing is getting to the point now that it’s not an entirely huge stretch to extrapolate a system where we all could live permanently without ever needing to leave. A sort of Matrix-esque lifestyle, without the nefarious machine overlords. There’s a whole slew of religious overlaps this could have implications on, but I’m not going to go into those in the middle of a book review.)

The big problem for me with this book happens once it goes into its second act and begins to explore an example simulation more fully. I don’t want to give any more spoilers about that content, but I will say my central complaint is the rules and restrictions of this new world are so vague that I never had a real idea of how the central obstacles could be overcome. Instead, there’s a series of problems that pop up one after the other that make the central objective feel very arbitrary, as if it’s all being made up as it goes along.

That’s a problem in a novel. You don’t want to get to the point where it feels like the author’s just stringing things along to stretch the conflict out. Any story can be short. “Frodo took the ring to Mount Doom and threw it in.” The end. What makes a story interesting and captivating (for me, at least) is when I understand ahead of time what the obstacles are between Frodo and Mount Doom. Why it’s so difficult. Once that’s set, then I’ll happily go along for the ride to see how it all goes down.

Imagine, however, what it would have been like if you don’t hear anything about what’s between Frodo and Mount Doom or even how far away it is, and instead you get a series of “and then a bunch of . . . goblins showed up! Yeah. Goblins!” And you didn’t even know goblins existed, let alone that they might be a problem for Frodo. It would all just start to feel like padding.

That’s what the second half of this book felt like to me, and that was deeply disappointing. Not to the point that I’d give it 1 star or anything. I still enjoyed the work overall. But the second half had none of Stephenson’s strengths, which was a shame, especially since at that point, the ending was fairly clear, and so it was just a matter of getting to the point where it could finally finish.

Overall, a great first half and a meh second half that together just ends up with “mid to good.” 6/10 stars. If you’re a fan of Stephenson or the concept, I’d still check it out. Otherwise . . . might not be worth the long read.

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