Rich guy doesn’t care about poor people. Big news, right? Dog bites man. Piss trickles downhill. Pope shits in the woods.
That was my take on the first part of Fall, or, Dodge in Hell . I wrote to you a couple of weeks ago about the elitist memetics of this newest Neal Stephenson novel.
Abi Robertson at The Varge agrees: “it’s also unbearably plodding, perhaps because it’s full of people who are too rich and clever to have skin in humanity’s miserable game”.
Indeed, on page 521 Mr. Stephenson hand-waves a character growth moment with this clever and approachable turn of phrase:
“Having a lot of free time and a lot of money made this easier.”
And this is only one of dozens of similar plot points, which all boil down to rich people and their infinite power to enact their whims. I won’t spoil everything for you here (and it wouldn’t matter if I did; those of you who were going to read it still will and those of you who weren’t won’t). But it’s obvious that Mr. Stephenson has been spending time in billionaire bizarroland, where people have so much money that things don’t seem to have costs.
In the spectrum of story conflicts – you know, person vs. person, person vs. nature, person vs. self, etc. – what is this supposed to be? Person vs. nothing? Money vs. death? Author vs. suspension of disbelief?
The part I was so aggravated by last time, with the fake-news explosion and the reality community self-driving through barbaric Ameristan? That’s not even the book. Not even the setup. It’s an entirely different book, a 300-page early Stephenson book sewn under the skin of a 600-page late Stephenson book.
One thing that a lot of money can do is make you immune to editors. I imagine that the latter book is what the publishers signed up for, and the extended throat-clearing beginning is what they had to accept. The man has made millions of dollars selling huge info-dumpy novels; are you going to tell him to cut the whole first act?
Once he gets down to the story itself it’s decently entertaining. The essence of the story is that the rich people build a million computers so that they can simulate the brains of even richer people who are dead.
The first of these is Dodge, a power-fantasy author avatar from a previous novel. He imagines into being a world not unlike our own, and a humanoid body for himself. With wings, of course. Then other people are booted up in his world, and he finds himself a god. Because, of course, computing power is not infinite, and he has absorbed so much of it for himself.
The rest of the book jumps between Bitworld and Meatspace, juggling the doings of various human and digital people over decades. The epic battles between Dodge and his nemesis, the dead billionaire-god El, are the focus of the next million pages, until it all wraps up with a convenient high-fantasy quest.
By which point, we are led to believe, humanity has phased off Earth almost entirely. Algorithms program robots which build power plants in space. The self-assembling computer robots will continue to mine asteroids and maintain the Bitworld programs indefinitely, until the Sun is surrounded in a perfect sphere of solar panels and all energy in our system is devoted to the ancestor simulation. Video game singularity.
He even has a character that’s explicitly from a world above ours, to whom we are the simulation. The structure of the book, and the ideas presented in it, clarify the purpose of this memetic construct.
For it is a construct, after all, a program written in the English language and interpreted by our minds. To the magician, that precious belief unlocked by the context of “science fiction book” is the finite computing power in which he can simulate a world. And, in turn, influence the material realm.
Mr. Stephenson is projecting our universe “downward” into this digital Eden, even as he receives signals from “above”, where this has already happened. He probably thinks he’s “an emissary of sorts from another plane of existence” as well. He’s here to transform the planet into a giant gaming rig.
Maybe he is! I don’t know the extent of the multiverse. It’s possible that the books listed in the acknowledgements have an ironclad case for the simulation hypothesis. What I do know is that there’s a very real machine computing our existence and in which we make our intelligent constructs: DNA.
Life itself is an ever-growing multiplicity of proteins and nucleotides. It’s a staggering huge parallel computation that already uses much of the solar energy that hits the earth. It is, in fact, the surface on which the software you think of as your “identity” is compiled.
We all have holographic copies of the world in our heads. Don’t believe me? Close your eyes, turn your head, and reach for some nearby object. DO IT.
Did you find it? Could you feel the shape, in your mind, of the furniture and props around you? Can you right now imagine the scene behind you, without looking? It’s because you have a 3D model of the world in your brain, constantly updated to match new info. Sometimes the framerate gets choppy, as when drunk: then you might crash, or blackout. Consciousness is already an elaborate simulation machine, and it’s running on just a few pounds of wetware in your skull.
If the infinite video game singularity is “down” from here, if we have to Fall to get there, and whatever mystical Platonic libertarian world that Neal Stephenson fell from is “up”, then we need to look sideways. We need to look to the other forms of intelligence that operate in the world. We need to listen to the messages that we hear in our bodies: emotions, intuitions, inspirations. There is “another plane of existence whose existence will forever remain mysterious to us” and its portals are found in the inviolable souls of every growing being on this earth.
The real Hell in this book isn’t the posthuman Bitworld. It’s the callous lack of care Mr. Stephenson shows to the people of Meatspace. Occasionally he mentions some amazing life-extension benefits that, of course, are completely affordable to the ultra-rich protagonists. But the ever-increasing numbers of people entering Bitworld points to a rapid depopulation of the earth. He implies that people stop being interested in procreation, because they know of an eternal afterlife. But lots of people have believed in an eternal afterlife, historically, and that didn’t stop them from fuckin’, did it?
No, those people are dying because they can’t afford to be alive. There’s only one glancing mention of climate change in this entire foot-thick book. In an era where we’re faced with rapid depopulation and mass migration, the security state he coddles in the first part of the book is both creepy and genocidal. The immortality-financing programs in the second are worse. Make no mistake, this is an exterminist future.
The problem with our world isn’t that it was built by a mad god and runs according to no logic. The problem with our world is that a handful of people have been hoarding the computing power on which we should be running utopia. And they’re using it to simulate the most idiotic fantasies.
Mr. Stephenson would have you believe that the masses are self-indulgent idiots who don’t know what’s good for the world, but he and his billionaire friends have made it clear that they are no better. Instead we should ask the world itself what’s good for the world. The rivers, the atmosphere, the ecological communities that we can’t live without should have the power. Not the blood-drunk one percent.
We need emissaries from a sideways plane of existence.
Thanks for reading,
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