Suppose money were no object: Would you declare in your will that, upon your death, every effort should be made to preserve your body, and, when technology improves, the best reasonable effort should be made to revive you? If you answered in the affirmative, read Neal Stephenson’s Fall or, Dodge in Hell. It just might change your mind.
Richard “Dodge” Forthrast made such a will. When he died abruptly, his body was preserved. Years later, when the time and technology were ripe, his brain was copied, one axon at a time preserved digitally and downloaded to the cloud. With enough energy, this mind would once again function. What would its experience be like?
All at once, the bind between minds and bodies is severed, and the question of whether minds can exist independent of the bodies that house them is resolved. I don’t fault Stephenson for resolving this thorny problem by narrative fiat – the relationship between minds and bodies remains a profound mystery; we’re not much further along than was Rene Descartes, who, in the seventeenth century, solved the issue by telling us, opaquely, that mind and body were united in the pineal gland.
Dodge made his fortune in gaming. He was worth billions at the time of his untimely death during a medical exam. He had wealth, imagination and access to the very best computing power and artificial intelligence available. When a niece decides its time to energize Dodge’s digital neurons and to bring the replica of his brain to life, Stephenson faces the challenge of portraying the mind’s life after embodiment.
The effort disappoints, although Stephenson’s efforts prove a point I’m not sure he intended to demonstrate.
At once, Dodge brings forth form and matter, much like God in Genesis. Dodge creates a world and declares it to be good, bringing things into being and shaping items for no reason other than that he could and that they please him. He is omnipotent, but within limits. The world he creates resembles the world his body left behind; it’s almost as if this disembodied mind’s imagination is limited by what the body it left behind experienced. Twice, by my count, there are passing references to Immanuel Kant; Stephenson doesn’t say as much, but so much of Dodge’s afterlife is little more than an extended proof of Kant’s synthetic a prioris, those categories making possible our perception of the world.
Dodge is the first in this new world. He is the prime mover. We are in deep metaphysical territory, awakening to a new world.
Except, it’s the world he left behind, recast, redone. It’s mortality redux.
Soon, others arrive, no doubt as their deaths in “meatworld” – the grimy place we readers inhabit – yield their entrance into the cloud and promise of immortality. They become lesser gods, uncannily reminiscent of the gods of Greek myth. Indeed, they inhabit a place much like Mount Olympus, and are regarded as lesser gods by those who follow.
In time, Adam and Eve emerge. They are cast from paradise and struggle amid other beings – whiffs of the monstrous giants of the Old Testament, the Nephilim, are impossible to shake. A tower of Babel collapses, the inhabitants of this new world engage in the venal squabbling of Old Testament tribes.
Milton makes an appearance when the disembodied mind of meatworld arrival of Dodge’s arrives in cyber world. This new force has more computing power, more electricity firing his neurons, and he casts Dodge into outer darkness. Paradise Lost, anyone? Is that Ahab storming across the cyber seas?
In the end, Dodge regains his throne, love conquers, and Dodge is reunited with the niece he loves. A nearly 900-page journey ends with good triumphing over evil, and love conquering the day.
All of which to say, why bother?
I began the book with expectation about what a master storyteller could relay about our deepest hopes and how technology could make them come true. I ended resolving to reread yet again Augustine’s Confessions. It is appointed to us once to die; what is to come, we take on faith. If the effort to craft our own versions of immortality results simply in eternal recurrence of the same, I, for one, am left with the simple conviction that the destination is not worth the effort.
None of us asked for the lives we are given; we take on faith the ground upon which we walk. One day, and too soon, the end comes for each of us. An afterlife? I say its better to accept whatever comes on faith – indeed, we have no real choice. If the best we can do, and, in Stephenson’s hands it’s good, very good, is recreate the epics and myths that sustain us, then I say its better simply to play the role we are granted and utter, humbly, “come sweet death.”
Hell, it turns out, is our own making. Such grace as we can experience must find us. It comes are the dark wings of angels whose wings we can hear, but never see.
We live in dangerous times, and it won’t take much to destroy the accomplishments of generations. This much is clear after the mass shootings last week in El Paso, Texas. Twenty people were killed, and 26 more wounded, by a young white male. It was an act of domestic terrorism by a white supremacist, people were quick to assert.
Not so fast.
Although police are still investigating, the narrative arising from the killing is clear enough. Twenty-one-year-old Patrick Crusius of Allen, Texas, is suspected of driving 10 hours from his home to El Paso, tucked along the border with Mexico. Just minutes before the shootings, he is believed to have posted a manifesto of sorts online to explain his violence.
"I'm probably going to die today," he says, in a post entitled “The Inconvenient Truth.” The screed protests against an Hispanic invasion, and justifies the shooting by saying ““if we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can be more sustainable.”
As The New York Times reported: “The El Paso shooting, if the manifesto is linked to the gunman, potentially underscored the global spread of white supremacist ideology in the age of social media and at a time when immigration in America and elsewhere has become a divisive political topic.”
Is Crusius a “white supremacist”? Is defending your way of life a sign of craven “nationalism”? I have my doubts.
I keep thinking of Niccolo Machiavelli, a 16th century Italian writer best known for a short book entitled The Prince, a realpolitik primer on how to rule. But Machiavelli wrote a longer, and lesser known work, entitled The Discourses. It was an extended commentary on Livy’s History of Rome. What could Livy teach Italians of Machiavelli’s time about how to unite a people?
What can Machiavelli teach us?
Machiavelli warned about conflicts driven by mass migration where “an entire people, constrained by famine or war, leave their country with their families for the purpose of seeking a new home in a new country … when an entire people aims to possess itself of a country and to live upon that which gives support to its original inhabitants, it must necessarily destroy them all.”
Our debate about immigration is fueled by mass migration to this country. That migration is a product of climate change, violence, poverty and lack of opportunity elsewhere. Given our history, we should open the borders and let everyone come, the better to build a stronger, more diverse nation, or so the argument goes.
Folks like Crusius aren’t so sure. They’re afraid that we cannot take care of folks already here; welcoming more to our shores could make a difficult situation worse. At what point do we say to the teeming nations of the world, “time out,” we need first to cure what ails us before offering aid to any and all?
Yes, Crusius is a white male. In the emerging narrative of our times, he possesses “white male privilege,” an existential chit that gives him a leg up in terms of life chances. Fairness demands that he recognize the privilege and accept the claims of others who don’t possess the privilege. Distributive justice requires that he yield pride of place to the historically disadvantaged.
Put another way, Crusius has been put on notice: What you have taken for granted is not so. Your identity is a social problem. You must take account of the claims of others; justice requires that you yield pride of place, and, perhaps, even pay reparations to those who have not enjoyed your historic advantages. We’re gonna balance history’s scale right now.
And here’s the kicker: If Crusius raises questions about these new and novel claims of social justice, he is labeled a supremacist. It’s small wonder that in a world in which being a white male has come to be regarded as morally suspect, some white males lash out, even violently.
Identity politics are a cancer that will erode the social and moral ties binding the republic. I don’t owe you a thing on account of my race, or yours. Reparations? That’s a race-based tax that I simply will not pay. Ever.
I doubt that Crusius is a white supremacist. I suspect he is scared, however. The changing political rhetoric of our time is fueled by demographic change – Caucasians will soon become a minority in the United States. As emerging minorities claim their due, a fading majority looses its hold on what it took for granted.
This will, of course, yield fear, resentment and anxiety. Unless we find a way to build bridges by a vision of something broader and more enduring than mere identity, we will divide, fracture and fail. Machiavelli saw that.
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, St. Paul wrote in his letter to churches in Rome. The profound truth of Catholic theology is that we’re all sinners in need of grace. Identity is a form of idolatry, of the pot claiming entitlement because of the potter’s choice of clay.
One can defend oneself without being a supremacist. I don’t know Crusius, but I don’t see white supremacism, I see another scared sinner, defending with violence against what he fears. I doubt his life was simple; telling him what he owes you to simplify yours isn’t justice, it’s a shakedown.
There will be more shootings of the sort that took place in El Paso. If there are enough of them, we might come to call it a civil war. Crusius, like the election of Donald Trump, was a canary in the mineshaft.
Breath deeply the fumes of our identitarian discontent. Then ask yourself, is this the future you want? There has to be a better way.