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.