Science-fiction master Neal Stephenson blends high tech and high fantasy in ‘Fall’

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Neal Stephenson
Science-fiction author Neal Stephenson, shown here at a 2018 Town Hall event in Bellevue, Wash., uses Seattle as a setting in his latest novel, “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell.” (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Are we living in a simulation? Is there an afterlife? And if not, what would it take to create one? Seattle science-fiction author Neal Stephenson knits together ideas as old as the Bible and as up to date as Elon Musk’s musings in an epic 880-page novel titled “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell.”

“Fall” takes its rightful place alongside Stephenson’s earlier works, including 1991’s “Snow Crash,” which anticipated the rise of virtual and augmented reality; 1995’s “The Diamond Age,” which celebrated nanotechnology and neo-Victorianism; and 2015’s “Seveneves,” a tale that started with the moon’s mysterious destruction.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates rated “Seveneves” among his favorite books, saying that it contained “so many cool ideas, memorable characters and good storylines that I can’t cover them all.” I can hardly wait to hear what he says about Stephenson’s latest.

“Fall” takes readers on a totally different flight of fancy, blending topics from neuroscience to technoculture to the ideological divisions that are splitting America into red and blue.

Stephenson says the book’s plot is a “thought experiment” that focuses on the possibility that a person’s mind or memories can be preserved digitally after death. Believe it or not, this is actually a thing: Alcor Life Extension has been freezing heads for more than 40 years. More recently, a Bay Area startup called Nectome has been looking into other controversial methods of brain preservation.

Uploading the mind may sound way-out, but that’s just the beginning of Stephenson’s story. As the spotlight shifts from the real world to digital reconstructions, characters create a virtual afterlife that echoes Greco-Roman myths, Jewish-Christian traditions and more recent sagas such as “Lord of the Rings” and “Game of Thrones.” I wouldn’t be surprised if someone on Reddit eventually comes up with a map of Stephenson’s virtual world, drawn in the style of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth or George R.R. Martin’s Westeros.

Stephenson is viewed as one of the pioneers of the cyberpunk literary genre, but writing speculative fiction isn’t his only avenue for exploring the frontiers of technology. He was “present at the origin” of Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. He worked on what he hoped would be a trailblazing sword-fighting video game (but ultimately had to give up the effort). And he currently serves as “Chief Futurist” at Magic Leap, the mysterious augmented-reality venture that has an office in Seattle.

The 59-year-old author and his family have been living in Seattle since 1991, and much of the real-world action in “Fall” is set in familiar locales, including the hospital district on Seattle’s First Hill (a.k.a. “Pill Hill”) and the tech-heavy precincts of South Lake Union. In advance of Stephenson’s Town Hall Seattle conversation on June 3, I talked with him about the book’s Seattle tech vibe as well as the farther-out aspects of “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell.”

Listen to highlights in the podcast above, and continue reading for snippets from the Q&A, edited for brevity and clarity:

GeekWire: For me, the story that you tell serves as a thought experiment: How does consciousness arise? It felt as if you were exploring this idea and playing on the parallels to a religious creation story. Is that what you had in mind, or are you just trying to tell a story without focusing on the deeper philosophical meaning?

Stephenson: “Well, I think if you are trying to talk about consciousness in a serious academic way, and delve into those issues philosophically, you’ve got some heavy sledding — in that it’s a very complicated technical question having to do with the biology of the brain and how that works, coupled to very complicated questions of philosophy: ‘What is consciousness? What is reality?’

Neal Stephenson's "Fall; or, Dodge in Hell"
“Fall; or, Dodge in Hell” is the latest novel by Neal Stephenson. (William Morrow)

“One of the advantages of working in fiction is that one has the freedom to just kind of make some stuff up and tell a story. A thought experiment is, I think, a pretty reasonable way to describe it. Let’s just take a particular set of ideas and run with it, and see what kind of story that might turn into. It’s not meant to be taken terribly seriously.

“Let me draw a contrast between ‘Fall’ and, say, ‘Seveneves’ — where I went to some effort to pay attention to the orbital mechanics and the physics. I’m not saying the whole thing was completely nailed down, scientifically, but it was rooted in at least the science of orbital mechanics. That is not the case with ‘Fall.’ It’s much more free-form jazz as opposed to classical music.”

Q: I wanted to ask about the Seattle setting for the book. In some scenes, it almost reads like a roman a clef for the Seattle tech scene …

A: “I would push back a little against the idea of a ‘roman a clef,’ or the idea of it being a one-for-one mapping of fictional to real people. That’s not how I operate. People love to see patterns in things — which is how we get conspiracy theories, I guess. It’s a lot more holistic than that. It’s taking a range of different entities from that scene and a knowledge of how things fit together in that scene, and then coming up with what I hope are plausible companies and plausible characters.

“It’s not just taking a real company or a real person and slapping a different name on them. But it does emerge from having been around Seattle for a long time during the growth of the tech scene here, and being in contact with a lot of the companies and people and places and situations that characterize that industry.”

Q: A lot of this book has to do with the creation of a virtual world, and I know you’ve been involved with Magic Leap. You probably want to keep those two worlds separate, but is there anything you want to say about creating virtual worlds? Is it a challenge for you as a writer, or a thinker about such things?

A: “Well, I would say it’s easier when you’re just using words. Technology gives us opportunities to also realize those worlds on devices of various kinds. But doing that on some kind of technology takes it out of the realm of individual creative effort, which is where novelists live, and into the realm of collaborative effort. It’s a much higher burn rate. It requires a lot of specialization in terms of the different skill sets that have to be brought into play to make that work. You’re correct in saying that this is separate from that, but obviously there’s some crosstalk.”

Q: I’ve always wondered whether you’ve ever wanted to write a sequel to one of the books you’ve already written, like “Snow Crash” or “Anathem.” You create an entire world, and then you go on and create another world. Do you ever want to go back?

A: “I’m not opposed to it, but in general, when I get to the end of a book, and I’m thinking about which book to write next, the best approach is to look at every possible idea that’s banging around in my head and pick the one that’s got the most potential for growth and exploring new territory.

“If I ever get into a situation where I got nothin’, then circling back to do a sequel to a previous book is a perfectly OK thing to do. But at the end of the day, I can write only so many books during my career, so I’ve got to make some choices. I try to choose in favor of what will create the largest amount of newness.”

Q: You’ve always been careful to guard your time and your attention. Quite a few years ago, you wrote an essay explaining why you’re a bad email correspondent. You’re not that active on social media because you need to keep your head down as a writer. But are you finding that you’re able to adjust the dials on how you use social media and other forms of communication that can become a distraction?

A: “I’m trying to, but it doesn’t always succeed. I would say that my basic approach is to just be ‘read-only.’ I’ve got my list of Twitter people I follow, and Facebook people, and to the extent that I have time and I’m enjoying it, I will consume those feeds. But I don’t read mentions, I don’t read PMs. I don’t even know how to read them. I completely turn a deaf ear to any direct communications that might be headed my way on those channels.”

Q: Do you find that you have a certain celebrity? Do people come up to you at the coffee shop, or are you able to fly under the radar in terms of being recognized?

A: “It’s highly variable. So, 99 percent of the time, it’s complete anonymity. And then I get the occasional moment when somebody recognizes me. You never know. It’s a very specific, focused kind of celebrity.”

Q: One of the blurbs for your latest book — from Lev Grossman [author of “The Magicians” series], of all people — says that “sometimes when you’re reading Neal Stephenson, he doesn’t just seem like one of the best novelists writing in English right now; he seems like the only one.” For a diffident Seattleite such as yourself, it’s got to bring a flush to your cheeks to hear that kind of praise.

A: “Yeah, well, that’s a very kind thing for him to say. I think that almost no good can come of paying attention to stuff like that, either positive or negative. If you pay attention to the positive stuff, it’s going to screw you up in one way. And if you pay attention to the negative stuff, it’s going to screw you up in a different way. Either way, it’s probably not going to make things better, career-wise. So I think it’s best to ignore both positive and negative feedback.”

Book excerpt: Glimpse the future of Seattle’s high-tech hub

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