Neal Stephenson’s vision of a secular afterlife

The idea of uploading a copy of your brain into a computer and living forever is well-established in science fiction.  Some Silicon Valley scientists and entrepreneurs are coming to think they can do it in reality.

Neal Stephenson’s new novel. FALL, or, Dodge in Hell is the closest thing I expect to see of a plausible thought experiment as to what such immortality would be like and what it would take to make it real.

Although I don’t think this is Stephenson’s intention, it reinforces my belief that I wouldn’t want to live in such a world, even in the highly unlikely event that this were possible.

The novel begins with the unexpected death of Richard “Dodge” Forthrast, the billionaire founder and CEO of a fantasy role-playing game empire.  Due to a provision of his will that he probably forgot about, his brain is scanned and the data stored or later uploading.

Over the next 17 years, the Forthrast family joins forces with El (for Elmo) Shepherd, the developer of the scanning technology, to create the world’s largest data base to be a matrix for Dodge’s consciousness.

Dodge is activated as a disembodied consciousness with no memory of his previous life and no awareness of anything beyond “I think, therefore I am.”

Gradually, he evolves.  Through mental activity alone, he, like a god, is able to impose order on chaos.  The first thing he creates is the image of an autumn leaf, one of the last things he thought about before his death.

Slowly he forms a whole world with an “up” and a “down,” with a ground surface at the bottom and a sky above.  As he becomes aware of other entities entering his world, he gives himself a physical form, something like a bat-winged demon, with a skin to separate himself from the rest of his environment.

He is aided by a second entity in his world named Spring.  She does not embody herself, but gives the trees, the birds and the bees and Dodge’s other creations the attributes of living beings, rather than mere scenery.

The earliest immigrants into Bitworld are members of the Forthrast family and their hangers-on.  They also have special powers.  They are called the Pantheon.  Later ones are the product of full-body scans, not just brain scans, and are limited to the human form and human powers.

The Bitworld population has no memory of a previous existence, which is a good thing, because their memory of the wondrous actual world would make them unhappy.

Bitworld is much like the world of a fantasy role-playing game, with overlays of Greek and Norse mythology.  Dodge is a Zeus, complete with a warehouse full of thunderbolts, with god-like powers but lacking god-like wisdom.

The saving grace is that the souls in Bitworld have the possibility of a second and final death.  They are not condemned to having to do the same things over and over for all eternity.

Meanwhile, in the actual world, El Shepherd objects to the way Bitworld is developing.  His idea is that the whole point of creating an artificial life is to be able to do things that aren’t possible in this life.

He secretly develops the means by which he can project himself into Bitworld, accompanied by a personal army, with superpowers equal to Dodge’s, but with full memory of who he is.

He remains in communication with the actual world by means of a self-directed robot named Metatron.  Among other abilities, Metatron can go anywhere in the world by mailing itself through Federal Express.

He overthrows Dodge and the Pantheon, much as the ancient Greek gods overthrew the Titans, and establishes his rule.  But the changing of the guard does not change Bitworld in any important way.

Stephenson does not say what El had in mind—only that changing Bitworld proved more difficult than he expected.

There is one episode in which El discovers a boy and a girl who, unlike any of the other denizens of Bitworld, have reproductive organs.  He raises them to adulthood in a walled garden to protect their innocence, but a talking worm tells them the nature of their world, and they are expelled from the garden.

They wander the world, and the Eve character gives birth to a brood of 12 children—a reminder that the inhabitants of Bitworld do not have human physiology.  But the children are prevented from reproducing, the Adam character is killed in a minor local conflict, and everything goes on as before.

Additions to the population of Bitworld increase by orders of magnitude over the novel’s time frame, which is within the lifetimes of some of the characters.  By the end of the novel, Bitworld’s population is tens of millions, and its maintenance takes up a large fraction of the world’s computing power, electrical generating capacity and water supply (for cooling).

One character envisions a future in which Earth is one giant refrigerator, cooling a Bitworld that is home to the majority or maybe all of the world’s souls.

That would be an ignominious end to the billion-year saga of life on earth. But It is hard to imagine the rest of the world, including China, India and Russia, entrusting the future of humanity to a handful of rich self-appointed Americans.

I’ve long admired Neal Stephenson.  I think he is as close as anyone living to being the literary heir of the great Robert A. Heinlein.  Like Heinlein, he is scientifically literate.  He respects entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists and the professional military.  And his best science fiction works are definitive treatments of their themes.

Unfortunately, like Heinlein, he has reached the point where he is so popular that anything he writes is publishable.  As in most of Heinlein’s later works, Fall has no over-arching plot, but only a series of sub-plots that are not resolved.  Also like the late Heinlein, he appears to have the ambition to weave his works together in one great tapestry.

Dodge, the hero of Fall, was a central figure in Stephenson’s techno-thriller, Reamde (2011).  Enoch Root, the immortal alchemist from Stephenson’s masterpieces, Cryptonomicon (1999) and the Baroque Trilogy (2003-2004), has a cameo role, and the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families from those novels also are mentioned.  

At the end of Fall, Enoch Root reveals that he is a visitor from a higher plane of existence, which stands in the same relation to the human world as the human world stands to Bitworld.  He says, “My work is done,” and disappears.

If Heaven existed, as Christians and Muslims believe, it would be a higher plane of existence, something beyond mere human ability to imagine or describe.  If Hell existed, it might be very much like Bitworld.


Neal Stephenson home page.

Neal Stephenson Wikipedia page.

If We Told You Neal Stephenson Invented Bitcoin, Would You Be Surprised? by Peter Suderman for Reason.

Neal Stephenson’s Fall is Paradise Lost with brain uploading and weaponized fake news by Adi Robertson for The Verge.

Neal Stephenson on Depictions of Reality, an interview Conversations With Tyler.  [Added 7/17/2019]

Some people think a Bitworld is possible.

A startup is pitching a mind-uploading service that is “100 percent fatal” by Antonio Regalado for MIT Technology Review.

‘Your animal life is over.  Machine life has begin.’  The road to immortality by Mark O’Connell for The Guardian.

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