I can honestly say REAMDE was one of the easiest novels I’ve read by Neal Stephenson. Despite the intimidating length of the work, the story plays out as a fast-paced mystery of cat and mouse that takes more than a couple clever turns. If all this seems a little generic, that’s because I don’t want to give away too much. Suffice it to say there is a virus that’s affecting the world of an MMORPG and, oh yeah, definitely a terrorist cell whose cover is accidentally blown.
The characters in REAMDE feel real. They feel developed and deep and rich … and I haven’t always felt that way about the characters in other Neal Stephenson novels. It drew me in. The story gave me ideas for my own writing. I got to thinking a lot about what future MMORPG’s are going to look like and I started to wonder just how long it’s going to take before a not insignificant portion of our population prefers some sort of virtual universe. I think about this more and more when we’re staying inside for days at a time because an unprecedented heat wave is scorching most of the country. At what point do we just check out?
FALL is technically a sequel, but you don’t need to read the first book to get it. Stephenson, in true Neal Stephenson fashion, dedicates nearly 100 pages just getting to the first major plot point. It’s an insane amount of time to spend going into detail about one character’s inevitable demise. This is, in my person opinion, the one thing that I struggle with when reading a Stephenson work. He has a tendency to pause the story to provide background and backstory and–sometimes–flashbacks of incredible detail. It happened toward the end of REAMDE, too, and for me it becomes just a little too much. (Keep in mind this is a personal, subjective opinion and you might find yourself totally loving it.)
Luckily, Stephenson is a great writer with a great imagination. Despite FALL being nearly a thousand pages long, most of it is really fun. It takes a few twists and turns, but inevitably it’s about life after death, and what kind of afterlife we’re promising people who truly want to live forever. I don’t have any problem with the idea of freezing my head (or brain, or body, or whatever) if it means getting a chance at another life. I don’t care one iota about the worry that immortality might make us “appreciate” life less. I’m all aboard the cryogenetics revolution, whenever it comes. But FALL imagines something else entirely: a virtual world where scans of people’s brains have allowed them to live on as computer code. And it gets me thinking: is this really an afterlife? Can consciousness simply be “uploaded”? It’s impossible to imagine. It seems like our consciousness is innately tied to the functioning of our brains, and to detach that somehow by “Scanning” our neural impulses–no matter how accurately–would still destroy that “me” that exists in our thoughts.
But then I wonder whether we just can’t perceive of consciousness because we don’t fully understand it. And then I wonder if our consciousness reboots while we’re asleep, leaving us only with fuzzy memories of our past selves. And then I have a hard time getting to sleep at night.