The Farfetched Now: Neal Stephenson's Fall; Or, Dodge in Hell — 16 May 2020

by Mickey Batts

There is, in novelist Neal Stephenson’s most recent brick toss, a story concept worth our time. Not the central one, a manmade afterlife. On that score just note that the print edition runs to 883 pages and seek your own sick burns, for, like the eternal, this book is in no hurry. Most of a ream will flip to the left before the brain-fax of a hyper-wealthy gaming CEO wakes from his earthly demise to roam a digital void. This gives the poor sap a chance to star in a creation myth, faithfully rendered, and sorry, wise village elder, but most creation myths are a major drag. The hyper-wealthy gaming CEO imbues trees and landforms and rivers with material existence and builds himself a nice hut, smack in the middle, and on the seventh day I rested. Once subjective eons pass, ouch, and more of the rich have croaked and had connectomes uploaded to populate the joint, this silicon hereafter has matured into, no shit, a nonstop fantasy RPG tourney, to be played by postmortem amnesiacs forevermore. Sounds like hell to me, though my own infernal torments will not likely hew to Tolkien themes.

The title here is Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, three words of which are low-hanging fruit. The idea I meant is one fast put aside in favor of the above, and one that, despite a mounting fear, kept me reading to the very end, the fool. I speak, patient friend, of Moab Truthers.

Early on—shade—a hoax plays out in the mortal world. Thankfully this event has nothing to do with the plot of the book. Clueless actors are hired, one hopes for scale; deft hands at AV trickery whisk up fireballs and mushroom clouds; and cut telecom darkens Moab to the outside world. This is all in service of a prank—the feat of a gadfly, lone and unknown. Staging a nuke takes little more than deep pockets and credulity, the latter in no short supply and thrown in free of charge.

So far so good—commentary on “false flag” deniers and their unhinged ilk, but with conspiracy theory roles of “the man” and “a crank” inverted. Topical—but what gets me a little green as a writer of offbeat fiction is how the aftermath is shown to play out. Hard evidence has proven the bombing to be a fraud. Media outlets, government officials, and pesky experts have laid out how it was pulled off from start to finish. And to a good segment of the public it makes no goddam difference. Bumper stickers petition those who share the road to “Remember Moab”—and the closer one drives to ground zero the worse it gets. Beardy men with RVs, pickups, and automatic rifles have set up a citizen’s checkpoint on the public route leading in. Obstacles slow the traffic, what little there is, for a heartfelt PSA. The truthers approach this solemn duty in a spirit of fun. They grill wieners at roadside. They take potshots at the information center competing with their worldview back up the road, which they term the Nest of Lies. They never venture around the bend, where Moab is not only in sights but alive and well, a Starbucks in the immediate offing. And though they never resort to violence, those who skirt the homespun roadblock are identified as conspirators or, more shamefully, as suckers. In the lot back at the Nest of Lies, a car bears a license plate issued by Moab, not by the state. This is because “[t]he Utah state legislature had been taken over by Moab truthers who insisted that Moab had been obliterated by nuclear terrorism twelve years ago. From which it followed that anyone claiming to actually live there was a troll, a crisis actor in the pay of, or a sad dupe in thrall to, global conspirators trying to foist a monstrous denial of the truth on decent folk. In recognition of, and indignation over, which they had passed a law ordering the state licensing bureau to stop accepting motor vehicle paperwork from Moab.”

Satire, and delightful, but not without its faults. Stephenson’s third-person witness to these curiosities is a rich kid, one of the “1%,” a term yet au courant, somehow—and in a world of delusions such as these, elite can only mean sane. Moab truthers are plenty rustic. Their signs caution “NO ADMITANCE” due to “RADIATON,” and hayseed grammar does not pass unremarked by the upper crust rubbernecking from the bulletproof robot car. Stephenson comes from a clan of engineers, and classist attitudes are, for a technocrat, no rarity, usually gussied up in arguments to merit and the individual. These principles divvy up the world into initiates and plebs. Small wonder that a novel should sprawl where dialogue is a nonstop doling out of concept from the better informed unto the less—that is, to the readership. One character will play audience surrogate, the next authorial mouthpiece, almost without fail. This turns each conversation into an exegetic jam session built on themes of “Huh?” and “Duh!” I do enjoy geeky catechisms to a point. I now know what a connectome is, just for instance. But swap out terms—say, for ghost, soul, or brain-fax—and the thrust of this long flight veers not one whit.

Still: dig those Moab Truthers, with their ignoramus signage and their proudly flaunted sidearms and their brand loyalty to what is demonstrably fuck-bunk. Top-rate satire. Did I say satire? I should have said reality—eminent, unfunny, and objective, the place where you and I both dwell, and to wind up there we didn’t even have to die first.

I read Fall—a sequel, for some reason, to Cryptonomicon, which I prize—right before Covid-19 brought such innovation to the great ruck of things. At the time, a mere three months ago, Moab Truthers were purest send-up. Far-fetched. Broad. Scaramouche would blush. Since then, though—and somehow, not for the first time—current events have trumped any notions of too far for real. Truthers have been prominent for decades now, and their ranks only seem to bloat. I can even call one or two of them good friends. (Hi, S.C.! Step away from the broadband connection, pal!). But February in all its purple hell was an age of innocence. I could not have foreseen that Americans—and Britons, and goddam it even a few Scots—would clamor for a God-given right to spread cooties that can choke out their nanas or even slay the carrier.

Some things grow clearer when we take real for unreal. On the outside, to whatever reads us for a pastime, this is all funny. Of that I have no doubt. But life inside a joke is tragedy. Moab Truthers have nothing on Michigan MAGAs—outright Nazis, some, flying actual seig heil swastikas like buffoons from a Broadway flop. Storm the keep, they cry, and there is no keep to storm. In truth their governor holds nothing sharper in hand than a pen, which they counter with a bristle of weapons and as much upright posture as a Bugles diet allows. They are a minority, if a fat one, and stupid, but they do make a lot of noise. More troublesome is what the majority allows in the face of societal collapse, which would seem to be all things nimby. Lest you think I come down anti-yokel, note that the supreme schmucks in all of this are the privileged, those who see public safety measures as a pinch from their private stash of grist. And as far as merits and the sanity of technocrats go—those who gawk from robot cars to mock warning signs—eat a hot dish of dicks, Elon Musk. How people mistake themselves for fictitious characters is beyond me, except that, as a Zen Buddhist, I find it no surprise. You might disagree—I welcome opinion, knowing opinion for what it is—but all the human world is stuck in a mode of entertainment and sundered from a mode of reason. Enjoy your lot or resent it—when you are a character in a narrative, whatever becomes of you can only forward the plot. And I hope the overarching story here ends better than Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, though in the case of real life, I don’t mind it running quite so goddam long.

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