...a staggering feat of imagination, intelligence and stamina. For long stretches, at least. Between those long stretches, there are sections that, while never uninteresting, are somewhat less successful. To expect any different, especially in a work of this length, would be to hold it to an impossible standard. Somewhere in this 900-page book is a 600-page book. One that has the same story, but weighs less. Without those 300 pages, though, it wouldn’t be Neal Stephenson. It’s not possible to separate the essential from the decorative. Nor would we want that, even if it were were. Not only do his fans not mind the extra — it’s what we came for ... This is a case of author and substance and story and style all lining up; a series of lenses perfectly arranged to focus the power and precision of Stephenson’s laser-beam intellect ... This is hard sci-fi, but it goes so far in its speculative extrapolation toward that end of the spectrum that it hits the end, goes through and comes back around the other side. The result is a story that touches on society, technology, spirituality and even eschatology, a far-reaching attempt at a grand myth that is breathtaking in scope and ambition ... a one-of-a-kind synthesis of daring and originality, unafraid to venture into wild and unmapped conceptual territory.
Fall tricks you into thinking it plans to be this or that sort of fiction (a bitingly plausible near-future dystopia or tale of corporate intriguing, for example), only to heel around and head off in a new direction entirely. It does this more than once, yet remains a coherent whole. The audacity of Stephenson’s intentions is itself part of the entertainment value ... a feat of mind-blowing adventure powered by deep existential questions ... The last section of the novel assumes the form of a rippingly Tolkienesque epic fantasy quest: an eventful journey through a magical landscape, embarked on by characters it’s impossible to think of as mere processes. It’s great fun.
Stephenson has long shown himself able to puncture sci-fi clichés and expose hidden drawbacks ... It seems that each section of Mr. Stephenson’s 11-part, 900-page novel could be read as a work on its own. What holds them together is the deep, challenging, often frightening vision of what the digital world is really going to do to us ... English professors love to tell us that reading James Joyce is difficult but rewarding. Ulysses is a walk in the park for difficulty compared with Fall, but Mr. Stephenson isn’t just playing with words, he’s playing with ideas, and he isn’t joking either. He is sci-fi’s great contrarian, and Fall deserves to be rated as one of the great novels of our time, prophetically and philosophically.
I can say that I hated the first few pages of Fall. Hated 'em like poison ... I can tell you that Fall starts bad, recovers slowly, builds to a level of awesome not seen since Stephenson's early days of sound and fury, then settles for an achingly long time, into a kind of back-and-forth narrative discursion on immortality, the singularity, chaos, life and death ... There's no part not drenched in his didactic obsessions and love of the world's underpinning minutiae ... gives equal weight to religion, mythology and technology in a way that, by page 600 or so, feels almost revolutionary ... his best bits are still those when he is firmly rooted in the real, looking out over a too-near horizon of history and telling us what is coming ... There is actually a run in the first third of Fall that is flat-out amazing — a riff on fundamentalism and the weaponization of false information in post-fact America that I haven't stopped thinking about (or telling people about) since I put the book down ... Stephenson's greatest strength as a writer has always been that he sees just a little bit further and a little bit clearer than the rest of us do. He can't always seem to decide what's worth rhapsodizing about. But when he focuses, he can show us some truly amazing things.
Exposition is Stephenson’s métier ... these discursions are never a drag on the story. Stephenson’s lecturing has the same energy and imagination as his descriptions of nail-biting action. He is as informative as he is entertaining when dealing with just about any subject ... Stephenson has never been one to shy away from epic undertakings. And with Fall coming in at nearly 900 pages, he’s again given himself room to approach his subject from many directions: scientific, social, political, economic, religious and philosophical.
...Fall is the best thing [Stephenson's] written in ages ... Reamde, like many of Stephenson’s books, was a Goliath-sized techno thriller, mixing info-dumps and action in a sometimes uneasy novelistic emulsion. Fall is a different sort of beast. The info-dumping is still there, of course – fans would expect nothing less – but this time it’s mixed in with an old-school fantasy novel, exploring the exotic, magical world of its virtual afterlife, Bitworld. There are even maps, although this being Stephenson the maps are in the process of being drawn as the story develops. He doesn’t usually write fantasy. On the evidence of Fall, he ought to do it more often ... Fall is, among other things, an interrogation of our lamentably post-truth world, and Stephenson rolls history a couple of decades into the future to depict a US completely unmoored from factual reality ... The satire here is smart and trenchant, if perhaps a little one-sided ...[Stephenson] expertly uses the sheer momentum he builds up in this enormous story. This is a novel with genuine heft. It keeps you reading, it makes you think, and, by the end, it generates that sense of wonder that is the very lifeblood of science fiction and fantasy.
What ultimately carries the book is Stephenson’s line-to-line attentiveness, to both the world we as readers recognize and the worlds we don’t. In the same way that Rod Serling opens most Twilight Zone episodes with a boringly recognizable scene before nudging characters into the fourth dimension, Stephenson is superb at writing relatable prose that could slide into any of the best contemporary literary fiction ... There’s a glut of what I like to think of as Marty McFly Prose, where characters announce to both themselves and the audience that they must get 'to Moab before the president of the United States gets there.' These announcements may seem trashy beside Stephenson’s more descriptive lines, but, much like in Back to the Future, these lines are clarifying as the narrative toggles between ridiculousness and profundity.
... [an] immense new novel ... gives Stephenson the perfect platform to explore the intersection of technology and humanity, and he fills that platform over every inch, piles it to the ceiling, loads it down, positively buries it, crushes it under sheer verbiage. Stephenson’s novels are all whopping tomes in the thousand-page range. None of them, including this latest, even remotely needs to be so long ... The most maddening element of this grotesque self-indulgence on Stephenson’s part (and the even more grotesque watery permissiveness of his editor) is that he’s a thoroughly engaging writer; his books are stuffed to their attics with blather, but the blather is uniformly interesting ... The prose is all so clear and intelligent that it almost feels rude to point out how tautological 90% of it is ... although Fall is a fascinating fictional exploration of what post-Singularity consciousness might be like, it’s also a 400-page novel lumbering around in an ungainly Hollywood-style foam fat suit.
... the length of [Stephenson's] books is both one of his greatest weaknesses and greatest strengths as a writer ... When Fall is at its best, its length feels luxurious and unhurried. It’s as though the book is taking place in a vast and expansive world that goes on and on forever — or in many worlds that go on and on forever — and we have nothing but time with which to explore them ... But when Fall starts to falter, its length begins to feel less like a luxury and more like a burden. In the novel’s last hundred pages or so, there’s a sense of palpable exhaustion and boredom to the narration. Major climactic events are skimmed over rapidly. Ideas that have been lurking intriguingly in the subtext are suddenly spelled out, explicitly and inelegantly ... an elegantly plausible near-future dystopia that neatly replicates the power dynamics of our own time ... as Fall approaches its climax, it narrows its focus away from the grand philosophical ideas that animated its earlier sections to concentrate on Dodge and his problems, and specifically on his love story with a barely rendered female character who has maybe five lines of spoken dialogue in this entire 883-page book ... It feels less as though the novel is aiming for something underwhelming, and more as though all of its ideas come together to form a story so ambitious that it’s beyond Stephenson’s considerable powers to resolve it ... a rich and luxurious book. It’s worth the considerable time investment that it demands.
In addition to its bigness, Fall is also, on the whole, Stephenson’s most entertaining work since Anathem (2008) ... a work of high fantasy that very much knows it is a work of fantasy ... Neither the Moab nor Ameristan plots serve much purpose in the novel except to show that Elmo Shepherd and Fox News viewers are bad people with either too much money or too much ammunition — or both. Further, Shepherd suffers from mental illness; too often in Fall, 'crazy' and 'evil' are conflated. What’s missing from both parts of Fall is the dense examination of such cultural divides that we see in Snow Crash (1992), Anathem, or the last section of Seveneves (2015): the visit to Ameristan is especially frustrating as it promises, but does not much deliver, the kind of incisive social commentary that Stephenson often engages in. That said, his musings on dental and medical care in a world that rejects science, and the precarious state of infrastructures no longer maintained but instead used for target practice, show Stephenson’s typical nuance and humor ... the novel asks us to consider questions about reality, memory, life and death, and the potential for digital life expansion, but its characters don’t ponder such questions in much depth ... Stephenson’s tremendous gift for envisioning future technological praxis is shown in Fall through his speculation ... Stephenson’s latest work is less than the sum of its parts, due to lack of genuine tension in the novel’s final third.
...speculative-fiction virtuoso Stephenson creates new challenges for his returning protagonist ... Stephenson devotees with a taste for Tolkienesque fantasy will revel in the author’s imaginative world building as the story shifts ... Still, there are enough futuristic, envelope-pushing ideas here, especially related to AI and digital consciousness, to keep even nonfans and science buffs intrigued.
...the relatively straightforward Reamde, with one of Stephenson’s more linear thriller plots, is quickly left behind in favor of – well, a series of fascinating side galleries, including what appear to be Stephenson’s own versions of a geek Genesis, Paradise Lost, classical mythology, and quest fantasy ... The idea of a digital or constructed afterlife is by now a tradition in SF...going all the way back to Simak and Farmer. Inevitably, they give rise to a kind of pop eschatology, which can tilt toward sheer adventure in a new kind of SF environment or toward ponderously philosophical epics – pure cheese or a kale-infused protein shake. Stephenson seems to want to have it both ways, and while several sequences, both in meatspace and the murky afterlife, demonstrate his usual skills in provocative scene-setting and kinetic adventure, they never quite knit together in a coherent whole. It’s a wildly and admirably ambitious novel, but, in its own way, it’s an Ethical Network Sabotage Undertaking of the whole notion of narrative unity.
There might be a fascinating, intricately connected, intergenerational story about the intersection between humans and computers in here somewhere, but it’s hard to find. While Stephenson appears to be examining how much detail our brains would need in some far future when our consciousness can be uploaded at the point of our deaths, he simply buries his point under hundreds and hundreds of words that obscure rather than clarify ... The book follows two paths after this moment: one that shows Dodge...building the digital world, and one that shows what is happening in the actual world. The latter is marginally more interesting. Stephenson’s gift for projecting how humans and technology might interact is fully present there ... But the Dodge parts: oooof. It’s clear that Stephenson is telling a creation story, one that includes the battle between good and evil and the poor luckless souls who get in the way. There is epic poetry and mythic beasts. And, again, it might have been fascinating if Stephenson hadn’t fallen so in love with Dodge, whose every action the author must laud and embroider. Evil Elmo Shepherd is a melodramatic villain whose defeat can be predicted from the moment he gets sideways with Dodge. All of their dick-swinging comes at the cost of more complicated characters like Sophia, Zula, and Corvallis, whose stories might have made this big book an immersive, propulsive read rather than a punishing one.
Stephenson is known for ambitious books, and this doorstop of a novel is certainly no exception ... Readers looking for a post-human thought experiment might be disappointed with the references to ancient mythology, but those ready for an endlessly inventive and absorbing story are in for an adventure they won't soon forget. An audacious epic with more than enough heart to fill its many, many pages.
This laboriously detailed follow-up to Reamdeexplores where human imagination ends and artificial intelligence begins ... Fans of Stephenson’s passion for the minutiae of technological innovations will revel in the intricacies of his construction, but unwieldy dialogue, uneven pacing, and a narrow-minded view of the future betray the story’s promise.