Fall; or, Dodge in Hell

As a long time Neal Stephenson fan, I was delighted to read his latest novel Fall; or Dodge in Hell. Having recently completed it, I can highly recommend it. Some mild spoilers follow.

In a structure similar to that of his last novel (excluding the collaboration novel D.O.D.O.) Seveneves, Stephenson splits the action of the novel into a first and second book. The first book centers on the developments leading up to and the early internal development of a digital afterlife. Beginning with a handful of farsighted ultra-wealthy individuals with an interest in radical life extension and brain preservation for future resurrection, what ultimately develops is a virtual world, often referred to as bitworld in the novel, into which everyone comes to believe they will migrate after death.

The second book is an incredible departure, following the exploits of the generations of beings spawned into the virtual world. Based on the conceit that the migrated “souls” of the dead have only the faintest notions of who they might have been in life, the bitworld is like a new creation. The original inhabitants take on the roll of gods. The adventures of their descendants recapitulate elements from the book of Genesis and Greek myths, complete with Adam and Eve and a pantheon of gods. 

The culmination of this second book enters territory more like an epic fantasy novel, complete with a band of adventurers seeking the completion of a great quest. It is an absolutely incredible scope for a novel which begins in the hardest of hard sci-fi and much legalistic talk about the wills of billionaires. For readers of both fantasy and sci-fi genres, this book will come as a special treat.

Many fascinating themes are explored throughout, but I’d like to take a little closer look at one aspect about which I still have many questions. Stephenson seems to be saying something about the simulation hypothesis, with the appearance of a character from a reality which precedes that of the real world layer in the book. This character (Enoch Root, for those familiar with Stephenson’s other works) is on a mission to aid in the creation of bitworld, the secondary reality into which transmigrated souls are reborn.

The simulation hypothesis posits that if it is possible to simulate convincing virtual worlds, then we have reason to believe that we are living in a simulation rather than not, based on the probability that we stand in a non-privileged reference frame. If there are even 1,000 fully convincing virtual worlds and one real world, then odds are, we inhabit one of the virtual worlds, not the real one.

Stephenson seems to be playing with another aspect of this argument. If we are living in a simulation, we have no idea what relation that simulated world bears to the real one. Supposing 1 real world and 1,000 virtual worlds, they could all exist side by side, or they could be nested within one another. The real world may just be the outer-most shell of a Russian doll like structure. Add to that the possibility that some might also exist side by side and you get a kind of involuted tree like structure. Perhaps our reality has a parent, siblings, a grandparent, cousins, and may yet spawn descendants.

One of the aspects of this argument which is usually glossed or overlooked gets careful attention in the novel. The cost of the simulation, especially the cost of producing a simulation which approaches the complexity of the world in which we live would be enormous. Stephenson cleverly introduces a variable time differential between the original world and bitworld. Supposing that the flow of time in bitworld can be as slow as necessary or even be brought to a halt, the resource use problem could be handled. If our simulation suddenly demands more compute cycles, well then time itself will just have to wait until those cycles can be carried out. The flow of time in the simulation can be as slow as necessary to compensate for any lack of resources.

To conclude, I still have many questions about what if anything Stephenson is ultimately saying about the simulation hypothesis, but this is the first realization of it in fiction I have seen which treats some of the practical problems with the attention they are due. As I said before, lovers of sci-fi and fantasy will find in this something special. As this discussion of one of the books more esoteric themes should make clear, lovers of philosophy and computer science will as well.

-Aaron Brumley is the Technology Coordinator at Lawrence Public Library.

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