In Stephenson’s previous novel, Seveneves (2015), the remnants of humanity employ all their ingenuity to escape a doomed planet. Fall, too, can be read as an ambiguous escape narrative. Humanity leaves Meatspace to rot and takes a leap of unfaith by investing in the “deathless” death of Bitworld. It is a leap away from the breakdown of “consensus reality” rife in the Miasma and towards a consensual hallucination, grand in design but dubious in principle.
With a book this size there are inevitably longueurs, and although Stephenson eventually fits his “meatspace” and “Bitworld” storylines snugly together, they spend much of the novel tugging in rather different directions. But some narrative effects need bulk to work, and he 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. Stephenson’s digital afterlife reminded me a little of CS Lewis’s Narnia books, where heaven is described as a novel that goes on for ever and in which every chapter is better than the one before. In the wonderful and frightening world of Fall, there are many consolations to be had.