The Hell of It

Listening to Neal Stephenson

As I type this, I am 43% of the way through the new novel by Neal Stephenson, Fall; Or, Dodge in Hell. It is a Singularity story, which is to say it tells of someone whose brain is scanned and uploaded to a computer system, and what happens as a result. (Side note: It’s always “uploaded,” isn’t it? The word suggests a higher plane of existence is assumed for post-human experience. As the book’s subtitle seems to imply, however, we may be wrong about such linguistically entrenched correlations.)

There is a lot of sound in the book, like when, while still on this mortal plane, the protagonist asks himself: “if there was an afterlife, either old-school analog or newfangled digital–if we lived on as spirits or were reconstructed as digital simulations of our own brains–would we still like music?”

Or when exploring the nuances necessary in producing political disinformation: “Whoever had produced this counterfeit had completely nailed the sound: you could hear chairs scraping, shutters clicking, fingers pounding laptop keyboards, people’s cell phones going off, all conveying the sense that a hundred journalists were crammed into the room.”

Or an extended sequence exploring how the music we listen to on headphones alters our perception of reality. The subject is an imaginary band with the awesome name Pompitus Bombasticus. (It brings to mind William Gibson’s 1989 “Rocket Radio” essay, about how “The Walkman changed the way we understand cities.”)

Or what his newly digital avatar experiences upon awakening for the first time in the brave new world of the computer: “to the extent he was hearing anything, it was just an inchoate hiss.”

Of course, the key word there is not “hiss” but “inchoate.” I still have 57% of the book to go. We’ll see what comes of it.

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