Right up front: Neal Stephenson is my favorite author, and Cryptonomicon is my favorite book. Yet I remain objective about his body of work and its flaws, and in particular, I’m not afraid to call out that Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, his most recent novel and a finalist for the most awkwardly punctuated title of all time, lost me about halfway through. It’s the only book of his I started and never finished. Life’s too short. Maybe you’ve seen.
As is often the case in his books, some of the side stories and diversions are so compelling that you wish he’d develop them into novels in their own right. To me, the best part of Fall; is one such subplot. The young, Princeton-based protagonists undertake a cross-country road trip in a near-future America where the bifurcation between “red state” and “blue state” has come to one logical conclusion, though in this case it’s less about the full states and more about regions within them. It’s not that there was a hot Civil War II, it’s just that there are two parts of America that don’t really talk to each other much. At this point, our travelers are in a small town somewhere in Iowa, recapping part of their day:
“The reference to Iowa City?” Anne-Solenne asked. That was where they had stayed last night, in a boutique hotel next to a tapas bar.
“Where the big hospital is. So, another country to them. But they have to go there when they get sick. Like, to get a melanoma whacked off or whatever. They can’t afford Blue State hotel rooms or food, so they have to camp out on the periphery and cook over propane burners under tarps. Not a fun time.”
Anne-Solenne nodded. “Dentistry,” she said.
“Ted has normal-people teeth because he is old and grew up before this part of the world got Facebooked. After that, the people with education fled to places like Ames, Des Moines, Iowa City. Which includes dentists. A few mainline churches used to run charity dental clinics where you could get a bad tooth pulled, or whatever, but those are being chased away by these people.” Not wanting to be obvious, she glanced over at the gigantic cross. 1
A little later, as Ivy-leaguers Phil and Sophia were in further discussion with church elder Ted:
“So, Martin Luther was running a false-flag operation for the Pope,” Phil said. “In that case—” But he broke off as he felt Sophia stepping on his toe, under the table.
He looked down at her. Having caught his eye, she panned her gaze across the entire scene, asking him to take it all in. Reminding him that this wasn’t Princeton. This was Ameristan. Facebooked to the molecular level. “Professor Long,” she muttered, “the Red Card.”
It was a reference to one of their teachers at Princeton who had gone so far as to print up a wallet card for people to keep in front of them during conversations like this one. One side of the card was solid red, with no words or images, and was meant to be displayed outward as a nonverbal signal that you disagreed and that you weren’t going to be drawn into a fake argument. The other side, facing the user, was a list of little reminders as to what was really going on:
- Speech is aggression
- Every utterance has a winner and a loser
- Curiosity is feigned
- Lying is performative
- Stupidity is power 2
“Facebooked.” Genius. I’d have paid good cash money to read him more completely develop the idea that the nation was completely torn in two on fault lines over the nature of reality and truth, propagated by Zuckerberg’s highly available, fault tolerant, massively parallel systems that seem to know exactly what part of our lizard brains to tickle. (Hello, Snow Crash.)
The endpoint he explores here, where blue regions are where you go to get tapas and healthcare, and where “Ameristan” is mostly occupied by the kind of people who tear up the interstates as a “fuck you” to the federal gummint, and erect giant, natural-gas-fired flaming crosses (“The Church of the Levitican”), doesn’t seem too far off sometimes.
I thought of this today when I read this bit in the Post, on discussions about closing rural churches to slow the community spread of COVID-19:
In Arkansas, the Rev. Josh King met with the pastors of five other churches on Thursday to decide whether to continue holding service. Their religious beliefs told them that meeting in person to worship each Sunday remained an essential part of their faith, and some of their members signed on to Trump’s claims that the media and Democrats were overblowing the danger posed by the virus.
“One pastor said half of his church is ready to lick the floor, to prove there’s no actual virus,” said King, lead pastor at Second Baptist church in Conway, Ark.
“In your more politically conservative regions, closing is not interpreted as caring for you. It’s interpreted as liberalism, or buying into the hype,” said King, whose church draws about 1,100 worshipers on a typical Sunday.
As he did with so much in his other near-future dystopias, Neal just completely nailed it.