The Silence Between Us

Cover image for The Silence Between Us by Alison Gervaisby Alison Gervais

ISBN 9780310766162

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “Who was I? That was not a question I could answer very easily anymore. I had ambitions for my future, but who was I right now? A Deaf girl suddenly dropped into the middle of a hearing world I was positive I didn’t belong in anymore.”

Since losing her hearing to meningitis at the age of thirteen, Maya Harris has attended a school for the Deaf in New Jersey, where all her friends are part of the Deaf community. But when her mother moves the family to Colorado, she is faced with attending a hearing school for her senior year, ASL interpreter in tow for all her classes. Maya dreams of becoming a respiratory therapist, so she can help kids like her brother Connor, who has Cystic Fibrosis, but that seems like tall order when she struggles to participate in group discussions, or get most of her new peers to see her as anything other than the strange new Deaf girl. But Beau Watson seems willing to try, even if his first attempts at ASL are a total disaster. Maya is defensive, and worried about her future, but perhaps it is worth giving Beau a chance to overcome their differences.

Alison Gervais—who is hard of hearing herself, and works as a deaf services specialist—makes a number of effective stylistic choices designed to render Maya’s experiences of spoken and signed language into print form. Ellipses are used to demonstrate how she is piecing together the conversation despite missing words when she lip reads. ASL is rendered in capital letters, including the different grammar rules and the absence of verb tenses. Maya’s transition to a hearing school also allows Gervais to easily integrate matters of etiquette, like speaking directly to the deaf person rather than their interpreter.

Gervais places a strong emphasis on Deaf culture and community, which she works into the story despite the fact that Maya has left much of her community behind. Maya signs on video calls with her best friend from New Jersey, Melissa, who was born deaf. As a result, Melissa’s text messages reflect ASL grammar, since it is her first language. Maya has also opted not to get cochlear implants, a medical device that would directly stimulate the auditory nerve, but which would require a major surgery and significant amounts of speech therapy afterward. Both the story and Gervais’ author note makes clear that this is a subject of controversy and debate within the Deaf community, and that Maya’s choice represents one position. Although there are not a lot of Deaf characters in the book, we nevertheless get a glimpse of some of the diversity within the community, beyond this single narrative.

Although Maya’s growing romance with Beau is a significant part of the story, her family relationships and friendships are also central. With a single mom, and a brother with a chronic health condition, Maya feels the pressure to help take care of her brother, and make sure that she isn’t causing any additional problems for her mom. Beau faces a similarly tense home life, where his father, a pediatric surgeon, is pushing for Beau to attend Yale and study medicine. While I enjoyed the overall portrayal of the family relationships, Maya’s brother Connor could have been further developed beyond his Cystic Fibrosis. He is a significant motivator for Maya’s behaviours and career ambitions, but not a well-developed character in his own right.

Maya is a prickly heroine, but her defensiveness belies her hopeful vision for the future, and her desire to connect with people who love her for herself, and accept her the way she is. The Silence Between Us patiently develops these crucial relationships, highlighting the importance of community and acceptance.

You might also like El Deafo by Cece Bell

The Dragon Republic (The Poppy War #2)

by R. F. Kuang

ISBN 978-0-060266263-7

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “She had too much power now, too much rage, and she needed a cause for which to burn. Vaisra’s Republic was her anchor. Without that, she’d be lost, drifting.”

Having called down the power of the fire god known as the Phoenix to destroy the islands of the Mugen Federation, Runin “Rin” Fang and the remaining Cike take refuge in the southern port city of Ankhiluun. In order to gather the resources they need to take their revenge for the betrayal of Nikaran Empresss Su Daji, the Cike take on a series of assassinations for Moag, the opium pirate queen of Ankhiluun. Grappling with the consequences of her actions, her involvement in Altan’s death, and her new responsibility for the Cike, Rin turns increasingly to opium to dampen the whispers of the god of fire and vengeance. Her mission to assassinate the Empress is the only thing giving her purpose, but to do so she will need to make common cause with Yin Vaisra, the Dragon Warlord, and father of her old school rival, Nezha. Vaisra promises a democratic republic that will usher in a new age of prosperity for Nikara, but when the other warlords refuse to join him, he turns to Hesperia for help.

In trying to cope with the consequences of her actions, Rin is spiraling into deep self-hatred. The atrocity she committed against the Mugen people weighs heavily, and she tries to sooth it with a variety of methods, from self-harm, to opiates, to pledging to commit various acts of atonement. Rin’s past actions are at once monstrous, and understandable, and her reaction is entirely human, if deeply disturbing. Her power means that it is a profoundly dangerous thing for someone like her to be so angry and emotionally vulnerable. Having gone dark at the end of The Poppy War, it is painful to watch her try to flail back towards the surface, even as circumstances around her continue to deteriorate, and Nikara plunges into civil war.

Despite Rin’s shifting allegiances throughout the book, her ultimate enemy remains the Empress, Su Daji. While Rin’s flawed humanity has never been in doubt, the Empress has been something of a distant, all-powerful villain. In The Dragon Republic, we gain a few closer glimpses at the woman who rules Nikara, as well as a peek into her past, when Rin encounters the Ketreyids, a nomadic people who live along the northern borders of the empire, and who can communicate mind to mind. Their leader is able to show Rin the young woman known as the Vipress who would go on to become the sole ruler of Nikara. Though Rin cannot see the similarities between herself and Daji, the Empress sees them all too clearly, recognizing both the threat and the promise of the last Speerly. Each face-to-face encounter with Daji proves critical as Rin questions what the future holds for her, and for Nikara.

Another character who comes further into focus in this second installment is Yin Nezha, Rin’s former rival and Sinegard classmate. The two made peace when the country went to war with the Mugen Federation, and all the students of Sinegard military academy were called up to serve. The two share an uneasy attraction, but their differences and their trauma make it hard for their feelings to come to fruition. In joining his father’s faction, Rin gains further insight into the power and privilege with which he was raised, as well as the secrets the family has been hiding beneath a carefully polished public exterior. His mother, the Lady Saikhara, has deep ties to Hesperia, as well as the missionaries of the Grey Company who believe that shamans are manifestation of Chaos incarnate. While The Poppy War focused on the conflict between Mugen and Nikara, with The Dragon Republic attention begins to turn back towards the old wounds left by Hesperia’s imperialist ambitions.

The Dragon Republic brings all the strengths of The Poppy War, and continues to combine 20th century Chinese history with the best conventions of dark fantasy, taking the series to new highs as Rin continues to fight for her future, and try to figure out how best to wield her power for the good of Nikara, despite terrible trauma and impossible choices.

You might also like City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

Custodians of the Internet

Cover image for Custodians of the Internet by Tarleton Gillespieby Tarleton Gillespie

ISBN 978-0-300-17313-0

“The fantasy of a truly ‘open’ platform is powerful, resonating with deep, utopian notions of community and democracy—but it is just that, a fantasy. There is no platform that does not impose rules, to some degree. Not to do so would be simply untenable.”

No matter what web platforms you use, the contents presented to you inside that software shell are shaped by a series of policies and decisions which are probably largely invisible to you as the end user. Focusing on the major English language platforms, Custodians of the Internet analyzes the myth of the neutral platform, introduces the US regulatory scheme that gave rise to the current state of affairs, and examines the strengths and weaknesses of the different moderation methods currently in use, as well as making some modest proposals for how adjust the situation going forward. Tarleton Gillespie is both an academic and a tech industry insider, employed by Microsoft Research New England, as well as Cornell University. The book is published by Yale University Press.

Custodians of the Internet aims to focus our attention on the hidden work that the social media platforms would rather have remain invisible. Content moderation functions silently behind the scenes, and the end user never knows what it is they do not see. Moreover, thanks to personalization algorithms, they do not know what they see that others do not, and vice-versa. The content is not only moderated, it is also curated, often to maximize engagement and time on screen. Platforms have worked very hard to preserve this illusion of smooth operation, requiring their third-party moderators to sign non-disclosure agreements, and remaining tight-lipped about how they decide what to allow on their sites, and how their algorithms function. Most people spend little or no time thinking about what isn’t on the platforms they use, or why they see what they do see, but these invisible boundaries are what shape and distinguish these spaces, and constitute them into usable, monetizable products.

Gillespie also attempts to encompass the inherent and irreconcilable complexity of the moderation endeavour, and the broad range of unseen work it entails, from policy teams, to crowd workers, to individual users who are deputized rate or report content. He includes analysis of three main moderation strategies, which are editorial review, user flagging, and automatic detection. Each strategy has constrains and weaknesses. For example, editorial review is hugely labour intensive, flagging mechanisms can be abused for social or political purposes, and even potential violations automatically detected by a computer often need to be verified by human eyes. While it is easy for users or the media to criticize a particular moderation decision or policy, Gillespie is determined to highlight the broader context and framework inside which each individual decision is ultimately made and disputed.

Gillespie identifies two categories that platforms tend to fall into when it comes to moderation; they position themselves either as “speech machines” or “community keepers,” and build their policies around those stances. However, he does not oversimplify, noting the tension and interplay between the two camps, and how platforms ricochet between these justifications when trying to position themselves in the best possible light, often after an individual decision comes under scrutiny. As Gillespie puts it, “If social media platforms were ever intended to embody the freedom of the web, then constraints of any kind run counter to these ideals, and moderation must be constantly disavowed. Yet if platforms are supposed to offer anything better than the chaos of the open web, then oversight is central to that offer—moderation is the key commodity, and must be advertised in the most appealing possible terms.” It is a contradiction that can never be fully reconciled, and one that is inevitably shaped by the economic imperatives of making a platform profitable as well as functional.

For those unfamiliar with American law, Gillespie includes an introduction to Section 230, the provision of telecommunications regulation better known as “safe harbor” that holds intermediaries or conduits innocent of any responsibility for the speech or content of their users. It further stipulates that moderation in good faith does not change this provision. This regime was designed for the telephone era, and Gillespie convincingly argues that social media platforms, which the law could not have foreseen, “violate the century-old distinction between deeply embedded in how we think about media and communication,” and further that they constitute “a hybrid that has not been anticipated by information law or public debate.” The book is not largely focused on solutions, but Gillespie does propose that safe harbour need not be unconditional. Rather, platforms could be asked to meet certain requirements in order to maintain that status, whether that means greater transparency or improved appeal structures. However it seems likely that the platforms would vociferously oppose any change to this generous provision, which grants them the best of both worlds—the right to remove any content they please, but responsibility for none of it.

Gillespie is largely interested in looking at the big picture, and at the breadth of content which platforms host and police. Policies must be designed to cover a wide range of content, and Gillespie seems less interested in specific case studies, except in so far as they show how a broad dictate such as “no nudity” can come into conflict with a more specific situation, such as breastfeeding, to which he dedicates a chapter. Gillespie is also interested in problems of scale, and the issues that arise when a platform is home to multiple communities of people with conflicting values, and differing ideas about where lines should be drawn. Small, homogeneous online communities that believe they do not require moderation often get a rude awakening when they receive a large influx of new users who do not share their presumed values.

In this broad discussion, Custodians of the Internet is laying the groundwork for our emerging conversation about the role the platforms have played during the growth of the web as our dominant form of media, and the role we want these platforms to play in public discourse going forward. This is part of a larger discussion about not only moderation, harassment and free speech, but also data privacy, the gig economy, microtargeting, algorithmic bias, and more. The distribution of power and responsibility will shape our future in ways we have only begun to comprehend.

Invisible Women

Cover image for Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perezby Caroline Criado Perez

ISBN 978-1-4197-2907-2

“Routinely forgetting to accommodate the female body in design—whether medical, technological, or architectural—has led to a world that is less hospitable and more dangerous for women to navigate. It leads to us injuring ourselves in jobs and cars that weren’t designed for our bodies. It leads to us dying from drugs that don’t work. It has led to the creation of a world where women just don’t fit very well.”

In a data driven world, evidence is everything. But so much of our data is biased, or incomplete, often entirely failing to account for a full half of the population. Author Caroline Criado Perez—known for receiving death threats for advocating to have Jane Austen on the back of Britain’s £10 banknote—calls this the “gender data gap.” And while Criado Perez believes that this gap is, generally, neither deliberate nor malicious, it nevertheless has consequences, ranging from inconvenient to deadly. Poised on the edge of a future where proprietary black box algorithms will use this data to make decisions humans can barely understand, amplifying this invisible bias by orders of magnitude, Criado Perez argues that it is more important than ever that we collect this data, and separate it by sex in order to prevent women from falling through the cracks of a male default world.

Invisible Women reads as a veritable laundry list of gaps, omissions, and injustices that result from presuming a male default in everything from medicine to urban planning to product design. Testing treatments on young (mostly white) males, and then adjusting for women and children, presumes a level of understanding of human biology that we have yet to achieve, and probably never will if we continue to avoid studying large segments of the population. It can also lead to astonishing oversights, such as building houses without kitchens. This happened in the wake of not one, but several disasters in South East Asia, where only consulting with men about the process of rebuilding lead to the creation of houses that failed to include the facilities that were predominantly the domain of women. Some of the examples are glaringly obvious, while others are patched together through a variety of smaller or older studies that give us an impression of what we might be missing because we’ve failed to study “atypical” patterns or behaviours that are in fact only atypical for men.

Done well, science is a tool for discovering the truth about our world. Done poorly, it can enshrine falsehoods and half-truths as doctrine. And leaving women out of almost all medical research for the sake of simplicity and reducing variables is just one example of how research can arrive at such half-truths—truths that are valid for one half of the population, but do not necessarily hold for the other. After nausea, Criado Perez found that the most commonly cited adverse drug reaction among women was that the drug simply didn’t work. For the author, this also raises an equal but opposite question; how many drugs that would have worked for women, but not men, never made it past trials because they were not effective in the majority of the (male) study participants? It is this kind of default thinking that can lead a company to make bank on a drug that stimulates erections in men, while completing ignoring the fact that the same drug was reported in trials to complete eliminate menstrual cramps in women for up to four hours. That’s like sitting on a gold mine and ignoring half of it.

In a book about gaps and biases, I did notice one significant omission in the discussion. Not once does Criado Perez mention transgender women. Nor is the term cisgender ever used. This is in spite of the fact that the she acknowledges that “the female body is not the problem. The problem is the social meaning we ascribe to that body, and a socially determined failure to account for it.” Criado Perez follows three themes through the book, which are the female body, women’s unpaid care burden, and male violence against women. While transwomen’s medical realities are different than those of ciswomen (and probably in the middle of an even bigger data gap thanks to their small numbers) they are very much a part of the latter two, most especially male violence against women. Combined with neglecting to discuss the singular they pronoun in a discussion of gender inflection in languages, and a couple of comments that reduced gender to genitals, I was left wondering if Criado Perez was thinking intersectionally. This was a glaring omission in an otherwise very thorough book which included many examples specific to working class women, women of colour, and women in the developing world.

Protect the Prince (Crown of Shards #2)

Cover image for Protect the Prince by Jennifer Estepby Jennifer Estep

ISBN 9780062797643

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher

 “I wasn’t the queen everyone had expected and I certainly wasn’t the one they wanted, so draping myself in layers of silk and cascades of jewels seemed silly and pointless. Besides, you couldn’t fight very well in a ball gown. Although in that regard, it didn’t really matter what I wore, since every day at Seven Spire was a battle.”

Having defeated her scheming cousin Vasilia in a royal challenge per the Bellonan gladiatorial tradition, Everleigh Winter Blair is now Queen of Bellona. Unfortunately, her impressive performance in the ring hasn’t stopped Bellona’s scheming nobles from continuing their long game, and taking bets on how long her unexpected reign will last. But Evie has bigger things to worry about, including the coming war with Morta, and Morta’s ongoing interference in her efforts to secure a treaty with the neighbouring kingdom of Andvari. With her closest advisors in tow, Evie sets out for Andvari, determined to personally seal the deal while there is still time. But the Andvarian court is full of its own plots and intrigues, as well as secrets about Lucas Sullivan’s past.

Protect the Prince picks up several months after the events of Kill the Queen, and is organized around a series of assassination attempts. Evie has claimed the crown, but now she must secure it against all those who would try the new queen. Having escaped during the royal challenge, and returned to her native Morta, Maeven and her Bastard Brigade grow increasingly desperate to complete their mission and kill Evie for the King of Morta, leaving Evie besieged from within and without. At the Andvarian court, she is also surrounded by Lucas’ family, his ex-fiancée, and an entire court of nobles who blame her for the deaths of Prince Frederich and Ambassador Hans during the Seven Spire Massacre. Internally, Evie struggles with imposter syndrome, trying to project strength and certainty to the world, despite her secret belief that she was never meant to be queen.

After playing coy in the first volume, Estep does finally deliver some romantic satisfaction in Protect the Prince. Evie and Lucas continue circling one another cautiously for most of this second volume; Lucas continues to stand on his principles, and Evie continues to respect his wishes, leading to a long and frustrating stalemate. However, traveling to Glanzen, and staying at Glitnir where Lucas grew up is a revealing twist that exposes how the son of the Andvarian king’s mistress became so guarded in the first place. A series of flashbacks equally develops Evie’s backstory, unveiling details about her parents’ murders and her own escape from Winterwind. In much the same way that Estep drew out the events of Kill the Queen by having Evie hesitate to trust her identity to Serilda, Lucas, and the other members of the Black Swan troupe, Protect the Prince is drawn out by Lucas’s inability to bend, and Evie’s unwillingness to push him, as well as her desire to protect him from the consequences of her new responsibilities as queen.

With Vasilia dead, Maevan and Morta take center stage as the villains of Protect the Prince. Maeven’s motives are slightly more developed than Vasilia’s, but she still comes across as a bit of monologuer. The Mortan king remains a shadowy, nameless background figure, pulling the strings of his Bastard Brigade, and allowing his illegitimate sister to do his dirty work while he plots to gain an empire. The title of the third volume, Crush the King, suggests that he will take on a more prominent role in the final installment of the Crown of Shards series, due out in 2020.

You might also like The Deepest Blue by Sarah Beth Durst

Kill the Queen

Cover image for Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estepby Jennifer Estep

ISBN 9780062797629

“Summer queens are fine and fair, with pretty ribbons and flowers in their hair. Winter queens are cold and hard, with frosted crowns made of icy shards.”

Although nearly thirty years old, Lady Everleigh Winter Blair is still a ward of her cousin, Queen Cordelia of Bellona. For more than half her life, ever since her parents were murdered, Evie has lived at the palace, serving as the royal stand-in for whatever luncheons and ceremonies are not deemed important enough for the Queen or her daughters to attend to personally. Apprenticed to the royal jeweler, Evie dreams of using her carefully hoarded savings to return home to Winterwind, her family estate, and live a quiet life far from the intrigues of the court. All she needs is the Queen’s permission, which she hopes to get at a luncheon announcing Crown Princess Vasilia’s engagement to Prince Frederich of Andvari. But Vasilia has plans of her own, and they do not include marriage, or an alliance with Andvari. When Vasilia murders her mother to secure the throne for herself, Evie is driven into hiding, taking refuge with the Black Swan gladiator troupe, owned by the disgraced Serilda Swanson, who was once bodyguard to Queen Cordelia.

Kill the Queen is an adult fantasy with a quasi-medieval, Roman-influenced setting, and a multi-tiered magic system. Evie is a “mutt” with only a hint of magic, despite her royal bloodline, while Cordelia and Vasilia are powerful elemental magiers who wield fire and lightning. Some people are mortals, with no magic at all, but this group is not explored in the book. The world is also populated by morphs, who can transform into other creatures, such as ogres and dragons. However, Evie has also been hiding another special talent for most of her life, an anti-magic, which her mother cautioned her to keep hidden at all costs, lest others seek to exploit her. So while Evie has certain abilities and advantages within this world, she is not a power player, and the arc of this novel is about watching her become one.

 Kill the Queen is not primarily a romance, focusing instead on court intrigues and gladiator adventures. But Evie does have a slow burn going on with Lucas Sullivan, the enforcer and head magier of the Black Swan troupe, from the moment that he finds her sleeping on the floor of his house inside the gladiator complex. But both Evie and Sullivan are prickly, secretive people who do not trust easily. This gives their relationship great banter, and a crackling tension, but though this is an adult fantasy, Estep does not deliver so much as a kiss, at least in this first volume of the planned trilogy.

The book’s main villain is Crown Princess Vasilia. Evie has known her since she arrived at Seven Spire as an orphaned child. By the time the book opens, the two women have nothing to do with one another, but once they were friends, and Vasilia betrayed that friendship. Over the course of the book, Evie slowly reveals the form that betrayal took, and the scars it left. She has very few friends, and trusts almost no one at the court. It is only once she arrives at the Black Swan that she considers friendship again, dangerous though it may be to her secrets. The Black Swan has its own intrigues, and unable to stay out of them, Evie finds the best friend she never had in Paloma, the troupe’s number one gladiator. Unfortunately, Vasilia herself is a bit flat, coming across as a monologuing psychopath. However, this has interesting consequences for Evie’s character, and combined with the fact that she is not set to be the series villain, it is a relatively minor complaint.

I listened Kill the Queen in audio form, narrated by the consistently excellent Lauren Fortgang, who also performed Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy, and was part of the cast for the audio version of Six of Crows as well. I’m now all caught up for the recently released Protect the Prince, so check back for that review soon!

You might also like The Deepest Blue by Sarah Beth Durst

Mistress of the Ritz

Cover image for Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjaminby Melanie Benjamin

ISBN 9780399182242

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “This is what an occupation does—it wears you down until you accept evil. Until you can no longer fully define it, even. Let alone recognize it.”

When American actress Blanche Ross marries French hotelier Claude Auzello, she gives up a free-wheeling lifestyle for a more staid existence as the wife of the manager of the beautiful and famous Hotel Ritz, on the Place Vendome. Marrying in haste, they soon find themselves at loggerheads over their differing expectations. Over decades, they broker a fractious peace, but all of that is swept aside when the Nazis occupy Paris, and make the Ritz their headquarters. Now the Auzellos are faced with a deeper question; do they acquiesce or resist?

Mistress of the Ritz is told in alternating chapters, beginning with the Auzellos whirlwind courtship in 1923, and then jumping ahead to the Occupation in 1940. However, Melanie Benjamin often blurs these distinctions, switching to the 1940s, only to have Blanche spend pages reminiscing about the events that were recounted in the earlier chapter. The novel is based on true events, but in the Author’s Note, Benjamin concedes that the historical record of the Auzellos is so slight that most of the book comes from giving her imagination free rein. This takes fullest expression in the character of Lily Kharmanyoff, an unlikely friend who pushes Blanche to question her comfortable situation.

The relationship between Claude and Blanche is the lens for the rest of the story. There is always a third in their marriage, and sometimes a fourth. They both love the Hotel Ritz; it is the child they never had. Yet Claude’s emphasis on the duties of his job, and his conformation to the establishment’s conservative and old-fashioned rules inevitably causes tension with his independent-minded wife. While some American women found more freedom in pre-war Paris, Blanche is stifled by Claude’s unfamiliar French Catholic world-view. When Claude takes up visiting a mistress on Thursday nights, and forthrightly explains this to Blanche in French fashion, the fissures in their marriage only widen. It is on this cracked foundation that they become the managers of the Nazi’s Paris headquarters, walking a fine line between collaboration and resistance. Unable to quite trust one another, they must make their own decisions about how to protect the staff, the hotel, and their secrets while avoiding retribution from their occupiers.

Benjamin sets up two facts as points of suspense which are of questionable effectiveness, in that the reader is not likely to be surprised or deceived. Part way through the book, Claude begins receiving mysterious phone calls in the middle of the night. He tells Blanche he has taken another mistress, but it is immediately clear that this not the case, though Benjamin obfuscates for a hundred pages. The reader is unlikely to be surprised by the revelation that he is working with the Resistance, so this point is only useful in heightening the tension between Claude and Blanche. Such devices, carried out too long, begin to make to protagonist look unobservant. At the same time, Benjamin veils Blanche’s origins with questionable effectiveness, trying to play her Jewish heritage off as a big reveal towards the end of the book. Leaving aside the fact that no one’s identity is a plot twist, Benjamin also sacrifices the opportunity to explore the emotional implications Blanche must have felt, living as a secret Jew under the nose of the Nazi command in Paris. This aspect of her psyche was much more interesting to me than her tribulations as the wife of a condescending philanderer, but the latter receives much greater emphasis.

You might also like A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

Fall, or Dodge in Hell

Cover image for Fall by Neal Stephenson by Neal Stephenson

ISBN 978-0-06-245871-1

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “She began to feel that the tech industry, which prided itself on having disrupted so many other things, was now creeping up on the moment when it would attempt to disrupt death.”

When wealthy businessman Richard “Dodge” Forthrast dies on the operating table during what was supposed to have been a routine operation, his family discovers that a decade earlier, he made out a highly unusual will, bequeathing his body to science with the understanding that it should be preserved until such time as his brain can be digitized and uploaded. In the intervening time, his Corporation 9592 has made a vast fortune, and his death establishes a highly-endowed foundation charged with helping bring this future to pass. His will also binds his fate together with the machinations of the eccentric billionaire Elmo Shepherd, who has his own ideas about the digital afterlife. As years pass in Meatspace, an elaborate structure of shell companies, foundations, and quasi-religious movements grow up around supporting Bitworld, with Dodge’s niece Zula, her daughter Sophia, and his friend and former colleague Corvallis Kawasaki caught up the labyrinthine consequences of Richard Forthrast’s last will and testament.

You probably need to be an author as established and respected in the genre as Neal Stephenson to get away with writing a book like this. It is nearly 900 pages long, and begins with the protagonist waking up, and spending a good several pages pondering the concept of consciousness. It then goes on to pull in mythology, theology, philosophy, and literature, all while toggling between science fiction tropes and high fantasy quests, through an ever-shifting cast of point-of-view characters. After teeing off the action with his death in the opening chapters, Dodge himself disappears from the narrative for nearly three-hundred pages. Stephenson is also the author of a trilogy known collectively as The Baroque Cycle, and baroque is certainly a term that is applicable here as well.

After Dodge’s death, the narrative is handed over to Corvallis, aka C-Plus, who has been named the executor of his friend’s will. It is up to him to help Zula and the rest of the Forthrast family navigate the bizarre ramifications of Dodge’s forgotten desire to live forever in bits and pixels. Meanwhile, C-Plus is caught up in the largest internet conspiracy ever executed, one he believes, but cannot prove, to have been masterminded by El Shepherd for reasons unknown. The baton then passes to Sophia, now grown into a college student, and planning to spend her summer as an intern at the Forthrast Family Foundation, working on the problem of DB or Dodge’s Brain. But first she must make the trek across the post-truth America created by El’s Moab Hoax. These three hundred pages set the stage for the creation of Bitworld.

When Dodge’s Brain is finally digitized, uploaded, and switched on, Fall becomes focused upon literal world-building. Existing mythology meets new creation story as the being who calls himself Egdod achieves consciousness and begins to give shape to the Land. The language also shifts accordingly, as Stephenson’s style becomes more formal, adopting the tone and cadence of mythology. Egdod cannot quite recall before, and indeed it takes him some time to remember that there was a before, but the world he is shaping around him nevertheless begins to bear a distinct resemblance to the imperfect one he left behind. For a time, he is the god of his own universe, but out in Meatspace, once it becomes apparent that the simulation is live, soon many more souls are clamouring to be scanned and uploaded when they meet their end. At first, those left behind can only see what is being created in terms of computational resources consumed, but with the invention of the Landform Visualization Utility, soon watching the goings-on in The Land becomes the primary form of entertainment for those on the original plane of existence. And not everyone there likes what they are seeing, or believes it is how the afterlife should look.

In general, I was more interested in the events back in the “real” world, rather than the development of The Land. The end of death as we know it has profound effects on Meatspace, not all of which Stephenson takes the time to fully explore. But Fall is working on a long time-scale, so as the story progresses, many of the characters that began in one realm cross over into the other.  The resulting story is a strange brew of mythology and scripture, meandering at times, and engrossing at others. Fall has distinct biblical influences, pulling in the Tower of Babel and Adam and Eve, but also draws significantly upon Greek mythology, and the rivalry of the gods. The physical edition is adorned with Gustave Doré end-papers, and Milton’s Paradise Lost is also heavily in the mix. An altogether curious journey.

You might also like City of Golden Shadow by Tad Williams