For 35 years, novelist Neal Stephenson has envisioned technological breakthroughs in mixed reality, robotics and spaceflight in his speculative fiction and cyberpunk bestsellers. Many credit him with predicting the World Wide Web in his third novel, 1992’s “Snow Crash.”
But the visionary author of “Cryptonomicon,” “Anathem,” “Reamde” and “Seveneves,” appearing in The City promoting his new book “Fall; Or Dodge in Hell” on Wednesday, understands that some technological initiatives can, as in the overly enthusiastic adoption of nuclear power after World War II, work against humanity’s best interests.
“I think we’ve got a split personality about technology right now,” says Stephenson. “The 2011 [Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster] based on ’70s-era technology put us in a very cautious frame of mind for understandable reasons. So whenever we look at new technology, we’re asking ourselves what are some of the bad things that can happen if we adopt this.”
The Seattle-based writer’s latest novel, released this week, poses these questions after its protagonist, late multibillionaire game developer Richard “Dodge” Forthrast, is brought back to life, assisted by computer science.
After being pronounced brain dead following a routine medical procedure, Dodge, according to his final wishes, is handed over to a cryonics company, which scans his brain, uploads its data and houses it in the cloud until technology advances enough to revive him into an eternal digital afterlife.
But the everlasting life full of an ever-growing number of digital souls is not the paradise Dodge anticipated, leaving the book’s readers contemplating whether “revolutionary” technological breakthroughs are, in fact, aiding or harming humanity.
Stephenson — who has worked part-time as an advisor for Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin space company and is currently employed as the Chief Futurist at Magic Leap, an augmented reality company, where he’s working on a project expected to revolutionize AR content consumption — believes that it’s helping for the most part.
“Clearly, technology can confer great powers on us and that power isn’t always used in a tyrannical or unfair way,” he says. “The power of medicine to heal diseases or to prevent them from happening in the first place, the power that our engineering gives many of us to live in nice sheltered homes — those are all examples of great power that can be used in a beneficial way.”
Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: A Novel
Written by: Neal Stephenson
Published by: HarperCollins
Note: Stephenson appears at 7 p.m. June 5 at Public Works, 161 Erie St., S.F., presented by Booksmith; tickets are $20 to $42; contact dodgeinhell.bpt.me.