Technology

Book excerpt: Neal Stephenson’s ‘Fall’ foretells the future of Seattle’s South Lake Union tech hub

Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood in 2015, before the latest wave of tech-fueled construction in the neighborhood. (Photo by Puget Sound Aerial Imaging for GeekWire)

Today, Seattle’s South Lake Union district is a beehive of tech activity, dotted with campuses for Amazon, Facebook and Google. The neighborhood retains that role in “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell,” the latest forward-looking novel by author Neal Stephenson.

In this excerpt from the book, we see South Lake Union through the eyes of Zula Forthrast, the grande dame of the Forthrast Family Foundation, as she makes her way to the foundation’s office building. The focus of the fictional foundation’s work is AfterLife Infrastructure and Systems Support, or ALISS, which supports Bitworld, a computer-hosted environment inhabited by entities who had their brains uploaded after death.

Neal Stephenson's "Fall; or, Dodge in Hell"
“Fall; or, Dodge in Hell” is the latest novel by Neal Stephenson. (William Morrow)

South Lake Union had held its own as a place where biological humans physically came together to work on things. Nowadays, mostly what they worked on was the high-level management of ALISS. Of course, the bulk of the actual work was performed by robots in space. None of those was even remotely humanoid. Their AIs were tuned to analyze space rocks and to solve conundrums relating to scheduling of tasks, logistical coordination, and resource allocation. You couldn’t talk to them, and if you could, it would have been like having a conversation with a shovel. The humans working below on the surface of Earth were just keeping an eye on things, looking way down the road, making sure that the robots could go on finding more space rocks and fashioning them into more robots until they ran out of space rocks. Then, if they needed to, they could begin busting up unused moons and planets, or go out to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, where there were many more rocks. The end state of all this would be a Dyson sphere: a hollow shell of rock and metal that would capture all of the sun’s power, spend it in computation, and radiate the waste heat into the cosmos as dull infrared light. But it would take a long, long time to get to that point. Long enough for every human now living to die of natural causes, even if they all used as many life-extension technologies as Zula. Earth, or at least a patch of Earthlike ecosystem, would be preserved as a kind of park, and bio-humans could live on it, if that was what they were into.

Nowadays the building looked as it had in the very beginning, when the steelworkers and the concrete pumpers had roughed in the structure but the framers had not yet shown up with studs and drywall. The floor-to-ceiling windows still looked exactly like windows, but were now actually complicated robots in their own right, making all kinds of moment-to-moment decisions about which wavelengths, and how much of them, to let in or out of the building.

When she walked in, the place was crowded, more so than she’d seen it in years. The windows had figured out, or been told, that people wanted it pretty dark so that they could watch Bitworld. Of course, everyone had glasses that would show them whatever they felt like seeing. But at times like this there was a lot to be said for shared communal viewing, so they had fired up a larger and more powerful appliance, a stationary holographic projector that could pump out a lot of photons. So everyone was looking at its output with naked eyes, sharing the experience.

“You got here just in time!” someone exclaimed.

Excerpted from “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell.” Copyright © 2019 by Neal Stephenson. Published by William Morrow. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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