The Fortunate Fall

by Raphael Carter

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: July 1996
Printing: May 1997
ISBN: 0-312-86327-6
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 288

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Maya Andreyeva is a veteran camera, wired with chips and implants so that she can send her perceptions, her emotions, even her memories and imagination to a viewing audience. In her world, about 300 years in our future, popular entertainment is dominated by cameras, feeds tapped into by people all over the world. She's a reporter for News One and, when the book opens, is doing a story on the most formative event of her era: the Unanimous Army, a sort of virus that took control of people through their implants and sent millions of people walking across the world, crushing the government of the time and, in the process, overwhelming a concentration camp run by the preceding government.

Also as the story opens, Maya has been paired with a new screener. The screener gets the raw feed from a camera over the network and filters out the parts that don't contribute to the story and entertainment, smooths over emotions, covers things that shouldn't go on the air, and essentially serves as editor. Screeners also end up knowing more about a camera after one session than a friend of thirty years. And Keishi is both remarkably friendly and very adept at modifying Maya's perceptions over the network. This initially seems to be for typical reasons, if not at all what Maya wants in her life. And then the bottom drops out of the story and it becomes something entirely different.

The Fortunate Fall is one of the unfortunately hidden gems of the SF genre. It's Raphael Carter's first and only novel, prompting two Campbell nominations for best new SF author, but never won an award and has since dropped completely out of print. That's a crying shame since it's possibly the best cyberpunk novel that I've ever read, and in a way that lets me recommend it wholeheartedly even to people who don't like cyberpunk.

I've seen the camera concept in several other stories, but I've never seen it done half as well as The Fortunate Fall. Carter puts all the pieces together in a way that makes sense, in part by showing much more of the artifice and business of being a camera than I've seen elsewhere. Maya doesn't just walk around streaming her life like a webcam, which would be a passing curiosity at best. She puts together broadcasts, at particular times, in conjunction with an editor. There are multiple chips and mods involved, including ones that let her build vivid images from her imagation for the audience. There's emotional feedback in a live broadcast so that she knows how her audience is reacting. And the techniques for getting and holding attention match TV journalism and the standard principles of popular entertainment: vivid emotion, shock, forbidden subjects, and novelty.

But that's only a part of an incredibly packed 288 pages. There's a rich history and world background behind and deeply involved in this story, one that involves corrupt and incompetent bureaucracies, the horror of a collective intelligence virus that can work on people through implants (anticipating Stross's Glasshouse and others by a decade), and a wonderful inversion of geopolitics as a result of the Unanimous Army. The virus (which is my term, not Carter's; one of the strengths of this book is the deft avoidance of standard terminology and the predictable and dated baggage that comes with it without ever adding confusion) needed to start with people who already had implants, and its marching armies of millions of people never crossed the Sahara. As a result, continental Africa was spared all of the effects and is now a walled-off center of civilization and technology with a very strict immigration policy.

All of this is unveiled slowly over the course of the book. The Fortunate Fall throws the reader straight into the middle of Maya's life, avoiding infodumps (with one exception I'll mention in a moment) and weaving a world around plot and character interactions in a way that kept me constantly interested. There's so much on every page to think about, absorb, or speculate about that reading is a delight. This is one of those books that I tried to read slower because I didn't want it to end.

Maya has secrets, Keishi has secrets, and as both dig into the Unanimous Army and the Calinshchina death camp that was liberated by it, it becomes clear that the world has secrets. Some of those are wonderfully sly, like the Postcops and their cups of tea, which Carter makes simultaneously funny and dystopian in a way that's sadly believable. Some of those are simply frightening and unknown, such as the Weavers, the entites charged with ensuring nothing like the Unanimous Army could happen again. And they feel amazingly alive. Carter has a strong, sparse style that fits a hard-bitten veteran reporter well, but which still works in bits of wonderful lyricism, such as the justly celebrated opening paragraph to the book:

The whale, the traitor; the note she left me and the run-in with the Post police; and how I felt about her and what she turned out to be — all this you know. I suppose I can't complain. I knew the risks when I became a camera. If you see something important enough, your thoughts become a coveted commodity: they steal your memories and sell them tied in twine. Now you may find my life for sale in certain stalls, on dusty street and twisting alleyway; it is available on moistdisk, opticube, and dryROM. There are places on the Net where you can make a copy free, although the colors may have faded to sepia and the passions to pastel. You have taken my memories and slotted them into your head. And you have played them through, reclining on a futon in some neon-streaked apartment, reliving my every sensation and thought from the hour underground with the whale.

The writing throughout is amazing stuff — with, unfortunately, one major exception. There are two extended flashbacks in the book, telling the story that Maya is investigating. The first works. The second, unfortunately, is near the climax, and is followed by a difficult wad of conversation. Carter unwinds a vast depth of interlocking threads in the course of that discussion, one that at times dives far into deep philosophy. It's overstating the case to say that the book came to a screeching halt, but the climactic scene doesn't carry momentum nearly as well as it should have, and that makes for a rough bump at the most important part of the book. It's a bit too much telling rather than showing, and I wish that information could have somehow been spread across more action and interaction.

That said, though, that's the book's one flaw, and it's forgivable (and the conversation is very interesting on its own terms). Given the subject matter it tackles, it's amazing The Fortunate Fall works as well as it does. It's a cyberpunk book with mostly believable technology (particularly given a timeframe farther into the future than most), an early and still one of the best responses to Vinge Singularity, a book about computers and technology that doesn't feel dated, and, at its heart, a memorable and satisfying look at what it means to love, be human, share oneself with other humans, think, feel, and choose for oneself.

I love trap-door books, ones that pull you in along one path and then open up to be about something else entirely. And I love tight plots wedded with engrossing world backgrounds. Even with the stumble across the finish line, I loved this book enough that I'm tempted to read it again within the year, which is very rare for me. I agree with Jo Walton's comment in her excellent review: this is one of the most important SF novels of the past twenty years. It directly addresses and incorporates multiple SF tropes that I thought I was tired of and deals with them exceptionally well. And it is, if anything, even more politically relevant now than when it was written. It's a travesty that it's not in print and not better known.

Highly recommended. I don't think any SF reader will regret reading this book.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-05-16

Last modified and spun 2015-06-08