Jan 6 2010 5:50pm

“Locked in our separate skulls”: Raphael Carter’s The Fortunate Fall

The Fortunate Fall (1996) is about the possibility of changing human nature. You wouldn’t think that would be rare in science fiction, but it is, vanishingly rare. It’s hard to address. What Carter does here is to give us a viewpoint from about a hundred years in the future, a viewpoint with an awareness of a quite detailed future history and personal history, of which we only see as much as we need, but which gives us the illusion of much more. Maya is a camera, with new-style implants in her head plugged in to converters for her old-style ones. She broadcasts telepresence direct to the Net, her thoughts, memories, sensations, imaginings, and gets feedback from her audience. At the start of the novel she’s in Kazakhstan doing a series on a holocaust that took place fifty years before and has been almost forgotten, and she’s nervous because she has to work with a last minute screener who for all she knows could forget to filter out the fact that Maya needs a bathroom break. And thus we’re painlessly introduced to everything that’s going to be important: the world, the Net, the history that lies between them and us, Maya, and her new screener Keishi.

When I first read The Fortunate Fall, I felt that it justified Cyberpunk, it was worth having had Cyberpunk if we could come out the other side and have this book. Re-reading it now for what is probably only the fourth time in fourteen years, with quite a different perspective, it seems that this was, as well as a completion to Cyberpunk, also the first science fiction novel of the Twenty-First Century. It has dated remarkably little. Parts of it, like the Guardian regime where the Americans ran the world and ran the Square Mile camps as franchises (McGenocide, the text jokes) seem regrettably more plausible now than they did when I first read it. By and large with near-future Earths, they fit precisely into pre- and post- 9/11—by that classification The Fortunate Fall seems definitely post-. It’s one of the first post-Vingean books to deal with the Singularity and find interesting answers to it. In 1996 I didn’t know this was going to be an irritation much worse than Cyberpunk, but if the curse of Singularities is the price I have to pay for The Fortunate Fall, I’ll take that too.

This is an important book, certainly one of the most important books of the last twenty years. It’s a book I tend to assume everyone interested in science fiction’s potential will have read. And it’s also about as good as books get. Nevertheless I know a lot of people haven’t read it, so I’m going to discuss it as far as possible without spoilers.

It’s a very intense book both emotionally and intellectually—in that way I’d compare it to Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand and Cyteen. Like those books it is about what it means to love, and what it means to have your lifepath readjusted and hack your brain with technological mediation. They’d make a wonderful thematic trilogy of “Look, this is what SF can do and the kind of questions it can ask!” Cyteen (1988) doesn’t have a Net but the other two do, and how interestingly different they are! Carter’s Net has the cameras transmitting what they see and feel, and everyone else consuming that, it’s had a neuro-viral plague that transformed everyone who caught it to an Army that ended the Guardian regime, and it has no clear distinction between what’s in the net and what’s in the brain, when one can be hacked by the other. It has Postcops, people who wake up running software named after Emily Post who go around doing law enforcement for the day before resuming their normal lives the next day. It has Greyspace, where feral AIs have their own ecologies. It has Weavers, who are doing slow complicated fixes for things they don’t want to see, like homosexuality and Christianity—a “nun” chip in your head for the first that stops you feeling any desire. They’re working on subtler fixes, where people just lose their faith or desire. And this is just in the primitive Fusion cultures, because there is also Africa, where technology is incomprehensibly higher.

It is part of the human condition to be imprisoned in separate skulls, but for Maya it is something to long for. Technology has made everything fundamentally different. If there’s a small s “singularity” they are on the other side of one, they are forced both closer to each other and further away by the technology that links their brains, takes over their brains, edits their brains. Yet Carter writes about them as people we can know and care about. Their Net has changed not only what love means, but what it can mean, yet I have had conversations about Maya’s dilemma at the end of the novel that are all about love—in passing through Carter’s changed world, we come to re-examine our own axioms. (I think what Maya decides is just right. I will acknowledge that this is not the only valid point of view.)

It’s also worth saying that Carter’s prose is always astonishing, whether it’s hilarious:

I menued the chips colur to a grey that matched the fabric. I stepped back and checked the effect in the mirror. The transformation was amazing. Ten minutes ago I’d looked like a typically encrusted  old-time Netcaster. Now I looked like a dangerous lunatic with no fashion sense. Stop me before I accessorize again.

Or philosophical:

“We are a machine made by God to write poetry to glorify his creatures. But we’re a bad machine, built on an off day. While we were grinding out a few pathetic verses, we killed the creatures we were writing about; for every person writing poems there were a hundred, a thousand, out blowing away God’s creation left right and center. Well, Maya Tatyanichna? You know what we have wrought. What is your judgement? Which is better? A tiger, or a poem about a tiger?”

The first paragraph of the book has been so extensively quoted I won’t type it in again, even though I always turn back and read it again at the end.

The book is so mindblowingly much itself that it isn’t really like anything. But it was reading Camp Concentration that made me think of reading this now, because there are thematic similarities. The comparison Carter explicitly invites and the one I think is the most ultimately satisfying is with Moby Dick.

I wish it was in print.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. Ouranosaurus
My god, this is a good book. I was always on the lookout for anything else by Carter, but aside from one brilliant piece of short fiction I read in one of the best-in-SF anthologies, I've never seen anything else.

It also seems pretty obscure to me. I've never met anyone else who has read it, as far as I know.
Nick S
2. kukkurovaca
Yes, yes, yes. And yeah, I agree that it's all too obscure -- I think in large part simply because there aren't enough copies circulating. I wish someone would reprint the dang thing.

Also, does anyone know whether Carter is perhaps writing under a different name now? (He said, so optimistically)
Jon Evans
3. rezendi
I am appalled to learn that it is not in print. Paging Orbit...
Jed Reinert
5. Durandal
Wow. Sounds great, and it's something I not only haven't read, it's something I've never even heard of. It's now on my list of Out of Print Books to Look For at Used Book Stores.
6. ChrisF
Sounds awesome. In fact, I just ordered a used copy off amazon.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
Ouranosaurus: I've also kept looking, but there hasn't been anything. This seems like a book that took a lot of thinking about -- I'm hoping that Carter's thinking about something new, which will spring forth fully formed when it's ready.

Carter is not writing under another name.
Emmet O'Brien
8. EmmetAOBrien
The pacing is also very much doing Moby Dick, the slow careful measured provision of information so that when everything speeds up drastically towards the end you have everything you need to hand that it can be that fast. Carter's control of that speed is incredible.
p l
9. p-l
Thanks, Jo! This book has been popping up on my radar with increasing frequency lately. Now I think I'll order it and Cyteen. Stars in my Pocket is one of my favorite books, and any two that could profitably be read alongside it should be excellent :)
Pasi Kallinen
10. paxed
Interesting. I've never even heard of this book, so I'll definitely check it out
scott hhhhhhhhh
11. wsp_scott
I had also never heard of this, just got a used copy from Abebooks (appreciate the link BTW).

As a side note, I read A Door into Ocean last month based on your recommendation. That was an amazing book, thanks.
Marcus W
12. toryx
I read this a long time ago and I'm sorry to say that I only have vague recollections of it now. But I do remember being strongly moved by it and now that you mention it, it really is a startlingly post 9/11 book.
James Goetsch
13. Jedikalos
I just am finishing up reading "The Dazzle of the Day,", which you recommended in an earlier review (and it did not disappoint: what a marvelous book), so I suppose I need to go off and find this one too! You have not let me down yet.
Alena McNamara
14. aamcnamara
I recently happened upon a copy of The Fortunate Fall, actually, and found it weird and fascinating. It was interesting to read your review of it, too--although I would also be curious to hear more of your thoughts on it, spoilers included.
Jo Walton
15. bluejo
WSP_Scott, Jedikalos: It makes me very happy that you liked them, because that's a large part of what I'm doing this for.
16. intertext
It's an AWESOME book. I think I read it first on your recommendation back on rec.arts.sf.written and have trusted your taste ever since. I adore all the literary references (Shelley, especially), and, of course, it has one of the greatest _last_ lines ever written, so absolutely shattering.
17. Joel Polowin
I bought the book when it came out, partly because I'd had occasional contact with Carter via BBSing, partly because a number of people whose opinions I trusted had critiqued it while it was being written and had a lot of good things to say about it. It's a remarkably good book; I still point people towards it from time to time, even though it's not easy to find copies any more.

I'm not keen on cyberpunk in general -- what I've read has tended to be either dark with unpleasant characters, or "gosh, look at this amazing tech" with little consideration of how that tech would really work out. The Fortunate Fall deals with a likeable regular person who's living with that technology, in a world which has been shaped by it in a plausible way.

And yeah, in some ways the book seems more relevant and plausible now than when it was written. I've had dire thoughts about the Square Mile on Guantanimo, the McGulags with their minimum-wage poorly-trained personnel, etc. I'd like to see the book reprinted. (And, of course, to read whatever else Carter might come up with.)
18. dmg
You introduce us to too many excellent books, Jo!

I am W A Y behind on my reading pile, and falling ever farther behind. Yikes!

Just now ordered THE FORTUNATE FALL. Thank you.
Pamela Adams
19. PamAdams
Thanks- yet another of the 'Why didn't I notice this when it came out books!'
Kate Nepveu
20. katenepveu
I keep linking to this review without ever having said that it was really great. So, it was really great, thanks.
Pseu Donym
21. Scotoma
While I bought the book a few years ago, I only read it now because of your review here (which I recently found by poking around on It's truly everything you said it is, thought I found the first half a bit weaker than the second.

I think what Maya decides is just right. I will acknowledge that this is not the only valid point of view.

I'm probably one of those. Not because she decided against Keishi, but because she did not help Voskresenye complete his plan.

Also, did the concept of the Postcops and the Weavers reminded anyone of the big reveal about the true nature of the Brain Police at the end of Pat Cadigan's novel Fools?
22. Benjamin Chambers
Jo, I discovered your review column with the release of your own excellent book, *Among Others* (hat tip to Twitter, here), and I, too, have really enjoyed them and come to respect and trust your perspective. Well done!

In the case of Carter, I agree that it's an amazing, unusual book, but I have more reservations. One of the things that makes *The Fortunate Fall* so good is that it handles exposition and background information with such confidence -- in the first half of the book, it's Maya's voice and predicaments that are in the foreground. Instead of indulging in infodumps, he reveals the background fairly indirectly (one might even say a little too casually), so some of the implications of the world he's built are sometimes revealed with stunning offhandedness (the example I can think of is the distinction between robot currency and green currency, and major things like the Army and the way Postcops work, while interesting, are a bit hard to digest).

Yet in the second half (or maybe it's the last third), the book is nothing *but* exposition, with characters explaining at length what happened and why they did what they did. It begins with Voskresenye's story, which works fine, up to a point -- after all, he's telling a story -- but it devolves into lengthy and (I thought) abstruse philosophical debate, and the final revelations are improbable. The fault wasn't in the logic (I don't think: the threads were hard to follow), but in the drama -- an area where Carter was on such firm ground at the start of the book.

I completely agree it's a remarkable book, and Carter's prose, as you say, can be stunning, his ideas fascinating. It's a shame we haven't seen more from him. But if the book didn't get more attention at the time it came out, I think last half to last third of it is why.
Roland of Gilead
23. pKp
Same as katenepveu@20, I keep linking people to this review (hi, /r/printsf!) and I never told you how great it was. I still recommend that book to everyone I meet.

(I found it in a used bookstore in Paris - my copy is a discarded library book from St Petersburg, Florida. Love that book like a baby).

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