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.
“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.