In the last installment of the QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics series, we discussed The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez, recently rereleased in a 25th anniversary edition. This week, we will tackle a book that hasn’t yet gotten a rerelease, and despite accolades and a steady trickle of reviewers rediscovering it over time, is still conspicuously missing from bookstore shelves: Raphael Carter’s The Fortunate Fall.
Raphael Carter was one of the earliest bloggers, maintaining the Honeyguide Web Log from 1998 to 2002, but despite this, it can be remarkably difficult to find personal information about zir. (Carter doesn’t have a current public online presence, but in the early 2000s, zie was using zie / zir / zirs / zirself pronouns.)
Carter is intersex and and transgender, and has a history of activism related to both. Zir satirical essay “The Murk Manual: How to Understand Medical Writing on Intersex” can still be found on the website of the Intersex Society of North America, but much of zir witty and biting work is only passed along as archive.org links. Carter was interested in terminology and wrote terminology pieces about androgyny in the sense of what we would now call non-binary gender, as distinct from sex.
Besides this, not much is known about zir, and Wikipedia only offers the cryptic personal detail that zie “moved from Phoenix, Arizona, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1995.” Zie wrote the short story “‘Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation’ by K.N. Sirsi and Sandra Botkin,” which won the Tiptree award in 1998, and one novel—a Locus award finalist, but now out of print: The Fortunate Fall.
In the absence of any biographical information, we can only speculate on the disparate sources of inspiration that went into this book—from Afrofuturism to the classic Russian canon of fiction. Maybe that is why many reviewers elide these elements, sadly uncommon in the mainstream of English-language SFF then and only gaining prominence now, over two decades later; instead, reviews of the book tend to focus on the cyberpunk-postcyberpunk aesthetic of the book.
To put it in crudely present-day terms, this is a book in which queer post-Soviet women attempt to immigrate to a Wakanda that develops sentient bitcoin. For love.
That in itself is a vast oversimplification: The Fortunate Fall also presents not only a giant conspiracy backdrop to its plot, but also unfolds it in Part II of the novel over the course of an exceedingly long (but still gripping) conversation. The book echoes not just Russian classics, but broader Eastern European literature (I was reminded of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon in places, even) both in its gentle references and also in narrative structure. The Fortunate Fall is very much not built like an American novel.
It works for the most part, and to this non-Western reader, it is a welcome experience. It does break down sometimes when we get to the finer details. The Russian is occasionally transcribed oddly. A more structural issue is that the Afrofuturist elements are removed from the characters’ day-to-day reality. The pan-African superpower is so ahead of the rest of the globe as to come across as divine, it’s powerfully written and leaves an impact on the reader–but this also means we unfortunately see less of it than we could… and for the immense amount of worldbuilding that went into this book, there is no sequel. The author explicitly plays with the fact that a character has a name that sounds like how foreigners imagine Japanese names (!), but the reveals connected to that did not always click for me. The novel also tries to comment on celibacy without the benefit of the more recent asexuality discussion. Yet overall, The Fortunate Fall is so strikingly imaginative that I was captivated despite the occasional annoyance.
It is also an unashamedly queer book, but not in the easy-to-digest way that is on its way to becoming standard in mainstream SFF (after many Tragic Queers, I must say). This novel features the messiest romantic relationship that I have read about in years. With the pressure to stay together no matter what, in a culture that is unspeakably hostile to such attempts, it all leads up to a massive trainwreck that is, at the same time, sadly relatable. A power imbalance also plays out that the characters can’t quite resolve. It is striking and terrible and probably does exactly what the author intended. Be prepared.
In good Russian fashion, there is also ample symbolism. While I would not call this an intersex #ownvoices book per se, as none of the characters are intersex, there is a fascinating segment where a character describes being mentally connected to a giant whale as being akin to a hermaphrodite. Even though this might reveal plot details, it is both crucial to the book in my reading and has been absent from reviews I’ve read, so I will discuss it a bit, while trying to keep the plot under wraps as much as possible.
(Side note: “hermaphrodite” is generally considered a slur, and its reclamation for intersex people only, in projects like Hermaphrodites with Attitude, which Carter zirself also participated in.)
The key quote is on page 207:
“It is most difficult to explain, this being two selves at once, to you who are only one. You might as well try to explain your single self to a computer, who has none at all. For those of your viewers who speak Sapir–” He emitted a series of clicks and whistles, like a whale song played too fast. “Which, I suppose, if pummeled into Russian, would be ‘O my amphibious—no, my hermaphrodite—soul.’ And that is hardly useful. Perhaps a metaphor will help.”[Emphasis in the original.]
The character in question speaks to a fictional audience, but here Carter also speaks to the book’s audience, through the fourth wall. A lengthy discussion follows about perception, self-reflection, and literalized metaphor.
This segment is all the more important as the symbol of the whale runs through the entire book, from the very first sentence—“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.”—all the way to the very last, which I will not quote, as it discusses a major plot twist. Thus the novel not only clearly supports and invites an intersex reading, it provides its own key to being read in this way.
It is noteworthy that we had to wait until 2017 and Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts (which I reviewed on my own book blog) to find explicit intersex representation in mainstream SFF—and likewise on the Locus Awards list. But we shouldn’t forget about these exceedingly important forebears, especially those that might be missed due to a narrow focus on themes over authors.
A personal note, here, at the end: It is eerie—and shows how efficiently QUILTBAG+ literatures are suppressed—that I wrote a story about my intersex experience, also relating it to a giant sea creature, in 2016 (just published in Fireside Magazine last month) entirely unaware of Carter’s similar analogy. I knew the book existed, but I hadn’t read it at that point, as it was not only out of print, but a publisher promised a rerelease that was later cancelled. I was waiting for the rerelease, then gave up. Used copies can greatly fluctuate in price, and this review might make the prices increase, too; but I still hold out the hope that the book will be rereleased one day. (An anonymous benefactor purchased the book for me the book via Amazon wishlist, and thus made this review possible—thank you!) Perhaps one day soon a new generation of readers can also discover the whale…
Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person (e/em/eir/emself or singular they pronouns) currently living in the US with eir family and a congregation of books. Bogi writes, reviews and edits speculative fiction, and is currently a finalist for the Hugo, Lambda and Locus awards. You can find em at Bogi Reads the World, and on Twitter and Patreon as @bogiperson.