The Fortunate Fall

Back in 1999, someone then known as Raphael Carter won the Otherwise (then Tiptree) Award for a short story called “Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation”. Carter was one of the first people I had heard of who had a non-binary gender identity. Indeed, we were told that Carter had no gender.

Well, time moves on, and so sometimes do trans people. Recently I discovered that Carter is now Cameron Reed (she/they). She’s happy for people to keep referencing the Carter name, because that connects her to her previous work. But she’s also working on new fiction. This caused an outpouring of joy on my little corner of Mastodon. In addition to the Otherwise-winning story, Reed had also written an amazing novel called The Fortunate Fall. I’ve been wishing I could have more fiction from her for some time. And now, it seems, I will.

What’s more, Tor are apparently going to re-issue The Fortunate Fall in 2024 as part of their Tor Essentials series. So those of you who were not reading SF&F back in the 20th century will soon be able to enjoy it too.

Don’t take my word for it. The list of people excitedly welcoming Reed back to the author community included Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Bear, Charlie Stross, Jo Walton, Chaz Brenchley and Ruthanna Emrys.

And to get you excited too, here is my review of the book from Emerald City #58.

During the Ken MacLeod panel at Wiscon Tom Becker commented that another author with an interesting take on the inhumanity of uploaded minds was Raphael Carter. Roz Kaveney kindly found me the book in the dealers’ room and I read it on the flight back to California. Boy oh boy have I let you guys down here. This one is a cracker, and it has been about since 1996. I hang my head in shame.

Maya Tatyanichna Andreyeva is a Camera. That is, her brain has been wired with the necessary equipment for everything that she sees, smells and touches to be monitored, recorded and transmitted. It is called Telepresence, and as a sensory experience it is as far above television as that ancient technology is above the even more antiquated newspaper. The world is no longer watching, it is there, because Maya is there for it.

But Maya of course is not just a conduit for experience; she is a journalist. What the public experiences is not random, it is what she has prepared for them. The sights, smells and sensations are, to a large extent, as she chooses them. The view of the lake is obvious; the clammy feeling around the ankles is because Maya has walked into the ooze around its edge. And the sense of nausea that the audience feels on being told that the mud they are standing in is made from the ashes of thousands of human bodies is enhanced by Maya’s own emotions, held carefully in check by her screener back in the studio until she choose to announce the fact. Maya Adreyeva is a journalist, and she is investigating The Holocaust.

No, dear reader, not that Holocaust. Never underestimate the ability of mankind to surpass itself in cruelty. It all began with the Guardians. They came out of America with tanks, guns and Bibles. Their mission was to bring peace to the world. And so they did, because anyone who disagreed with them was either shot outright or placed in re-education camps. They were very effective, and quite ruthless. To wrest the world from their grip would take an effort of extreme bravery, or mindless stupidity. Naturally those with the power to do something chose the latter.

The Unanimous Army was caused by a virus of sorts. It got into people’s minds and encouraged them to slot a certain type of chip that enhanced its own effects. It also encouraged them to help convert others. And that was all the free will it left them. The Army grew rapidly, exponentially. Like a locust swarm it moved across the planet: implacable, hungry, and mindless. It marched.

No, to tell you any more would count as a spoiler. Suffice it to say that the world has recovered from the Army’s depravations, and that the domination of the Guardians has been broken. But there is a mystery here. Where did the Army virus come from? Who wrote it? Who designed its campaign? Maya wants to know, and hopes that when she finds the answer it will be sufficiently interesting for the notoriously fickle public to tune in to her broadcasts rather than those on another channel. What she finds is something else entirely. All unwitting, Maya has contrived for herself an interview with the last survivor of a terrible genocide.

So much for the plot. And if that were all there was to it, the book would be a very fine one indeed. But you can’t just write about subjects like that as if you were producing some Jeffrey Archer thriller. There are philosophical questions to be answered, specifically about the nature of evil. These are questions that can sometimes only be answered in myth. And you can’t just broadcast stuff like that through your own mind without being affected by it. There is, after all, this little problem called feedback.

And there is more, so much more. For Maya herself has secrets. She wears a suppressor chip that shuts off part of her mind. It is a punishment for a terrible crime that she committed years ago. Those who watch the world of information, who guard against a re-occurrence of The Unanimous Army, or something like it, dare not let human thought get out of control. The Weavers, as they are known, are largely uploaded minds, working at frantic speed in cyberspace. They have to be so to do their job properly. The only trouble is that in making themselves into ideal thought police they may have ceased to be human themselves. Indeed, they may no longer even understand what it is like to be human.

Had I known about this book when it was published I would probably have been clamouring for it to be nominated for a Hugo and the Mythopoeic Award. As it was, Carter got Campbell nominations in 1997 and 1998 which is good to know. Since then, all Carter has produced is a short story which won a Tiptree. Genius, I guess, is not on tap. But there is a very good book out there, and you should all go read it.