The Fortunate Fall
Still reading some of the science fiction I heard about at last year’s WisCon, like Raphael Carter’s The Fortunate Fall, I took Eleanor with me to this year’s, and it was a different kind of experience, less about loving books and more about media and criticism of what people who tell stories are not getting right, at least the way I picked from the sessions available, aside from the guest of honor readings by Hiromi Goto and N.K. Jemison, which were as fun as being read to always is.
In a session on medieval people of color I was introduced to an interesting tumblr, Medieval POC, but had to sit through what sounded like conspiracy theory ramblings about how historians don’t present all of the truth. I thought about raising my hand and asking if this could be a result of increasing specialization in academia, but before I could, a former high school English teacher moved the discussion in a better direction by pointing out that what is taught in the US is often bounded not by the teachers but by the textbooks, that as the Texas textbook controversy showed us, textbook companies help select the facts that children learn.
The folks on the panel for the case against Steven Moffat hadn’t bothered to prepare the “pro” side, and so instead of a mock trial with the audience delivering a verdict at the end, that session opened with the panel members ridiculing the idea that anyone could defend Moffat and then devolved into fan “wank,” with panel members admitting they hadn’t watched entire seasons and blaming him for episodes written by others.
What I like about the informality of WisCon is that when panel members love what they’re talking about, they can discuss it in great detail and answer questions from the audience. That worked well for sessions on The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, Pacific Rim, SF with corporations as characters, SF with older women as characters, and Veronica Mars. In fact, the people in the Veronica Mars session were so enthusiastic that when the moderator said the time was up, discussion continued and moved out into the hallway.
It’s clear to me that what is worth discussing about science fiction is what we love about it, which makes talking about The Fortunate Fall a bit difficult. There are things I love about it all the way through, but I was disappointed by the ending.
One of the best things about The Fortunate Fall is the way it’s told. The narrator, Maya, is a person with sockets in her head, working as a “camera” by recording what she experiences and broadcasting it as news. In the introduction, however, she points out that however exact the experience of plugging into her head may be for other people, “what you saw, heard, touched, remembered, does not quite exhaust my meanings. With the moistdisk in your head, however bristled you may be with sockets, what you see is only that moment of experience, frozen forever. It excludes any later reflections upon the event.”
Reflection has a greater importance in this future world than in our own, we come to realize, because what has been recorded as fact can be changed. One of Maya’s informants shows her that “once knowledge is centralized on the Net, it becomes very easy to change….And so in the modern age, the amasser of useless facts is your only hero.” The people of this whole world are like the handmaids in Gilead (in The Handmaid’s Tale), not knowing if the Biblical-sounding verses being read to them are taken from the historical Bible or have been manufactured by the state. Worse, the people of this world are living after what they call “The Awakening” in 2246, when the sockets in everyone’s heads were taken over by government agencies worldwide to use people as they pleased, a third of each country’s population under the control of its national army.
When asked “which is better? A tiger, or a poem about a tiger?” Maya says “they both have their merits” but her informant is incensed by this answer:
“Sophist,” he snapped. “To equate a piece of paper with a thing of flesh and blood! No, there is no comparison.”
This is a world in which “the Weavers control the Net, which is reality; the Postcops only police the flesh, and that has not been real for decades, if indeed it ever was.”
In the end, Maya decides that she does not think “any truly good motive should require a degree in theology to understand” and she makes a simple choice that she has convinced herself is the right one. The fiction has failed to convince me that it is the only choice, though, so I am left unsatisfied at the end of what I suspect could have been a truly great novel, kind of like how I am left unsatisfied by hearing other people talk about what they don’t like.
To reverse a famous quotation from Tolstoy, it seems to me that unhappy readers are all alike; every happy reader is happy in his or her own way. We can more easily select from the plethora of details that we love than we can dredge up evidence from the muck of what we hate. Do you agree?