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The Fortunate Fall

May 27, 2014

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?

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 27, 2014 7:09 pm

    I do agree, mainly because when I hate a book, it’s almost always because it bores me or otherwise doesn’t seem worthy of my attention and therefore I do not follow the details closely enough to be able to argue about them. But when I love something, I obsess over those details, even when doing so can make me love it a little less (because paying such close attention sometimes has a price).

    • May 28, 2014 9:55 pm

      Yes, what you say about being bored and feeling that a book is not worthy of your attention is something most teachers face at one time or another, with assigned readings, and it’s difficult to tell a student to go ahead and list the things he or she hates, because they don’t want to spend time with those characters or in that world.
      And yes, such close attention does have a price sometimes. So far this hasn’t been too big a problem with V Mars. We waved our hands at the third season a little bit.

  2. May 27, 2014 11:24 pm

    I agree for much the same reasons as Harriet. Example: while Moffat may, as my daughter says, be like the guest you invite to a party and who then kills everyone you love, I could only come up with a few examples if pressed (admittedly, that would include a half hour rant about the 50th anniversary special). But I can forgive him almost anything because of weeping angels.

    • May 28, 2014 9:52 pm

      One of the things the panel was critical about is the weeping angels–they said that they were over-used and so became less scary. They also accuse him of racism in the second episode of the first season of Sherlock, and of writing Amy and Clara as less interesting and powerful female companions than they could be.

  3. May 28, 2014 6:02 pm

    Not really answering your question but you wrote “The fiction has failed to convince me that it is the only choice . . . ” And I’m wondering why would it need to be the only choice. This may shock you but sometimes I prefer ambiguity (which is probably why I like so much of Banks’ works).

    • May 28, 2014 9:49 pm

      It would need to be the only choice because it makes it a tragedy. In classical tragedy, the protagonist’s tragic fate was inevitable, which made watching him try to make choices even sadder.
      Certainly ambiguity in fiction is what makes it interesting. One of the main differences between popular best-sellers and “literary fiction” is that the ending of the latter is usually more ambiguous.

  4. May 29, 2014 12:43 pm

    It’s always so hard when you like a book so much and then the ending lets you down for whatever reason. Sometimes you can forgive and still love the book and sometimes it just ruins it. Sometimes I think it is far too easy to talk about the things we don’t like as with the Moffat panel you went to. What is really interesting though is that negative criticism comes from people who are so very passionate about the various shows Moffat writes, that they feel such ownership of the series that they, as viewers, believe they know better than Moffat the writer.

    • May 29, 2014 8:55 pm

      Yes, the feeling of ownership is interesting. I’ve heard the most passion from those who think that the role of a “companion” in Doctor Who could be so much more than the way it’s been written during Moffat’s tenure as show runner. Perhaps so many people writing fan fiction is increasing that sense of ownership?

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