The Fortunate Fall, Raphael Carter

Tor, 1996, 288 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86034-X

The adventure of discovery! The thrill of the new! The excitement of excellence! The perils of plunking down a sizable chunk of real money for a hardcover!

Who would want to go bungee-jumping when such thrills are so readily available to the average reader? Why go white-river rafting when a trip to the local bookstore can provide such exciting minutes of agonizing decisions?

Just in case you’re wondering, I’m talking about the rewards of reading first novels. This is where the local library comes in handy: At the worst, you’ll waste only time, not time AND money.

Which brings us to the subject of this review, a perfectly acceptable offering by Minneapolis, Minnesota resident Raphael Carter: The Fortunate Fall (In case you’re wondering who Carter is, you’re not alone, and not about to be satiated by the author’s blurb, which was reproduced here in its informative integrality.)

In a publishing world where every first novel is “the best book I’ve read in my life” or “the best look at postmodernist whatever since…”, It’s refreshing to find a first work that lives up to most of the quotes on the cover: There was no “better first novel published in 1996,” so Emma Bull won’t have to “eat [her] hard drive.”

The elements of the plot aren’t exactly new: Human cameras have been around for a while in SF (most famously in Gibson’s Count Zero) and avid readers of recent works in the genre will have a certain kick comparing this book to Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire. (both taking place mostly in a complexly fractalized near-future Europe and sporting female protagonists named Maya)

But Carter manages to do some impressive things with the concept: One camera must work with a Screener, which filters most of the unwanted peripheral sensations. The novel begins as Maya Andreyeva has to switch Screeners, only to end up with a female partner (an unusual occurrence.) Soon, Maya is dealing with a political coverup, an incarceration, long-distance love with her Screener and the biggest scoop of her life.

But never mind the plot. As with many new authors, it’s the details that are fascinating. Maya’s “objective” reality doesn’t exist any more. She is so wired that she can choose to see images, experience sensations… Perhaps the best passage in the novel is early on, when she tries to convince her rental automobile that the alcohol she’s taking is for medicinal purposes. (nanobots refuelling, actually) The car doesn’t see it the same way, and soon tries to stop, since drinking and driving are incompatible. The situation is resolved by the almost-literal appearance of Maya’s Screener and an instance of creating reprogramming.

It may sound boring, but Carter recounts it far better than I have. Surprisingly, his style is distinctive without being overwhelming. The prose is mostly uncluttered but assured, wry, confident… cool. If only for this quality, Carter has managed to get a “To Watch” rating on my mental Author Scoreboard. Unlike many new authors, Carter doesn’t have the impulse to show us how smart he is at the expense of good storytelling.

Yet, Carter’s work is smart. He mixes sociological insights with musings about the nature of love, life and everything… It’s an interesting mélange. The books succeeds more than it falters, and one couldn’t ask more.

I was a bit disappointed by the conclusion, where we go back to the time-honoured tradition of having the villain talk about his evil plan in front of billion of people (but this is excusable, since Maya is a camera, duh!) The finale is… interesting.

The book is full of “good bits”; the already-mentioned car argument, Maya’s interrogations by two “policemen”… but the background details are also interesting without being flashy: North America is a backward (“I could always emigrate [there] and spend my live seeing nothing more technologically advanced than a pitchfork”) continent, but Africa has brilliantly combined ancient traditions with high-technology.

The medium length of the book and the easygoing prose makes the readers breeze through the novel. I do get the feeling that this is one book I won’t avoid re-reading in a few years.

This is Good Stuff. Just when our bookstore’s shelves are covered with TV tie-ins and derivative trash, it’s refreshing to see original material like this. Kudos to The Fortunate Fall, its readers, Tor Books and Raphael Carter.

Besides, paperback books are way cheaper than bungee-jumping. And you can read The Fortunate Fall in the bathroom, instead of going to the bathroom before your unfortunate fall—

okay, so you got the point.

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