Published by Tor on October 25th 2016
Genres: Science Fiction
Our reviews of this author: Burning Midnight
A lot has to go wrong for the world to turn into an alt-physics realm of vertically-distributed islands, hovering in a breathable atmosphere, populated entirely by amnesiacs. Clearly those things have gone wrong at the beginning of Will McIntosh’s clever and absorbing novel, Faller, and much of the forward momentum of the story is fueled by the reader’s desire to find out how things could have ended up in such a disastrous and improbable state. I am a great admirer of several of McIntosh’s previous books, which are built on a foundation of big ideas, but always propped up by vivid and believable characters. Faller very much continues in that tradition.
On what comes to be called Day One, when a man awakens on what seems to be a broken and floating chunk of a city. The man has no knowledge of who he is, where he is, or why the world is full of inexplicable machines, whose purpose no one can remember. The clueless inhabitants face a number of obvious crises, most pressing among these being distressingly-limited amount of food, which more or less instantly generates a Hobbesian struggle for survival. In his pockets, our protagonist finds three things of note: a piece of paper with a series of symbols, apparently written with his own blood; a photograph of himself and a woman – whom he will be desperate to find, even if he can’t remember her; and a toy soldier with a parachute. The man comes to believe these items are messages he sent himself before he lost his memory, and that they provide the key to understanding who he is and where he comes from.
Faller – as our protagonist, perhaps improbably, names himself – becomes obsessed with these personal artifacts, especially finding the woman in the photo, to whom he feels a deep connection even if he doesn’t remember. He also takes his cue from the toy paratrooper and begins experiment with an actual parachute, which leads Faller accidentally launching himself off the side of his island. Rather than plummeting to his death, as he expects, he instead discovers that there are other floating islands, also chunks of a larger whole, both urban and rural, and inhabited by other people – some precise duplicates of each other. With this discovery, Faller’s narrative course is set as he tries to put together the pieces of his missing past and his broken, all while navigating a post-apocalyptic landscape populated by militias, petty-dictators, and desperate survivors.
Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, we follow Peter Sandoval, a pre-disaster physicist working with experimental quantum technology to develop duplicated and disease-free transplant organs. The reader intuits pretty quickly that Peter is Faller before the cataclysm, speeding along a collision course with whatever dark future awaits. Blinded by his success and accolades, he worries a little less than is wise about the implications of technology he can neither fully understand or control.
Any novel with alternating perspectives is risks creating one story-line more interesting than the other, and that may be the case here. In the early chapters, Faller wanders through a strange realm full of inexplicable challenges, but once we understand how things work in the archipelago of floating islands, his story begin to weaken in comparison to Peter’s. This novel fits firmly in the category of science fiction thriller, and Faller’s narrative suffers from some of the common shortcoming of thrillers of any stamp: that is, the reader is hooked early on by characters and intellectual puzzles, but the final act consists mostly of action sequences. Some readers might not object to this change of tone, but I’ve always found it a little unsatisfying.
Peter’s narrative, on the other hands, stays the course. His is a world teetering on the brink of military conflict, environmental collapse and biological disaster. Even better, his story is full of wonderfully developed and complex characters facing difficult and painful decisions. Readers will turn the pages furiously to discover why Peter’s world literally falls apart, but the real pull of the journey is how these events affect and challenge McIntosh’s characters. Faller’s world, by contrast, is inhabited by relatively shallow characters. This is result of the challenge that McIntosh has set up for himself; characters who have no knowledge of who they are or where they come from are going to be inherently less interesting that characters who have pasts – since pasts provide backstory and depth. Yes, these characters’ true selves emerge, but their lack of self-knowledge makes them seem shallow or two-dimensional: the intrepid hero, the cruel villain, the helpless victim, and so on.
I also had some issues with the novel’s ultimate pay off. Part of the carrot that McIntosh dangles is the mystery of what exactly happened to fragment the world, and while we do find out, the explanation involves a little too much handwavium for it to be genuinely satisfying. I should emphasize, though, that these are fairly minor quibbles. McIntosh is a writer of impressive skill, and he’s crafted an extremely ambitious story. Faller grabs the reader with a fascinating premise and great characters, and when it stumbles, it does so largely because its best elements raise expectations. If it doesn’t meet all of those expectations all of the time, it still delivers a fascinating and enjoyable read, and it’s a book I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone who likes idea- and character-driven science fiction.