“Is there a ‘supposed to’?” Tiv asked. “It seems to me we’re all on our own. Deciding for ourselves.” That was both the freedom and the terror of it. (p. 195)
What happens when your good intentions come up against both the reality of power and the difficulty of making change happen? How do you make decisions when you no longer trust the old rule book, aren’t quite sure you trust yourself, but can be sure that those others who could lift the burden from you are even less worthy of your trust? This is a powerful existentialist theme, but it takes quite some time for The Fallen to develop it.
The novel’s preceding volume, The Outside, introduced a set of gods who are a form of artificial intelligence, dependent on absorbing human consciousness to retain a creative self-awareness. They are served by angels, who become more cyborged as they ascend in the service of their gods, and who are not constrained by normal human lifespans. The ordinary humans of this universe are spread across dozens of worlds, which are joined together by god-powered instantaneous gates and starships. Humans who develop their technology too far are in danger of being marked as heretics—and heresy leads to a bad end. Just how bad an end soon became clear when the mathematician Yasira Shen is disappeared and tortured when her work and technical aptitude start to break through into “the Outside.” It doesn’t matter to the gods that Shen is unaware of the danger of following in the footsteps of her former tutor, Dr Talirr; they even seem to have the safe outcome in mind, given Talirr’s use of her own skills has caused large-scale death and destruction.
Much of The Outside maintained an equipoise between the horror of both Talirr and the Outside and the terror of the gods’ own powers. In this latest volume, that equipoise is thoroughly broken. It is clear that the gods’ primary purpose is their own preservation—and that, as far as they are concerned, humanity needs to be kept in a balance of ignorance, fear, and comfort so that they remain worshipful and dependent. In that, one can easily generate parallels between the rulers and the ruled across much of human history.
The Fallen is primarily set in the Chaos Zone, a large area of the planet Jai which has been affected by the Outside as a result of Evianna Talirr choosing to test her capabilities on a huge scale. Yasira has used her own power to ameliorate the devastating effects of Talirr’s actions, but the region has nevertheless become strange—and some of the millions who live there have also become strange. The people of the zone are being “helped” by angelic forces—though only enough to slow down their rate of starvation—whilst simultaneously being arrested for the heresy of simply existing in a zone affected by the Outside, and being gunned down should they attempt to leave. The population now has no choice, then, but death or heresy.
Trying more honestly to help them are a ragtag band gathered around a group of Talirr’s former students. Yasira Shen and the rest of the Seven were all brilliant students of Dr Talirr, each engaged in aspects of her work which has branded them as heretics. Each has been captured and tortured by the angels in an attempt to force them to hand over Talirr or her technology—regardless of their ability to do so or their awareness of what Talirr has done. Not neurotypical to begin with, their treatment has affected each of them in different ways. And they have also been touched by the Outside, which has given them unique powers.
In their midst is Tiv, Yasira’s girlfriend and the most “ordinary” person among them. Tiv has become their de facto leader but is also overwhelmed by the impossibility of making a difference for the zone. She will not help the people with weapons, certain that insurrection will only drive the populace more quickly to their deaths. And yet, she has no better answer. There is no belief on the side of the Seven or of the wider population that nonviolent resistance is going to achieve their desired ends. Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of certainty as to what those desired ends might be—perhaps just to be left alone, both by the strangeness of the Outside and by the power of gods and angels.
When I reviewed Hoffman’s first novel, I felt that it could have been wrapped up as a stand-alone. For the first third of this sequel, it is as if we are witnessing the author opening out the story again, finding a way to tell a larger tale. Most of the novel occurs within this space of inaction. In this sense, it is a classic middle volume, a fulcrum between invention and conclusion. There is a great deal of setup, establishing Tiv as the unwilling, unmagical Leader. Tiv spent much of the first book as a token in the conflict between Yasira and the gods, but now Yasira has been so overwhelmed by the Outside that she is trapped within her own anguish. Added to her autism, Yasira has now been fractured into multiple personalities. She is overwhelmed by an inability to decide and a fear of sharing her new problems with Tiv, certain that no one could love her now.
All of which is an uncomfortable read. And yet, this book is elsewhere fascinating, particularly in the way that it is so clearly science fiction and yet provides such an alternative to the avatar of the omnicompetent man. It was a lovely idea for many readers, once upon a time, that we could imagine ourselves into the mind of the fearless person who could take on the might of the empire for the love of a good woman or the surety of being right. Instead, The Fallen centres on a group of people who are not sure what right action is or whether they are strong enough to carry through if they do determine a good enough action. They are neurodiverse and gender-diverse and when the time comes for action, they act in a diverse manner as well. This feels like science fiction for our time; an honest recognition of how strange our own world is, reflected into the future; a dialogue of the oppressed, who recognise their own oppression and choose to act despite the likely consequences.
As the book progresses, it becomes clear that action is possible, that it is necessary, even though there is no perfect option. This is the reality of “deciding for ourselves.” Doing nothing will result in the loss of everything dear to them; acting in hope may lead to fewer casualties than acting from despair. Hoffman’s writing is just as effective at describing motion as it has been in contemplation. The encounters with the Outside are richly described whilst the conflict is intense and affecting, with outcomes that seem more devastating than effective.
There is another book to come. This time, that feels more fitting, as the author has threaded in a broader history and more backstory. Evianna Talirr is waiting offstage—and the might of the gods, held up for so long, must surely come into play. The final pages of The Fallen feel like a rattling fall away from the novel’s crescendo and an invitation to prepare for an intriguing continuation.