Lament for the Fallen by Gavin Chait.
This is novel of many layers.
The outermost layer is the story of a stranger coming, in need and apparently by chance, into a remote community, and the subsequent interactions that change them both. As such, it’s a well worn theme. The idea of a man who falls to earth has been explored in several books and films. But for all that, Chait’s treatment of it feels fresh and original. Neither the stranger nor the community are in any way clichéd and the story does not evolve in an obvious or predictable fashion.
Perhaps this is because there are deeper layers. On another level, ‘Lament for the Fallen’ can be seen as a clash of cultures. The orbiting city of Achenia, the African village of Ewuru, each in their own way represent the new world, using technology to help cast off the ignorance and cruelty of the old. But that old world is still present, still strong, still a threat. It is seen in the violence and cruelty of Calabar, an African city ruled by rival militias: it is also seen in the corruption and stagnation of the United States, where advanced technology has been used to create the orbiting prison of Tartarus – a place who’s utter inhumanity pushes this novel almost into the realms of a horror story.
You can also see this as an insight into how advancing technology will effect society, for good and for ill. Of course, this is a standard theme in all SF, but Chait gives a new slant on it. It’s not just the super-technology of the orbiting cities that will change things. What difference will 3-D printing make to remote communities? Given the right software and the raw materials, they will have a much greater degree of independence than now exists, and all sorts of possibilities spring from that.
But at its heart, it seems to me that this is a story about stories. About how stories can challenge our thinking, how they can be used to mould us into old ways or inspire us towards new ones. It begins with a child’s request for a story and stories are interspersed throughout – each one a separate work of fine craftsmanship but also forming part of the overall story. As a writer myself, and a believer in the value of stories, I was especially impressed and delighted by the way that Chait mingles stories and evokes their power.
So you can read and enjoy this in many ways and at many levels. It is in addition an exciting adventure and an intriguing mystery. It does have a few weak spots, but they are the sort that only came to my mind after I had finished reading, when I was thinking it over. And this is a book that gives you much to think over! None of these issues effected the smooth and well-paced flow of words and ideas or my enjoyment while I was reading it.
There is, however, something of a paradox sitting at the heart of 'Lament'.
When scientists in Achenia bring to life the first truly self-aware Artificial Intelligence, they suddenly realise the moral implications involved in creating a person to serve them – in effect, a slave.
This profound ethical issue – for they are profoundly ethical people – has not, it seems, occurred to them before. Yet – and here’s the paradox – the fact that Chait has included this problem in ‘Lament for the Fallen’ shows that the issue isn’t, in fact, difficult to predict. If Chait saw this coming, then why didn’t his characters? After all, they were smart enough to create an AI and moral enough to recognise the implications once they had.
Well, perhaps I’m over-thinking this, and blurring the boundaries between the real world and the fictional. So feel free to overlook this point – except to notice just how deep the thinking can go in this novel, and how much thought it might trigger!