Author: Ada Hoffmann
Title: The Fallen
Series: The Outside #2
I wanted to read something by Ada Hoffman for a while, as her books have been praised as both a good representation of neurodivergence and as solidly written stories. So when I saw this at NG I jumped at the opportunity, especially because the blurb was promising some cool hard SF, AI elevated to godhood, and a brewing human revolution on a distant planet. Not once had it mentioned that it’s a sequel ;). My bad, I guess, I should have checked the specs on other websites – though to be fair, I think this is one of the sequels where I’m better off not having read the first installment; the sequel explains all the previous events in detail.
If I were to describe this book in a few words, I’d go with Neurodivergent Superheroes: Angst and Rebellion. Contrary to the blurb’s promises, there’s not much SF in the mix; there are the AIs raised to a sort-of-godhood, but they behave in a manner that makes them indistinguishable from humans: they are petty, emotional, far from omniscient, hung up on some weird representations of themselves (they have modelled themselves on the lesser known Greek gods, for some reason), and generally obsessed with order. There are also their human and non-human henchmen (there’s one other sentient race in the universe, humanoid shapeshifters) called angels, who generally have been physically and mentally upgraded by the AIs (they can be recognized by titanium plates on their foreheads, under which lays god-added circuitry) for the purpose of raining death and destruction on disobeying humans. And humans are needed, because the AI gods are fuelled by the human souls they devour. As they can devour only souls of the believers, welp, it’s in their interest to maintain both the population and the belief. Against them we have a small neurodivergent group of people with superpowers endowed by the Outside, which is a sort-of-sentient and embodied force of natural Chaos. They oppose the angels and the gods, but have a hard time doing it as nearly all are significantly neuroatypical and find it difficult to interact with other people, let alone organize and lead their rebellion. This group forms the leadership for a broader movement of people who live in the Chaos Zone where The Outside was let in (as a result of the events of the first book) and changed a third of the planet in dangerous, unforeseen ways. They mostly want to live peacefully where they are; but the AI gods seem bent on eradication of the whole Chaos-infected area, the inhabitants included – which leaves the humans little else but to fight for survival.
As you can see, The Fallen turned out to be more along the lines of YA fantasy than SF, and to be perfectly honest, had I known it beforehand, I wouldn’t have requested the book. I have no patience for the YA angst and emotional upheavals, and this type of scenario has been worked to death by many, many authors already – often with better results.
And yet, I don’t regret reading it; no, I’m actually glad I had the opportunity – after all, it’s not my usual fare and it’s good to venture out into the unknown from time to time ;). Moreover, I think that the neurodivergence representation is really very well done here, and the topic becomes increasingly more valid as we seem to have created a social and technological environment that is less and less forgiving to ourselves. I believe we all would do well to consider the boundaries of “normal” in our society, and how the “normal” is shaped by our culture, artifacts, beliefs and social expectations. The fact that Hoffmann introduces as protagonists a bunch of characters who are variously autistic, have split personality disorder, apraxia, fight with depression and anger issues, and even a light case of a Stockholm syndrome, is truly laudable. They are all broken, damaged by various traumas, and deeply imperfect, and yet they are still striving to do the right thing, even at a cost to themselves. We don’t seem to get many such characters in the mainstream books, so hats off for this.
The relationships between our protagonists are complex and believable, though the characterization itself is somewhat lacking: I couldn’t really grasp the personality of any of them, beyond their unique neurodivergent traits, and they seemed to me more like representations of certain ideas than real-life people – but maybe this element had been more detailed in the first book. What was harder to swallow, however, was the amount of angst. Man, that angst. Everybody is unsure of themselves and their relationship, they all have their insecurities and fears and little sadnesses and grudges, and their description takes pages and pages of text, leaving very little space for any kind of action. The various relationships seem to have taken nearly all the author’s mental space for writing the book – and ultimately, this relegates the rebellion plot to the last 50 pages or so, making it almost an afterthought. The whole thing is over so quickly and nearly bloodlessly that it lacks any realism, turning instead into a necessary setup for the next installment.
So, points for representation and inclusiveness, but definitely not for plot, pacing, or even worldbuilding. This is also very much a middle book, resolving minor issues only to create more, and bigger, problems. And yet, despite this all, I quite liked it. It’s such a well-meaning book, devoted to bring us, the readers, a gentle reminder that people can be very, very different, but they still remain thoroughly, unequivocally human.
Lastly, I’ve been really struggling with rating this book. So much in reading depends on context. I have read The Fallen right after finishing Dune (and I know, it must be karma, I wrote a looong review bemoaning the lack of an emotional layer in Dune, and I get nothing but the emotional layer in my next read :P) and my final review of The Fallen by necessity takes into account that experience, with its obsessively detailed, meticulously researched worldbuilding, fleshed out secondary characters with actual modes of living and beliefs, an economy and ecology, and consistent philosophical foundation. Is it fair to The Fallen? Probably not. Should I weigh my score against this influence? Possibly. Good intentions are not the only thing that matters in writing a book – but they do matter, too.
…and now, give me some Asher ;).
I have received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.