Fair warning: I’m going to reveal one plot point in my discussion that barely qualifies as a spoiler (really, the reader figures this out pretty immediately), but if you have any concerns don’t read past paragraph four (ending with “bioweapons”).
Will McIntosh’s new techno thriller Faller (2016) is characterized by a unique setting/premise, some early plot twists, and strong characterization, and though I would say the story devolves a bit by the end, for the most part it’s a quick-moving and engaging story that also tackles some thought-provoking questions.
We open with the eponymous protagonist coming to on a city street with screams and “thick black smoke” in the background. He and those around him have been struck with an odd kind of selective amnesia — they know words, know what some things are, but nobody knows who they are, what has happened, or how they got there. All he has on him is a photo of himself and a woman he does not recognize, a paper with some scrawls in what appears to be his own blood, and a toy parachute soldier. Adding to the confusion — when he takes an exploratory stroll he finds that:
the world simply ended a few feet from where they stood. There was nothing beyond but sky. Ragged asphalt and concrete marked the edge of the world. A concrete sewer pipe jutted from the dark earth below, spewing water.
Later, he’ll determine that his world is “nineteen thousand steps long and ten thousand steps wide.” That will come after their tiny world becomes a typical post-apocalyptic/scarcity-ridden/humans practicing horrors upon humans setting. As he tries to survive the barbarism (and there are some truly horrific scenes) our main character tries to figure out what has happened, and also what the significance is of the objects he had on him. This general search leads him to call himself Clue and then, focusing more on that toy parachutist, he changes his name to Faller. It is while he’s experimenting that he ends up discovering that his world is just one of many floating in the seemingly endless sky (Yes fans will of course point out that Roger Dean had this idea decades ago…).
Faller then goes back and forth between two POVs. In one, we follow Faller’s adventures on various worlds as he attempts to find the cause of the cataclysm and learn who he is. The other, set in a near-future Earth, follows a pair of scientists (Peter and Ugo) one working on a cure for a horrible new disease and the other using a micro-wormhole to create a “duplicator” via “quantum cloning,” even as the world around them is wracked by political turmoil leading potentially to another World War involving advanced weaponry and bioweapons.
It isn’t spoiling anything to reveal that one of these scientists is Faller (I swear, it really isn’t a spoiler — there’s next to no attempt to keep the reader in suspense on this) and that what we are reading about are the events that will lead up to whatever happened to cause the floating bits of world and the selective amnesia.
The in media res opening of Faller is a great start and sets the reader up with a fine mystery to solve — what happened to blow up the world and why does nobody remember who they are. Faller’s adventures on the various pieces of the world add action, adventure, and suspense into the mix, with running gun battles, mind games, and a host of dangerous situations all coming into play, each set against a slightly different type of background. It’s almost like a parallel-universe hopping story or something akin to Philp Jose Farmer’s World of Tiers (if anyone recalls that classic series beyond myself) save that the various universes/worlds are just smaller bits of our own that have gone down different paths thanks to the amnesia. Really, it’s an old set-up but with a brilliantly fresh take on it. I do think the action scenes take an unfortunate turn in the latter fifth or so of Faller toward the more palely mundane/rote, and rely a bit too much on the bad guys not being so smart (despite them being brilliant), but for the most part the action sequences work quite well until that point.
Characterization, meanwhile, is a consistently strong point. We pretty immediately get on Faller’s side not just due to the POV, but also thanks to his terrible opening situation, a few early actions he takes to show him as decently good, his refusal to simply accept the situation but keep pushing toward finding the truth behind it. This makes it all the more wonderfully complex and rich when we meet the earlier version of Faller in the past POV, as the two are similar in some ways but are also clearly not exactly the same. The more that is revealed about Faller 1, the less certain we are about Faller 2 and his goal. Even more complexity/richness comes into the mix, but this would involve some spoilers that would indeed be spoilers, so I won’t go into the details. Suffice to say that the characters in the past sections are all sharply detailed not just in themselves but in their interrelationships, which involve bonds of marriage, kinship, friendship, and work, but also rivalries and jealousies amongst those interrelationships. As well, as more and more is revealed, we start to question our earlier views of these people and their goals/methods. Meanwhile, several of the characters present-day Faller meets on his journey also come vividly alive, particularly a man who calls himself Snakebite.
As mentioned above, I think Faller’s weakest segment is toward the end. The plotting becomes a bit more stale, instead of clever twists we get some things we’ve seen lots of times before and some reliance on the villain’s not thinking too well, the antagonist becomes less complex and more standard mustache-twirling bad guy, and there’s more than a little hand-waving of the science and world-building behind all this going on, which is why I categorized this more as techno-thriller than science fiction at the start. But most of these issues arise only at the very end and until that point the book carries you along smoothly and fluidly, keeping you engaged in the characters both past and present and heavily invested in what happens with them. Making Faller an easy book to recommend.