At the start of Faller, the new SF novel by Will McIntosh, a man regains consciousness lying on a city street. He doesn’t remember his name, the name of the city, or how he got there. In fact, his mind is almost completely blank, just like all the other people who are waking up in complete confusion around him. What’s even stranger, the world appears to end a few city blocks from where the man woke up. Rather than more streets and buildings, there’s just a chasm looking out over empty sky, as if this fragment of a city was torn from a larger whole and then tossed into the air. This feels odd to the man, somehow, even though he has no recollection of what a city is supposed to look like.
The man finds three objects in his pockets: a toy soldier with a plastic parachute, a mysterious map drawn in blood (and since his finger is cut, he assumes he drew the map with his own blood, suggesting it must be important), and a photograph of himself with a woman he doesn’t recognize. Since clues are the only thing he has, and he doesn’t recall his name, he decides to go by the name Clue.
Eventually, inspired by the toy soldier in his pocket, Clue decides to construct a parachute. That’s how he discovers that the floating city fragment on which he regained consciousness isn’t the only one. Taking the new name Faller, he embarks on a quest to find the mysterious woman on the photograph…
Not a bad hook to start a novel, right? But wait, as they say in infomercials, there’s more! After eight chapters about Clue/Faller, Will McIntosh suddenly switches to a second story line. The chapters, which thus far had been numbered with Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3), begin a new count with Roman ones (I, II, III), and from that point on the two stories are told in parallel.
The main character of this second story line is Dr. Peter Sandoval, a brilliant scientist who is just about to win his first Nobel Prize for his work on “quantum cloning,” an invention that can duplicate living tissue by sending it through a miniature wormhole. In itself, this would be a godsend for millions of patients waiting for organ transplants, but since the wormhole transfer also somehow removes diseases from the cloned organs, the invention has world-changing medical potential. It’s even more important now: The threat of war is becoming more and more real, and a terrifying new neurological affliction is being used as a biological weapon….
If all of this sounds a bit spoilery, rest assured, because what I’ve outlined here is just the starting position for the two story lines in Faller. Once you get over the initial disorientation, you’ll see that the two stories continue chronologically, a few chapters of one followed by a few chapters of the other, and so on. More importantly, based on this and several other clues sprinkled throughout the story, it becomes clear fairly early on that the two stories are connected in some way.
This makes reading Faller an interesting experience. You start out trying to make sense of one of the most surreal post-apocalyptic settings I’ve seen in SF in a while. Then, once the second plot is introduced, you’re suddenly also collecting clues and figuring out how we got from point A to point B. Clue/Faller being an amnesiac, he’ll occasionally meet people or see things that don’t mean anything to him but will make all kinds of light bulbs go off for the reader because they link back to the other storyline, or even because they’re a recognizable landmark from the real world.
This odd scavenger hunt for meaning is a large part of what makes reading Faller so enjoyable, so I don’t want to spoil the experience by pointing out some of the connections. I’ll just say that fans of Will McIntosh, based on his previous novels, have come to expect a certain amount of, let’s say, emotional darkness in his works, and those fans won’t be disappointed by that aspect of the novel. Combine that with the sheer strangeness of the post-apocalyptic setting and you end up with a very odd combination: a novel full of Will McIntosh’s trademark psychological drama in which, for about half of the book, the main character has no awareness of his history or, for that matter, his actual identity.
All of this combines to make Faller a true page turner. Once the connections between the two stories begin to become more apparent, it’s hard to stop reading. I tore through most of this novel in one sitting (which rarely happens for me anymore) and ended up finishing it up later the same day because I simply had to know how we got from point A to point B. I even ended up going through the first half of the novel a second time, to catch some of the details I missed. Such is the power of a strong hook.
Given all this praise, it may come as a surprise that I can’t call Faller an unqualified winner. It’s entertaining, ambitious, and mostly successful, yes, but it also has its issues. Part of this can be traced back to its very nature: Many of the amnesiac characters are difficult to relate to because, well, they have no memories. They’re like faceless mannequins trying to survive in a surreal post-apocalyptic landscape. After a while their lack of definition, combined with the relentless danger they’re in, becomes a bit numbing.
Fortunately the second story line (about Dr. Peter Sandoval) picks up some of the slack when it gradually becomes more clear how we ended up with the situation at the start of the novel. Some points of overlap between the two stories become more obvious to the reader, if not to the characters themselves, and as a result, it all starts to make sense. Unfortunately, this second story line has its own problem in that it heavily relies on a major technological breakthrough that feels, for want of a better term, hokey. Unwrapping that thought would lead to more spoilers than I’m comfortable with, so I’ll just say that I was disappointed, even as someone who usually really doesn’t care much about how “hard” the science in my science fiction is.
Taking all of this into account, I confess that I’m not entirely sure what to make of Faller. The post-apocalyptic story line has a powerful hook to keep the reader turning pages, and a surreal setting I really enjoyed, but the amnesiac characters are often bland. The second story line features fascinating, well-rounded characters (most of whom I’ve ignored in this review to avoid spoilers) and adds a unique dimension to the other half of the novel, but I just didn’t care for the way McIntosh developed the science that powers the entire novel.
And yet. Despite all these quibbles, I have to say that Faller is a novel I won’t forget quickly. There’s something about it that’s reminiscent of Gene Wolfe, especially in the way Will McIntosh uses his (very unreliable) narrator to gradually reveal the links between the two story lines and their characters. There are flaws, yes, but in the end this is still a novel I couldn’t put down, which has to count for something, right? As a fan who has read everything Will McIntosh has published since his 2011 debut novel Soft Apocalypse (my review), I also may be suffering from a severe case of unrealistic expectations. So, final verdict: Faller isn’t the author’s strongest work to date, but it’s still more than worth your time.
This review was originally published on Tor.com.