"Abstractions Can Be Rough on People": A Discussion of Passion Play and The Fortunate Fall

[This essay presumes the reader has read both novels and contains major SPOILERS.]

When I try to write it down it dies: I find myself speaking with my father's polished, thoughtful voice. But what I want to do is shout until my heart cracks, shout like a preacher at a Redemptionist service.... I want to speak in tongues about my damnation, make you all see that this isn't just about the murder of Jonathan Mask, but about law and God and justice.

It's a dark time and we all sound like the Bible.

—Sean Stewart, Passion Play [1]

You will read my life in phosphors on a screen, or glowing letters scrolling up the inside of your eye. And when you reach the end, you will lie down again in your indifferent dark apartment, with the neon splashing watercolor blues across your face, and you will know a little less about me than you did before.

—Raphael Carter, The Fortunate Fall [2]

The Fortunate Fall and Passion Play, taken together, are an excellent example of a paired reading: they take a similar narrative structure and some parallel background elements, and then play out a common theme on quite different scales.

Both novels are narrated by a female protagonist looking back upon the events of the novel. Explicit reflections on the events and their consequences are generally restricted to the beginnings and endings of the books, creating a framing effect. This format allows the plot to be foreshadowed in the Prologues, but keeps the powerful emotional impact of the novels' endings. The stories are also subtly foreshadowed in the way the narrators present their stories. For example, Maya's early statement, "the poor camera, who can reach out to another mind only with mute eyes and vague bludgeoning words... well, it's like being an amnesia victim, coming home a stranger to someone who's loved you all your life" (14), applies equally to her professional and personal relationship with Keishi, though the reader doesn't fully notice this until the end of the novel. Diane's narration is occasionally supplemented by excerpts from works by or about Mask which she encountered during the case. Their inclusion is telling, such as Mask's discourse on tragedy: "Tragedy... has principally abstract or ideal values. Tragedies are tragic because the higher principles of Justice or Right cannot allow for human weaknesses" (76). This sums up, in two sentences, the major theme of the novel, one Diane agrees with.

The novels' societies have some elements in common as well. Both possess more restrictive moral norms than contemporary America or Russia, norms which are enforced by the government and the media. Both protagonists aid this enforcement: Diane knowingly as a hunter, Maya unintentionally as a media figure, particularly a media figure with a suppressor chip. Both will eventually come to question this role over the course of the novel. The other major common element is the ability to touch another's mind, either by extrasensory powers or by technology; this capacity is the key catalyst of the plots and conflicts of the novels.

These common starting points develop into novels of different scope and emphasis, but they still retain a common theme, which is best expressed in Passion Play as "abstractions can be rough on people" (166). While the attempt to balance people and principles is hardly an original or uncommon theme, it is still the obvious basis of all the major conflicts of the two novels.

For instance, the crimes of The Fortunate Fall are all committed by individuals who are willing to pursue their image of humanity at great cost to humans. Some of the goals are more admirable than others, but they all use less than admirable means to try to achieve them. The Guardians murdered or imprisoned their undesirables; the Army fought back by possessing the minds of millions of civilians; the Postcops use cups of tea and the Weavers use brain viruses to tailor the social makeup of their society. Voskresenye is also guilty of this, and acknowledges it:

That is what it means to be a Guardian.... The greater good is everything—and a greater good not to be measured empirically, but ideologically.

Isn't that what I have done? I have sacrificed others to my own conception of what the world should be—a conception that, if it does anything at all, will bring nothing but unhappiness to most of Russia for decades to come. (244)

This was Keishi's crime as well: her entire plan, from her death to her various resurrections (including the final one when Maya recognizes her), was entirely designed to advance a certain ideal of humanity, without regard to its effects on Maya. Keishi failed to balance her goals and their consequences carefully enough for Maya, and so Maya rejected her: "Maybe if you had spent your time thinking of me as a person, and not a variable, things would have been different" (287).

However, that was not the only reason Maya left Keishi—she was also pursuing a certain image of humanity. Throughout the novel, she rejects Keishi's model of emotional intimacy via cable, and tells her, "People swapping souls on the first date. Once you've done that, what the hell do you talk about for the rest of your life? Nothing, that's what" (157). Keishi's final proposal that Maya host Keishi in a section of her brain inevitably contradicts Maya's beliefs too strongly, and she refuses, telling her, "You're crazier than Voskresenye.... You've forgotten what human emotions are like" (285). She has defended her conception of humanity, at the price of Keishi's survival.

All of the characters in the novel have justified their actions as necessary in the pursuit of their ideals. Voskresenye, however, adds another factor. He argues that the one fact separating him from his enemies is that he intends to embrace the blame for what he has done. According to him,

the wise man, when forced into evil, makes a scapegoat of himself.... He knows what must be done; he does it; and then he makes sure that the people he has benefited will revile him, because only that can prevent his crime from being repeated. (249)

The concept of the scapegoat is useful in looking at one of the more interesting questions of the novel: did Maya, like the other people in the novel, become too much like what she hates in her sacrifice of Keishi? And does Maya think that she did the right thing? It is at least of passing interest that the last words of the novel seem to indicate regret or shame:

And what I most want to conceal from you, you've always known:

That I went up into the world and left her there, in the prison camp beneath the ocean, with the ruined mind of the new Iscariot and the body of the whale. (288)

It is not entirely clear from the text of the novel whether Maya is attempting to make herself a scapegoat for Keishi's destruction, but it is an interesting possiblity. As for the morality of Maya's actions, there are ultimately cases to be made for all sides of the argument; however, it is a strength of the novel that Maya's motivations are ones a reader can sympathize with, if not necessarily agree with.

If the central abstraction of The Fortunate Fall is "Humanity," then the central one of Passion Play is "Justice." Like The Fortunate Fall, there is a certain inevitability in the conclusion of events, but in Passion Play the rush is swifter and more inexorable. The title is of course an indication of this: Diane, as the central character of this particular passion play, is a Christ figure on a smaller stage, dying so that a murderer shall not go free and destroy society by that freedom. Diane, however, is not resurrected in the course of the novel, except in (as Delaney calls it [186]) the brief flashes of feeling that break through her emotional wasteland.

One could also read Passion Play as a tragedy on the classic model (see also Mask's definition). Here the fatal flaw is being a shaper—both the gift itself and the preconceptions that go with it. These make Diane vulnerable to Delaney's Iago-like maneuverings; once she realizes this, she then, like Othello, makes amends for her sins in the necessary manner. (Of course, one could tie the entire thing up in a neat bow and argue that the original passion play was also a tragedy on the classic model, but the two categories are generally considered separate, and the murky waters of Biblical interpretations are beyond the scope of this essay.) The book seems to work best when read as something between the two.

As in The Fortunate Fall, people kill and die for their version of the central abstraction, Justice. Deacon White killed Angela Johnson for her crimes against society's morals; this act was itself a crime against society's laws, for which Diane brought him to face the death penalty. David Delaney killed Jonathan Mask for his own purposes, not in the name of Justice, but he then used the idea of Justice to orchestrate his own death: "And I think, Ms. Fletcher, you err in assuming that my ends, as well as those of Justice, would be well-served by a confession" (185). Diane's ideal of Justice required that a murderer not go free; the only way to serve this ideal was by killing Delaney. Unfortunately for Diane, her ideal of Justice also considers her action a murder, with the inevitable parallel consequences. Unlike the Deacon, however, Diane willingly made herself the scapegoat; she also regretted the necessity of Delaney's death.

Again, the question left in the reader's mind is whether Diane paid too high a price for her convictions. Diane did what she believed was necessary at the time by following the pattern through to its end, but she still questions her actions:

Do not mistake me. I am more sure than ever that he [White] had to hang.

No—I lie. I am not sure. The uncertainties remain. I distrust any logic that the Deacon would approve. (192)

As she waits to be executed, she identifies with Mask-as-Faust as his damnation closes in on him, and echoes Delaney himself: "The waiting is the worst" (194). Like the characters in The Fortunate Fall, she has become like those she hates to some degree; and like Voskresenye, she holds on to the scapegoat concept as at least partial justification for her actions.

Thus, in these two novels, future forms of morality and empathy mix with the ideas of Humanity, Justice, and the scapegoat to produce devastating effects on the protagonists. The Fortunate Fall covers continent-wide conspiracies, while Passion Play covers one murder, but the impression the reader brings away from the novels is ultimately the same: abstractions can be, and in this case most definitely are, rough on people.

[1] Stewart, Sean. Passion Play. 1992. New York: Ace Books, 1993. [Mass market paperback edition] p. 1.

[2] Carter, Raphael. The Fortunate Fall. 1996. New York: Tor Books, 1997. [Trade paperback edition] p. 12.

This essay copyright March 13, 1998 by Kate Nepveu.

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