Book Review: Lament for the Fallen by Gavin Chait

“Review a little history and you’ll see that creators seem to find inspiration in adversity.” – Gavin Chait, Lament for the Fallen

Lament for the Fallen by Gavin Chait (Image courtesy Goodreads)

On the surface Gavin Chait’s debut novel Lament for the Fallen seems to have a classic sci-fi plot: an alien comes to Earth, interacts with humans, reveals remarkable super human powers in helping his human hosts/friends, then returns to his home, humans having been taught an important lesson or two. If it seems that this plot line that has been used with remarkable success in the genre, it’s because it has. While it is well known among my friends and critics that I am not a fan of science fiction books (which I noted again very recently), I am a fan of sci-fi films. Besides the ubiquitous and just okay behemoth E.T.: the Extraterrestrial, other films that have explored the genre interestingly include The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Starman.

Having said all this, I suppose I should make a clarification. Lament for the Fallen is not about an alien visiting Earth. It is about a human who has lived his life in a “space city” (think colony – that’s important to the themes of this work) visiting Earth and doing some of those remarkable things mentioned above. To miss this might cause one to miss important themes and ideas that this book explores.

As I find I must say too often in my role as crusty old professor, read more closely, students. Harrumph…now to this excellent book…

The time of Lament for the Fallen is some centuries in the future. It is a time of crises, and the character at the center of this novel, Samara, from the space city of Achenia, is at the center of one crisis. His city wants to separate from its “colonial” master, the United States, and move through the galaxy in search of, shall we say, “other opportunities.”

Matters go sideways through no fault of Samara, and he finds himself consigned to an orbiting prison named Tartarus. Because of his highly advanced evolution (and some impressive bio-technological enhancements including a symbiont intelligence named Symon who works as Samara’s partner/adviser), Samara is able to escape in a space pod he designs and flies down to Earth as part of his plan to reach Achenia via an indirect route in order to escape recapture. He lands near a village named Ewuru in West Africa (Nigeria, to be more exact). One of the village leaders is a man named Joshua (an interesting sub-textual detail of the novel is the frequent use of Biblical names for Earth characters from Africa). Ewuru faces its own crisis – it is trying to develop itself into what the reader later realizes is an Earth based version of Ewuru: a place where progress both bio-evolutionary and technological can take place in peaceful environs and allow humanity to achieve, to quote what seems a sadly quaint document in our own troubled times, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The villagers help Samara, who is in turn able to help them deal with one of the threats they face to their achievement of “Achenian” status as a happy, productive, independent society: warlords who have made Nigeria roughly the equivalent of current day Somalia. Despite serious injuries (including becoming temporarily separated from Symon), Samara helps his friends move their dream forward and achieves his own dream of returning home. Harmony and happiness are not achieved without overcoming a last obstacle, though. In addition to being a heinously horrific prison, Tartarus is also something of a doomsday machine that threatens to destroy Achenia and its sister space cities as well as Earth itself. Achenia must deal with that threat, not just for its own sake but for the sake of its sister cities – including Ewuru. How it manages that crisis and how it aids Ewuru long term are elements of the story I leave for readers to discover and enjoy on their own.

So it’s a great story. But what sets Lament for the Fallen apart from much sci-fi is its investment in placing itself in the larger canon of literature. References abound to Greek history and mythology (Achenia bears no small resemblance to Athens and Tartarus is reckoned the worst part of hell in Greek mythology), to geo-political events sure to shape our plant in the coming years, decades, and centuries (his depictions of US demographics, subtly offered, are but one example). Then, too, the novel is peppered with these sorts of sociological/political speculations based on his own work as an economic strategist and data scientist:

The Europeans have their suicidal genomics policy: one hundred and fifty years of refusing to acknowledge technological change. And what has that gotten them? Their youth, have fled, their population collapsed, their union fragmented, and what is left is a broken, impoverished set of states no one cares about filled with old people who can barely feed themselves.

And our American cousins? One nation torn asunder by religion. Theirs and everyone else’s….

There is also this daring observation about how we will have to catch our ethical  thinking up to our technological achievement:

Any self-aware intelligence – whether it be a person, a machine, an animal, or even things of which we we cannot conceive – any such intelligence has to have the authority to determine its own future if we are to be a moral people.

Then there are subtle ways in which Chait reminds us of our own problematic history. One of these I have mentioned above: the Ewuru villagers Samara meets almost have Biblical names (Joshua, Esther, Daniel, Isaiah). Though these are reminders of the conquest and colonization of Africa, they are also reminders of a body of literature filled with those trying to do good even if sometimes mistaken in their methods. It underscores a key theme in Lament for the Fallen: life achieves its greatest success when humans try to take the best of their past with them into their future.

Finally, a few words about the author, someone I am privileged to call a friend.

To begin, it is a pleasure to read a sci-fi author who has read and who appreciates literature other than sci-fi. This is a literate book, one that transcends its genre as the best writing always does.  In addition, as a South African who has reluctantly moved to Oxford, England, to escape the troubles in his own land, Chait personally identifies with the plight of his characters and that infuses Lament for the Fallen with an authenticity of spirit that gives it a gravitas it might not otherwise possess no matter the author’s talent – which is considerable. This is sci-fi with soul.

Since Gavin is my friend, it is a pleasure to recommend his book Lament for the Fallen. Because it is an excellent work of fiction, it is my duty to do so.