Fatal Error by F. Paul Wilson
Fatal Error by F. Paul Wilson (Gauntlet Press, 2010) is a perfect example of the idiom, “It’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive.” I say this knowing there’s one more novel in this narrative arc to go — called The Dark at the End — leaving only the revisions to Nightworld to follow, and then we’ll have to find something else long-running to think about.
In a sense, the Repairman Jack and Adversary Cycle oeuvre appeals to my general sense of neatness. Well, my wife would say that needs a word of clarification. In the physical world, my filing system depends on the volcano principle. The piles nearest to me are the hot papers relevant to my current tasks. The further away the papers stray from my desk, the less hot and so less important they are. My wife is actually allowed to take the really cold stuff by the door and stuff it away into boxes against the possibility I might some day want to see it again. But, allowing for this site being me at play rather than at work, I always try to get everything in apple-pie order. So it’s a joy to watch F. Paul Wilson slowly retrofit all his early works to accommodate this new arc involving Repairman Jack. I suppose there must be comparable efforts to write and rewrite at this length to produce a coherent whole out of disparate elements. But, if they exist, I can’t say I’ve encountered them.
Coming to Fatal Error, Dawn finally gives birth, the Lady is under attack again, and Veilleur’s weakness is finally unmasked in North Carolina, which you can read about in Reprisal. The most interesting aspect of this penultimate episode is the greater prominence given to the theme of free will vs determinism. Let’s leave Jack to one side for a moment and think about the Lady. As the Beacon, she’s been the one thing standing between the Otherness and a takeover of Earth. If the Ally believes the Earth has been lost, i.e. the Beacon stops transmitting, Rasalom will be able to trigger the change. So Fatal Error gives us the third attempt on the Lady’s life. Going back to Ground Zero and the failure of the Fhinntmanchca, we should all take a moment to reflect on why the Lady was still with us at the end of that book. Her return may have looked involuntary, but let’s speculate whether she might have the power to keep transmitting. How else can a tailored weapon fail to produce the intended effect?
In an ordered universe, sufficient cause will always produce the relevant effect. This would deny the possibility of free will. Going back to Secret Vengeance for a moment, Mrs Clevinger berates the dog for healing the raccoon because it bends the natural order. Yet the fate of the raccoon was changed. Some things happen despite the “natural order”. In this instance, the dog appears to be the force of free will. If Wilson was describing a world where determinism ruled, nothing “new” could happen and future events could not be changed. So, the arrival of Mrs Clevenger and the dog would be the prior event, the healing of the raccoon is predetermined. This leaves open the more interesting question of whether the Lady can decide whether to end her existence.
What makes Jack interesting is that he’s the ultimate example of genetic determinism, i.e. his existence has been shaped from the moments before his conception to his final contribution in the fight against the Otherness. The issue we are left with is whether the genetic make-up so lovingly explained in Bloodline, predetermines his behaviour. Is Jack simply dancing to the tune of his genes, or does he have the innate capacity to grow and change as a person? The way the YA Secret History trilogy is written suggests his early life’s experiences help shape his character and that he does have some freedom. Against this is the consistent mantra that there’s no such thing as coincidence in his life. This suggests outside forces are always setting him up to act in a particular way. Yet, at the very least, we regularly see him taking the decision to kill or not to kill. Notice that he does not abandon the idea of morality. If he came to believe everything he did was predetermined, the appearance of choice would be empty and meaningless. There would be no point in retaining a code of morality.
In reality, everyone sane, including Jack, acts in a voluntary way, i.e. what they do reflects their wishes and desires. Once you accept that people may formulate plans to achieve desired outcomes and then put those plans into action, it’s hard to deny free will. Particularly when the actions are more spontaneous. This emphasises the importance of a moral framework for actions. Instead of being fatalistic and denying the reality of choices, we should be guided by our notions of responsibility and justice. From the outset, Jack is a force for good. He may not always achieve a good outcome to his fixes by following secular laws, but he does what he believes to be right and reasonable in all the circumstances. He’s choosing between right and wrong according to a different set of values, and taking responsibility for what happens, even when that’s unexpected.
Now that Veilleur has let slip the dogs of war, we are left to see how Jack will take on the challenge in the final book before we get back to the rewritten Nightworld. I’ve already ordered my copy and am looking forward to it. I will end with my usual warning that, if you have not read any Repairman Jack, do not start here. Everything makes more sense if you start at the beginning.