I stumbled onto Planetfall by Emma Newman when I was sent into the bookstore, and directed not to leave until I had selected three books for myself. I made well and truly sure that I took my sweet time at it, and I’m glad, because I found Planetfall at the very last moment. The book ends up feeling more like a murder and mystery novel, rather than science fiction, almost right up until the end, and then in the last eighth of the book, you’re flipping through the pages at lightspeed, going HUH.
The book starts with a colony of brilliant adventurers already well established and even thriving on this new planet. You slowly pick of pieces of the entire backstory throughout the book. Renata, called Ren, is the woman through whom we experience this entire story, and she’s got fairly crippling OCD and anxiety, clearly stemming from an event that happened when the colonists first arrived at the planet. The colony is set up at the base of what the colonists call God’s City, a giant living, organic, changing city that they treat as sacred.
Lee Suh-Mi is brilliant, magnetic woman who is the driving force behind this venture. She believes fiercely in a world where all the answers to humanity’s great questions about their origins can be answered, and she’s brought the colonists to this planet in search of those answers. Suh-Mi was—is?—a rather magnetic personality. But she’s no longer in the colony, due to an intentionally vague incident, which is the same incident that gave rise to Ren’s problems. It’s rather clear to the reader that Suh-Mi and a handful of other colonists are most likely dead, though the methods of deaths vary. Suh-Mi’s apparent death was an accident, but the reader gets the continual impression that Ren and one other member of the colony, Mack, caused the deaths of the other colonists. You’d think that would make them outcasts in the colony, but here’s the rub—only Ren and Mack know what happened to Suh-Mi and the other colonists. The rest of the colony believes two things: first, that Suh-Mi is in God’s City, communing with… God? Aliens? The city itself? The belief seems to vary depending on who is doing the believing, which is nice touch. The second thing the rest of the colonists believe is that there was a tragic accident, and some of the other colonists died.
The colony continues on, waiting for Suh-Mi to make her glorious return, when one day, a mysterious man named Sung-Soo shows up at the colony. He is quickly revealed as the son of two of the crew members that everyone—except Ren and Mack, of course—believed died in the accident. Well, they couldn’t have died, if they’ve got a son walking around and showing up at the colony, now could they? Sung-Soo’s arrival sets off a chain of events, of which Ren’s anxiety and OCD plays no small part, and eventually leads to the discovery of what is at the heart of Ren’s trauma and the city itself. What is it that’s driving Ren to her depths of anxiety and hoarding? What is it that drove these colonists to come all this way to live at the foot of God’s City? What is the city? It turns out, these three questions are inextricably linked, in a way that reminded me of an oddly poetic combination of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, and the episode The Chase from Star Trek: Next Generation.
The things that really etched themselves in my brain from this book were descriptive in nature, rather than plot points and twists. The way Newman described Ren’s mounting anxiety was so breathtakingly spot on that I could feel my own anxiety rising. That made reading Planetfall a bit stressful at times, for sure, but also kind of lovely to see my own physical experience with anxiety put so accurately on paper. I can’t speak to the OCD aspects of Ren’s actions and thoughts, but Newman nailed the anxiety part. Some of my favorite science fiction and fantasy authors haven’t even come close it, let alone hit on it as accurately as Newman did.
I was also really drawn to the description of the colony, the environment, and God’s City. I could see myself in my mind’s eye sitting under that blanket of alien stars that looked so close you could touch them. The description of God’s City was so well done that when Ren was climbing around it, it actually grossed me out, and it really made me imagine what it actually would have been like to be on the Magic School Bus in that episode where they take a tour of the human body. Tell me I’m not the only one who remembers that episode. I also liked the huge amount of play that 3-D printers got in the book too. Obviously, there’s a lot of advanced technology going on if you’re able to successfully leave Earth and colonize another planet, but 3-D printing. played a huge role in all of the technology. I bumped a little bit about the 3-D printing of food, but I could completely see the rest. The augmented reality technology was fantastic as well, and provided a great description of how realistic your viewing experience would be. You could image our current technology evolving into the augmented reality technology in Planetfall.
I was really jolted by the ending of the book. The majority of Planetfall has a very measured, slow burn pace, and the ending so rapidly accelerated that at first, I felt like the ending felt contrived. Upon a re-reading, I decided that wasn’t the case; the ending makes perfect sense with what comes before. However, the difference in pace results in a rushed feeling that’s not entirely welcome and at odds with the rest of the book.
All in all, it was rather gripping. I read it in two sittings, and I found myself wishing there was going to be some kind of sequel so that I could get even more answers. Perhaps that’s one of the best parts of reading science fiction books like Newman’s Planetfall: the answers make you think of your own questions in the framework of an expanded universe.
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