Emma Newman – Planetfall

emmanewman-planetfallRenata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, and untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown.

More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony’s 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.

Ren continues, for the good of her fellow colonists, to perpetuate the lie that forms the foundation of the colony, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first Planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi.

The truth Ren has concealed since Planetfall can no longer be hidden. And its revelation might tear the colony apart…

My love for Emma Newman’s Split Worlds series is no secret and the short stories outside of that world, particularly her Sherlock Holmes inspired story A Woman’s Place, for which Newman recently won a British Fantasy Award, have also delighted me. But all of them have been fantasy. So when I learned Newman’s next book was to be an SF novel, I was intrigued. How would Newman’s writing translate from fantasy to science fiction? In a word: brilliantly! Planetfall being an Emma Newman book I’d been expecting to love it, but the novel blew me away on a number of levels. 

Planetfall‘s plot centres around a mystery. What happened after First Planetfall? All of the rest of the action is fall out from that event. Newman spends most of the novel answering that question, only revealing the full picture quite near the end of the narrative. She uses several different ways to show us what happens, from straight up recounting of events, to flashbacks, to a full-immersion recording of the past.

While the mystery is the catalyst for everything in the novel, Planetfall is also very much a character study of its protagonist. Renata Ghali, Ren for short, is the colony’s 3D printer specialist and keeps all the 3D printers and the main systems running smoothly. Ren struggles with a number of things, not least the grief at losing her daughter before leaving Earth, but also at losing her best friend as well, when Suh-Mi is taken into God’s City. What grabbed me most about her however was her struggle with anxiety. When she had one of her attacks, I felt them, in the way I feel my own anxiety and it is a rare thing that I feel things that viscerally from a book. Ren resonated with me, because her daily struggle to at least look like a functioning human being was something I recognised. In order to look like she’s doing fine, Ren has built up walls, both literally and figuratively to keep people out and when someone, like Sung-Soo, tries to barge through them that causes all kind of havoc with her equilibrium.

Sung-Soo is an upheaver of equilibrium in a broader regard, as it is his appearance at the gates of the colony that brings irreversible change for this small community. Sung was a fascinating character. I was very drawn to his child-like wonder at the marvels of technology that the colonists had retained and I also liked his kindness and determination to help Ren, whether she wanted that help or not. The effect of this semi-familiar stranger walking in to this small and very close-knit community was massive and Newman very skilfully showed how Sung’s presence brings everyone’s more abrasive characteristics and long-held resentment to the surface and magnifies them. While Sung is an active character himself, he is also the rock thrown into a pond that sets the water to rippling, disturbing everything under the surface.

Ren works as a 3D printer technician and I loved this aspect of the world Newman created. 3D printing is a hot topic in library land at the moment, due to the continuing rise of maker-spaces, so I was familiar with the technology, but the way Newman changed and built on it was fascinating and I really enjoyed the way that it turned out to be integral to the plot. I also loved the communication technology that she had in place in the form of the chip that allows people to communicate directly, without having to use any gadgets; it was almost a form of telepathy. The very strict access protocols in place that let people guard their privacy and the way overrides were in place in case of medical emergency was a very cool construct.

A mystery that is perhaps bigger or more unknowable than that of First Planetfall is God’s City. I loved the concept of the embodiment of one of the larger themes in the book: humanity’s need to believe in something, be it God, science, or each other. Newman explores this through several different angles and characters, both main and secondary characters. Ren’s illicit exploration of the city and its portrayal in the flashbacks were both compelling and repulsive. At times it felt as if Ren was climbing through something’s digestive tract or some organism’s bronchial system. God’s City feels alive in an almost indefinable way.

Planetfall is a fantastic book. I love how different it is from the Split Worlds, but how much it still feels entirely like an Emma Newman book. Her authorial voice is strong and distinctive and for me one of the most attractive currently writing in the field. Newman is one of those writers whose writing just clicks with me, much like for example Kate Elliott’s, N.K. Jemisin’s, and Mercedes Lackey’s writing does. Reading an Emma Newman book is like coming home. Planetfall was a wonderful, emotional read; one with a far darker and rawer edge than her previous works. I can’t recommend Planetfall strongly enough, whether your taste in SF ranges to sensawunda, more plot-focused, or more character-focused, Planetfall offers something for every reader.

This book was provided for review by the author, but I’ve had this book on pre-order since my birthday.