Gov-corp detective Carlos Moreno was only a baby when Atlas left Earth to seek truth among the stars. But in that moment, the course of Carlos’s entire life changed. Atlas is what took his mother away, what made his father lose hope, what led Alejandro Casales, leader of the religious cult known as the Circle, to his door. And now, on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of Atlas’s departure, it’s got something to do with why Casales was found dead in his hotel room—and why Carlos is the man in charge of the investigation.
To figure out who killed one of the most powerful men on Earth, Carlos is supposed to put aside his personal history. But the deeper he delves into the case, the more he realises that escaping the past isn’t so easy. There is more to Casales’s death than meets the eye, and something much more sinister to the legacy of Atlas than anyone realises…
Let’s not bury the lede here: Emma Newman’s After Atlas is brilliant, you should all read it and I nominated it for a Hugo. Done. Everyone can go about their day. Or you can read on and find out why I loved this book so much.
As stated many times before, Emma Newman is one of my absolutely favourite authors. She can write fun and fluffy, she can write dark and deep and everything in between and have it be great—she’s that talented. After having loved her previous novel Planetfall, I came to After Atlas with high expectations. And while I was by no means disappointed, the book certainly wasn’t what I had expected based on its predecessor. Planetfall is definitely a mystery, as is After Atlas, and both books explore mental health themes. Yet where Planetfall is a mystery centred on what happened after First Planetfall and what exactly God’s City was, After Atlas is more of a straight murder mystery, which also explores the effects on those left behind by the pilgrims to God’s City.
After Atlas is set in the same universe as Planetfall, but doesn’t have any overlapping characters and is completely set on Earth. The situation forty years after Atlas left the planet is dire. Earth has been completely corporatised, with governments being run as corporations with a ruthless drive for profit, leaving those who cannot fend for themselves in a terrible lurch. Those who are caught as indigents are sent to “hot-houses” for reprogramming and after they’ve gone through the system they are sent into indentured servitude to pay off their “debt” to society. It is a horrible system and the indentured servitude is nothing more than slavery with the illusory hope that one can gain their freedom by paying back their debt. With surcharges for most basic human necessities, it is almost impossible for those in the system to earn their way out. Meanwhile, the gov-corps have complete control over their indentured servants and can force them to comply through a chip implanted in their head. Newman shows us the dangers of unchecked capitalism and how the well-being of the many will always be sacrificed to the interests of the few.
The implants are a fascinating element in both the plot and the world building. Newman deftly plays with the tension between the benefits such a chip can offer and the many ways it can be used to your detriment. The chip may allow you be constantly connected, but that also means you can always be monitored, if not through your own chip then through someone else’s. It’s the surveillance state taken to its ultimate extreme. Yet the chip also provides amazing things, such as the ‘Mersives, immersive games, and your own personal assistant in the for of an AI. In Carl’s case his AI is called Tia and she is fantastic. I loved how she really had her own personality and how she and Carl truly had a bond.
One person caught in indenture is Carl, or Carlos Moreno. His contract has been sold to Norope, where he’s been put to work as a SDCI with the Ministry of Justice. But the reason he landed in indenture and his history are intimately connected with the Atlas. Carl’s past is as important to the mystery of Alejandro Casales’ murder as is his present and I found the way Newman intertwined the two fascinating. We never learn much about Carl’s mum, who left on the Atlas; we don’t even learn her name. She is an unspoken, unaddressed, but inescapable presence in the narrative. Her actions drive much of what happens to Carl and certainly define his bond with his father and his connection to Casales.
Alejandro Casales is the murder victim, but he is not just a victim, but also a villain. He’s the elusive head of a cult called The Circle, in which Carl spent some of his youth. And it’s hard to pin his character down. Is he truly the benign surrogate father he sometimes seems in Carl’s memories or is he the highly manipulative power-broker intent on creating his own fiefdom? A strong part of Carl’s character arc is his journey to really get to know who Casales was and why he did what he did. At the same time as he needs to solve the murder, Carl needs to come to terms with his traumatic past. I enjoyed how this played out and I loved the characters he encounters along the way.
After Atlas contains so many layers and intrigue that it is a book that I think will merit and reward rereading, just to mine all of it. In many ways, I loved After Atlas more than I did Planetfall, something I wouldn’t have believed possible before reading it. Also, without any spoilers, After Atlas has the most epic ending I’ve read in a fair while. It was one that left me with my mouth hanging open, I really hadn’t seen it coming. I cannot recommend After Atlas highly enough; it is brilliant and utterly captivating. Emma Newman has pulled off another winner and I cannot wait for more in this universe.