Book Review: Planetfall by Emma Newman

3 Dec

A colony on an alien planet was founded by a religious visionary inspired by a mysterious incident on Earth to create an expedition to the distant world. A 3-D printer repairer and expert in recycling, Renata Ghali is an important member of the small, fledgling colony. And with that visionary in God’s City, communing with God, Ren is one of the remaining pillars of the community, keeping it together. She also has terrible secrets, public, about what is really going on the colony and what happened when the colonists first arrived. Even more so, Ren has strong secrets about herself, that until now she has managed to keep from the colony. But the arrival of an unexpected visitor to the colony from without is the inciting incident that may upset the unsteady equilibrium that Ren has going.

Planetfall marks a change from fantasy to science fiction for Split Worlds author Emma Newman.

Planetfall_final-coverThe novel isn’t, as I thought, and frankly purchased the book to read, a deep and abiding exploration and investigation into colony life on a distant planet. The world outside the borders of the colony and God’s city is, at best, sketched in, suggested, rather than explored and seen. The novel is an intimate first person perspective from Ren, and given Ren and her nature, we get a closed, almost claustrophobic look at the world through her eyes. Ren, with her hoarding, is a clear sufferer of mental illness, and it colors and provides not only a lens to see the world, but a deep and abiding exploration of Ren’s psyche.

That strong theme of mental illness, of people breaking under extreme circumstances and doing what they can to keep going, and to keep it from others, is the highlight and the center of the novel. This is a novel about this one character, and the space and the walls she has put around herself. The journey of the book is not to explore this world (although I loved the parts within God’s City). The journey of this book is the exploration of Renata’s psyche and what it means to break in the face of tragedy.

The novel also  reminds me, and will likely remind you, of the movie Prometheus. Information on Earth leading to an expedition to another star. Lies, secrets, revelations, and people put under extraordinary circumstances are resonant in both works. The search for meaning, for man’s place with his creator, with himself, and with his fellow sentient beings track both works, and both works give us some painful reveals indeed. While the movie has its many flaws in terms of plot, character, motivation and setup, Newman has taken strong care in the design of her colony at the foot of God’s City. While the Colony and the world around it are thumbnail sketched, Ren’s home, and even more so, God’s City, feels like a real place, and a place full of resonant themes, a stop in the worlds of science fiction that would definitely merit an entry in an updated version of Brian Stableford’s classic THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SCIENCE FICTION PLACES.

Planetfall had and has come into my reading as my own life goes through unwanted turbulence, threatening who and what I am. As it resonated so strongly with the themes, and I resonated with them so strongly, I felt very much on the inside of this book, and the book never lets me down, never trivializes, never goes off the rails. Ren’s story, as penned by the author is painful, and strong, and true. It is one of the most powerful SF novels I’ve read this year. Bravo, Ms. Newman.

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