RogerBW's Blog

Planetfall, Emma Newman 02 January 2017

2015 science fiction. Ren works as the 3D printer engineer in a colony on an extrasolar planet, right next to the alien biotech artefact known as God's City. Then a stranger shows up, a descendant of the people thought to have been lost in an accident during planetfall.

"There is no heroism in me without the supporting game narrative." This is a book about a broken person, which nonetheless manages to make her sympathetic even as it lays out her brokenness, and the damage it has caused, in excruciating detail.

There are many fascinating mysteries. Why this colony here? What is it doing beyond surviving day-to-day? What was it that happened at planetfall, and why is Ren unsurprised by the newcomer's existence? The problem is that all the build-up is vastly more interesting than the resolution. What does the newcomer want? Oh, he wants that. (Which makes some of his earlier actions potentially self-defeating, if only people had spotted the clues.) What is the secret of God's City? Oh, it's that. What's going to happen about this situation? Doesn't matter, we're not going to think about it any more. I have rarely felt so let down by a final act, which in this case throws most of the narrative entirely off the track it had been following, and an ending which puts what's left onto one of the most well-travelled lines in SF.

It's all lyrically written, but the supporting ideas can't quite match the quality of the writing (the opposite of the usual problem with science fiction), and the "as above, so below" matching of the secret of God's City with the paths through which Ren needs to think in order to recover some of her humanity comes to feel trite rather than fitting. The one mystery that is rewardingly solved is the one about what really happened at planetfall: not the big picture, but the detail about the fate of a specific person.

That big picture leads to one of my least favourite tropes: while Ren has suppressed that specific detail, she remembers in general outline what happened, but the reader is given this only in occasional flashbacks (and the flashbacks themselves are out of order). It distances Ren from the reader, since it's all part of her mindscape and her actions appear senseless until we know why she's doing them, and feels like a conscious attempt to be "literary" rather than telling the story – as if Newman didn't have enough confidence in her primary narrative, and had to shuffle it about to build up suspense.

It doesn't help that the characters who aren't Ren are sketches: manipulative ex PR guy, annoying religious woman, nice doctor. Granted, that's how she sees people, but it would have been nice to get a bit more fleshing-out and interaction.

With a different ending, or perhaps as a short story or novelette, this could have been utterly superb. As it stands I felt disillusioned on finishing it and became more so on reflection.

Loosely followed by After Atlas.

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