by Emma Newman
Planetfall is about a colony of Earth humans on a distant planet. They all went to this unnamed planet, in a privately funded expedition, because of Lee Suh-Mi, who received a “vision” of the planet, and told them that they would find God there. The main character, Renata “Ren” Ghali, was Suh-Mi’s lover on Earth, and was the first of Suh-Mi’s believers. The current leader of the colony is Mack, who is not a believer in the vision, but wanted to go to a new planet. The story opens several decades after ‘planetfall’ with the colony well established, and Suh-Mi living in total seclusion inside a gigantic tree-like structure, which the colonists call God’s City, where Suh-Mi is supposedly communing with God.
Ren is the 3D printer expert in the colony, the technology upon which the colonists rely for almost everything. She also has a mental illness–she suffers from panic attacks and severe social anxiety disorder. It takes skill to make a main character who is so very flawed likable, but Newman does this very well. Because the story is told from Ren’s perspective, we can see her struggles and how she has managed to be a part of the colony, despite her mental illness. I found myself identifying with her far more than I thought I would, which is to Newman’s credit. (It should be noted that Newman, herself, suffers from the same disorders, which she was brave enough to admit in the opening acknowledgments. It is clear that the author’s own experience makes Ren a fully developed character, and not simply a stereotype.)
This is a difficult book to review because of the nature of the story. We know from the onset that Ren is hiding a Big Secret, in conjunction with Mack–something bad happened during planetfall, and keeping this secret is tearing Ren apart. The narrative structure slowly reveals more information about the Big Secret, and we learn more of Ren’s history and the history of the colony. It all unfolds rather like the layers of an onion, as more details come to light. These details are critical to the plot and to the development of the characters, but discussing them in a review would spoil much of the book. Hence, the difficulty!
However, in a general sense, Planetfall touches on ideas and themes that are found in other science fiction books, but brings its own contributions. Certainly, mental illness plays a large role in the book – how Ren copes (or doesn’t), how she integrates with the colonists, what is driving her. Newman’s own struggles with mental illness clearly provide verisimilitude to the story and the character. The other main theme is faith or religion, and how that affects a society. All the colonists (except for Mack) are true believers in Suh-Mi’s vision. They completely accept her absence for decades as she ‘communes with God’ inside God’s City. They all went on the mission to find God and to find all the answers to life’s questions and they blissfully await Suh-Mi’s emergence. They are not part of an organized religion, out to proselytize other races, as we see in books such as Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness or Mary Doria Russel’s The Sparrow. Nevertheless, the nature of belief and faith on a social scale colors the actions in this book.
While science obviously plays a part in this book, this is not a ‘hard’ science fiction novel. For instance, no details are provided about the method of interstellar travel. As previously noted, 3D printing is a huge part of how the colony survives, but, again, no details are given about the technology. The colonists also use genetic manipulation on themselves, but that is mentioned almost in passing. One area that is a large part of the novel is the use of embedded implants in their eyes. Those enable the colonists to communicate via text or speech with other colonists. There is a sort of Facebook/social media aspect to this. But again, how this is accomplished is not specified. For me, these were not flaws, however. I prefer stories about people, and am perfectly happy to have the science be plausible, yet left unexplained, in favor of a rollicking good story, which this is.
Despite all these things in its favor, Planetfall suffers greatly at the end. The entirety of the book is a slow reveal of Ren’s thoughts and experiences, coupled with the societal nature of belief, but the ending takes a hard right turn and veers off into a 2001: A Space Odyssey (the movie) ending. Newman takes a personal journey then jumps into a ‘big concept’ finale. This felt quite strange to me, as if the ending belonged to another book. Given the events leading up to the end, it feels as if Newman painted herself into a corner, narratively speaking, and felt she had to do something stupendous to get herself out. But it just didn’t work for me. (And judging from other reviews, I’m not alone in this.)
All that being said, I can still recommend this book. Ren is a character that has continued to stick with me, weeks after reading the book, and the exploration of belief/religion as a societal motivator is well done. Just prepare for a jolt at the end.