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Saturday, March 12, 2016

NOVEL: Emma Newman: "Planetfall"

Author:  Emma Newman  
Title:  Planetfall 
Plot Type: Science Fiction
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality2; Humor—1   
Publisher and Titles:  Roc (11/2015) 

This book has been sitting on my to-read shelf since last fall, so I apologize for my tardiness in getting this review uploaded. It's a great novel, and I'm sorry that I didn't get to it in a more timely fashion. 

     From Emma Newman, the award-nominated author of Between Two Thorns [book 1 in the SPLIT WORLDS SERIES], comes a novel of how one secret withheld to protect humanity’s future might be its undoing. 

     Renata 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, 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 to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony for the good of her fellow colonists, 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. 

     The fact that the cover of a science fiction novel shows an image of a shattered woman rather than an image of an alien city is a clue to the author’s purpose. Although the science fiction mythology is splendidly woven through the descriptive words and thoughts of the protagonist, the author’s primary focus is on this damaged woman’s own story, which is told in her first-person voice. Ranata (Ren) Ghali serves as the chief engineer for the colony, a twenty-two year-old settlement on a distant planet. The colonists, all of whom came from Earth, were selected for their skills (mostly scientific and medical) and were specifically screened to make sure that all of “the crazies” (as Mack, the colony's leader called them) were weeded out. 

     The settlers live in fully self-sustaining houses under rigid regulations requiring a zero-waste footprint. Food, tools, medicine, and other necessities come from 3-D printers, which Ren is tasked with keeping in running order. As long as the ingredients are available, the printers can spit out anything a person needs—from spaghetti to sedatives to stainless steel forks. Technology is all important to the colony. In addition to the 3-D printers, each colonist has an implanted chip that links to a central AI server that holds databases, technology controls, historical information, etc. Household appliances and controls respond to voice commands. All garbage and trash become renewable resources after they are sent through an automated Masher.

     Newman does a beautiful job of filling in the details of the colony’s backstory gradually and in great detail, mostly through interior monologues in which Ren replays the events of her college and post-college years when she first met her roommate and eventual lover, Lee Suh-Mi. At one point, Suh-Mi goes into a coma and awakens with a vision that provides her the coordinates for a distant planet to which God (or someone god-like) wants her to lead a scientific pilgrimage. A major theme of the book is the friction between science and religion. Publishers Weekly calls this book “a tragedy of science and faith,” a succinctly accurate description. 

     As the world on planet Earth begins to self-destruct and more and more scientists become believers, Suh-Mi and her planning team select those whose skills will make the new colony strong. They gather enough money through donations to build Atlas, their spacecraft. Eventually, the group (numbering in the many hundreds) rockets out to Suh-Mis' coordinates, certain that she is leading them in the right direction (both literally and figuratively). They call Suh-Mi the Pathfinder and trust her implicitly. 

     As the book opens, the colony has obviously been successful, mostly because of the planet's human-friendly, Earth-like atmosphere and the colony's high-level technology. Except for the accidental crashes of several pods during Planetfall (the name they give to the day they all climbed into their pods and flew from Atlas to the colony), there have been no deaths. The colony lies in the shadow of a huge, organic—perhaps sentient—structure they call God’s city. “It stretches above the colony like a huge forest of ancient baobab trees tangled around one another, forming an organic citadel. The outer membranes of the structure are black, to absorb the most sunlight, the morning the nodules at the top of the structure are spherical…When it gets hot, the nodules in the upper levels grow tendrils. It increases the surface area to manage the heat.” Don’t look for a clear understanding of the appearance, origin, or meaning of God’s city. This novel does not have an omniscient narrator, so the reader cannot know any more about God’s city than Ren does—and that’s not very much (although she knows more about it than the other colonists due to her secretive, spooky, night-time visits). 

     Life in the colony seems pretty good for everyone but Ren, who is wracked with guilt and shame over her secret hoarding and over huge lies that she and Mack—the colony’s leader, or ringmaster—have been telling the settlers for all of the 22 years they have lived here, lies that they believe must be maintained in order to keep the colony from disintegrating into chaos. 

     Then one day a young man named Sung-Soo stumbles into the colony, a stranger who claims to be Suh-Mi’s grandson. Any time a stranger enters a closed social group, unsettling events are sure to follow (I kept thinking about Walking Dead’s Alexandria), and that is definitely the case here. Early on, Ren wonders ”if this is the beginning of destabilization, the start of the allergic response to the new social pathogen (the “social pathogen” being Sung-Soo). 

     I won’t tell you any more about the plot, because the joy of this book is watching it unfold—picking up on the subtle clues that Newman drops along the way like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs (only instead of leading to the Witch's gingerbread house, they lead to the secrets of God's city). If you read any of the 1-through-3-star reviews of this book on Amazon (which I don’t recommend that you do), you’ll see that those reviewers missed just about every clever clue that Newman positioned so carefully in the plot, and that’s a real shame because they entirely missed the point of the novel. Here is a hint for you: As you read, be sure to pay attention to references to the Masher, the coma, the seed, the pendants, the metal hinge, and the doll. 

     This is not hardcore genre fiction; it’s a story of love and hate, faith and despair, secrets and lies, compassion and revenge—all playing out in a world that is completely dependent on science and technology and underpinned by a deep and ongoing faith in the Pathfinder. As Sung-Soo’s words and actions uncover the colony’s weaknesses and unravel its secrets—particularly Ren’s—the tension builds, the suspense heightens, and implosion becomes imminent.

     For me, this was a can’t-put-it-down reading experience. Ren is such a complex, nuanced character. She is a skilled, pragmatic engineer; a sufferer of anxiety and depression; a person of faith (sometimes); the grieving mother of a long-dead child; the daughter of deeply flawed parents; a lover who has lost her true love; and a woman who immerses herself in the detritus of the colony to protect herself from remembering one of most tragic events in her life. This is a terrific novel with an inventive mythology, surprising plot turns, well-developed lead characters, an ethnically diverse cast, and a heart-breakingly poignant protagonist. If I had read it last fall when it was first published, I would definitely have put it on my top-ten list for 2015.

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Planetfall on the novel’s page by clicking either on the cover art or on the “Listen” icon. Click HERE to read Publishers Weekly’s starred review of Planetfall. Click HERE to read the four-star review of this novel in RT Book Reviews.

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