Saturday, 23 April 2016

Planetfall by Emma Newman

Planetfall by Emma Newman is the first science fiction novel from the author of the Split Worlds fantasy series. It is nothing like those earlier books in both genre, tone and theme, which isn't to say that one can't enjoy both.

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…

Part of this is because I tend not to read the blurb before I start a book (only when deciding to read it, and that only when it's not a sequel), but Planetfall wasn't what I expected from what I was thinking of as an ordinary science fiction book (whatever that means). Given that, from the title, it clearly involves another planet, I wasn't expecting this fascinating social SF take on what is usually a hard SF scenario. And it was a pretty great take, at that.

Planetfall is set in a colony on another planet that has been reached by a single expedition from Earth. Or perhaps I should say it's the first colony, as far as anyone in the book knows, outside of the solar system. The precise reasons for that are almost religious in nature, and best explained by reading the actual book.

The story is told from the point of view of Ren, who is a key engineer for the colony and also one of only two people who know "the truth" about something that happened at planetfall, when they landed. (We don't find out what the something is until late in the book, so I'm not going to spoil it.) She's also a lesbian and (minor spoiler), as we learn, a hoarder. The depiction of her mental illness is very well done, and I was very sympathetic to her when shit hit the fan in that respect.

This is a very character-driven story and I think it's important to note that one of those characters is the mysterious alien structure/city/organism that the colony is built next to. It's the reason the colony exists and it's one of Ren's obsessions. We don't know if it's sentient, but we do know that its very existence has shaped Ren's and the other colony citizens' entire lives. Finding out more about it is one of Ren's goals.

Part of what made Planetfall great was the way in which an event that would have, in another book, taken centre stage — particularly at the climax — is relegated to secondary status because of the first person narration. That works really well, because that story has been told enough times already, and what was happening to Ren at the time was more interesting anyway. And it's not like we don't get enough information to understand what else was going on.

Planetfall was an excellent read and I highly recommend it to all fans of science fiction, especially character-driven science fiction. There's a little bit of the Big Dumb Object subgenre in it to. The interiority of Ren reminded me a little of Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer, but the two books are not otherwise very similar. It's an excellent read and I will certainly be keeping an eye on any future books by Emma Newman, especially if she writes any more science fiction.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: March 2016, DAW
Series: No. A standalone, I'm pretty sure
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

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