Emma Newman continues her PLANETFALL series with Atlas Alone (2019), which takes place after Planetfall, After Atlas, and Before Mars. In fact, two of Atlas Alone’s characters will be immediately recognizable to those who have already read After Atlas, and one of those characters, in particular, is key to creating Atlas Alone’s overwhelming claustrophobia, tension, and sense of impending doom. Some spoilers for After Atlas will be unavoidable in discussing Atlas Alone, but I’ll try to limit them as much as possible.
It’s been six months since the shocking conclusion of After Atlas, and now Dee, Carlos (who Dee refers to as Carl), and Travis are aboard Atlas 2 along with members of the Circle and a lot of other people, who keep to themselves and have a distinct American gov-corp air about them. Dee is still furious about the clandestine destruction of Earth via nuclear bombardment, an event she secretly witnessed, and is convinced that someone aboard Atlas 2 ordered it, but has made no progress in ferreting out the person’s identity or the identities of the thousands of other people aboard the spaceship. She does know Atlas 2 is following the course plotted by Lee Suh-Mi and the colonists aboard the original Atlas, but not much else, despite her top-level skills in hacking and information gathering. (Readers who have read Planetfall may feel some trepidation about what this new generation of homeless Earthlings will find when they arrive.)
Normally, Dee and Carl engage in immersive gaming simulations to bust digital heads together, but nothing she has access to can wipe this horror from her mind or distract her from the need to punish whoever was responsible. When an anonymous designer contacts her and offers the chance to experiment with a new kind of mersive, Dee jumps at the chance, especially because the timing coincides with an offer from an upper-echelon passenger, who invites Dee to join an elite gaming server and perhaps do a little work in addition. But what seems like the perfect opportunity to learn more about Atlas 2 and its crew roster quickly turns to horror when the anonymous developer’s game is upsettingly, impossibly realistic and ends with Dee murdering a man — a man who, she learns the next day, died while she was in the game.
With Carl aboard, knowing that he’s one of the finest investigative minds a shadowy quasi-legal government/corporation entity can indoctrinate, Dee’s desperation to cover her tracks steadily mounts. The mysterious designer knows too much about her past, even before she was classified as a “non-person” and given over to the same gov-corp who turned Carl into what he is, but they refuse to tell her how or why. She proves herself useful to the elite gamers, but that only complicates things as she learns more about who they are and what their goals for the future colony really are. And the body count keeps increasing…
As with the other PLANETFALL books, Atlas Alone is a study in psychological pressures, both external and internal. Dee allows herself to be emotionally vulnerable with Carl to a certain extent, but relies on carefully-constructed mental and physical barriers to prevent anyone from getting too close in order to protect herself from anything they might do to her. She knows how to smile and laugh casually while inwardly seething when men treat her like an object, when people condescend to her, when people commit grave injustices against her. It’s a survival tactic that she employed many, many times in her decades as a non-person, and which she employs again as she infiltrates the social circles aboard Atlas 2. She doesn’t question it, much like she doesn’t question the actions she takes in her efforts to win at all costs while in a gaming mersive. But when real-life deaths echo the events in her mersives, she’s forced to confront the darkest corners of her past and her own mind, in ways that have serious consequences for the entire ship. Dee’s character is complex, to say the least, and while I initially rooted for her and identified quite strongly with her, some late-book revelations gave me cause to question all of that (by Newman’s design, and skillfully done). As much as I enjoyed this book, and I genuinely did, there were times when it was hard to read because Dee became so real to me. All credit goes to Newman’s character work and her willingness to shine a light on the ugliest parts of ourselves.
I enjoyed the multiple layers of intrigue Newman creates: Dee is on the trail of the people who destroyed Earth, along with tracking down the identity of the anonymous designer; Carl is on the murderer’s trail, which may or may not actually lead to Dee; the designer also seems to be hunting the people who destroyed Earth, but their methods and misdirections make it impossible for Dee to trust them. (I guessed the designer’s identity early on, but not their ultimate goal.) The plans for the future colony are both diabolical and depressingly realistic, somehow capturing the worst of capitalist greed and human desperation. My hope is that, should the PLANETFALL series continue, subsequent books will bring the first batch of colonists and the second batch together, though Atlas 2 has about twenty years of travel left before arriving at the planet in question, and a lot can happen in that time.
Moreover, Atlas Alone gives a clearer picture of what Britain was like during the tumult leading to dissolution of global nations as we understand them and the transition to the Noropean government. The mersives Dee is invited to engage in are just near-future enough to resonate with present-day readers, with a bit of a knowing wink to how quickly technology can shift and become obsolete, as well as commenting on the politically-unstable world we currently live in and recognizing how quickly it could all go completely pear-shaped should the wrong world leader wake up in a foul mood. As much as I enjoy how Newman writes about people and the tangled-up knots inside their heads, I also enjoy how she writes, specifically, about video games and the people who play them. It’s not just about escapism, though that’s sometimes a component of the appeal, but it’s also about fulfilling needs that aren’t being met in the real world — whether it’s stress relief via pair-based shooters on Mars or quietly building chicken coops with a friend.
There are touches of humor here and there, often resulting from Dee’s personal AI, Ada, and her snappy-verging-on-rude replies to Dee’s requests and directives. But overall, Atlas Alone is an unflinching dive into childhood trauma, social alienation, and the potential cost of survival instincts. Highly recommended.