Planetfall, the first science fiction offering from Emma Newman, is about a colony of humans who left Earth to follow Suh, an alleged prophet who received a supernatural message giving her the coordinates of an unknown distant planet where she was supposed to travel to receive instructions about God’s plans for humanity. Suh and her best friend Ren, a brilliant geneticist and engineer, gathered a team of like-minded believers and they landed on the planet 22 years ago. After “Planetfall,” Suh disappeared into “God’s City,” where she continues to live and send yearly messages and instructions to the rest of the colonists. All is going well until a visitor arrives and claims to be Suh’s grandson. His presence threatens the colony’s peace and it’s up to Ren, the story’s protagonist, to preserve it.
Planetfall is the third of Newman’s five novels that I’ve read. I recently finished her SPLIT WORLDS fantasy trilogy. I didn’t like that series mostly because the plot was dull and the characters, who were really the focus of the story (rather than the plot), were unpleasant. Unfortunately, I had the same problem with Planetfall. While I thought the story raised some interesting questions about belief, tradition, and organized religion, and I thought the world the colonists created was intriguing (though not original) with its sustainable dwellings, futuristic technology, and ability to produce most of their needs with a 3D printer, none of these things was explored well enough to make it a reason to read the book.
What is supposed to make the plot of Planetfall interesting is the mystery of what happened to the colony when it landed over two decades ago, where Suh disappeared to, the personal secrets about Ren’s mental health that she is hiding from everyone (including us), whether God really exists (and what/who God is), and what history and information is being covered up by a couple of the colonists. Newman gives us none of this information at first, but dispenses it at a trickle, keeping us wondering until the end.
Unfortunately, I never felt invested in these mysteries because I didn’t care about the colony or any of its inhabitants. Ren, just like the protagonist of SPLIT WORLDS, is dour, sullen, and humorless. (If that’s not how Newman intended to portray her, it is what comes across with the audiobook narration read by the author herself.) At first some of the problem is that Ren is a loner and she’s hiding something about herself from us, so it’s hard to get to know or understand her. But once we find out what’s going on, she becomes even more unpleasant as Newman excessively explores every facet of Ren’s mental disorder. This has some interesting aspects, but not enough to fill the pages assigned to it. I would have rather spent some time exploring the world beyond the colony. Other characters are equally unlikeable with perhaps the exception of Kay, the colony’s doctor and Ren’s occasional lover. I think I could have liked Kay, but I didn’t see enough of her to know for sure.
And so the story plays out with the excruciatingly slow unraveling of a mystery that I didn’t care about while the characters became less likeable the more I got to know them. At the end, I was expecting a tight finish with a mind-blowing reveal, but I thought all of the answers and revelations were disappointing. I might have appreciated Planetfall better if it had been a short story instead of a novel. As it is, I feel like I invested too much time for too little pay-off. Readers who like the characters better than I did, or who enjoy stories about melancholy and mental illness, will certainly get more out of Planetfall than I did.
As I mentioned, I listened to the 10 hour long audio version of Planetfall which was produced by Blackstone Audio and read by the author. (Sample.) Emma Newman has an absolutely beautiful voice, but she sounds rather forlorn here. While this definitely fits Ren’s character, I’m afraid it contributed to my dislike of Ren.
I truly enjoyed Planetfall, my first Emma Newman story, and found many of the issues Kat had with the tale particularly successful in my reading. Perhaps this highlights the fact every reader brings his or her own unique perspectives, tastes and sensibilities to the “journey of the read”.
Newman does a terrific job of building characters through dramatic tension in the plot and dialogue including spare, but strong use of flashbacks. We learn in an unobtrusive and well blended way that Renata, our lead character, was a daddy’s girl who had mommy issues. We learn early in the story, and I don’t think it’s a tremendous spoiler, that Ren lost a child when she was still very young, and she still harbors a lot of pain for having left her father in choosing to join this cross-galaxy expedition.
As Kat points out, Ren is not the most upbeat nor optimistic of individuals. I don’t consider her unlikable, though. I was actually drawn to her inner pain, the crusty outer shell that she portrayed as a shield against her vulnerability. Maybe that’s just me and I can relate in ways, and perhaps even have some great need to ‘save’ someone myself.
Newman’s language in Planetfall is suggestive of some secret, of some underlying mystery that’s not just on a grand scale, but something internal as well. We know also that Ren was in love with Suh, The Pathfinder, the one who’s become goddess-like to the survivors of the long interspace journey that’s now a generation past.
Key themes include the unbalanced act of man creating godhood, and the lengths the human mind will go to deceive itself. The central plot elements include the well-worn sci-fi trope of myth creation and the curation required to keep it alive and self-sustaining. Humanity is, after all, forever searching for greater meaning…
Religious allusions pervade, and were the driving force in the expedition in the first place. We learn that Suh inhaled a strange seed spore… only she, the ‘chosen one,’ was able to imbibe/eat and survive and thrive. She emerged from the inhalation with a unique site and vision and it was she that was the driving force of this expedition. Even through to the end sequence, the notion of the ‘chosen one’ persists and we learn that not all of this notional godhood was ballyhoo.
Ren is a broken figure, at times nasty and reactive, but clearly vulnerable. She’s the group’s ‘visengineer,’ responsible for colony maintenance with focus on the 3D printing machines which are the lifeblood to everything they do and their absolute survival. She’s a necessity, and the colony literally would not be able to survive without her. She uses that knowledge to her own advantage… never in a vindictive or hateful way, though much of the mystery surrounding Ren herself orbits this need to be needed.
Ren pulls discarded objects from the ‘masher’… the device used to recycle all materials and prep for reuse. Nothing is truly thrown away. She finds an imperfect pot… then an unfinished wool doll… she thinks, “…abandoned, unfinished. I’ll finish you.” Of course, she’s talking to more than just the objects she finds, but herself, the colony, and the God-like entity that pulled this colony off of Earth and onto this planet in the first place. All around her things are unfinished, broken, destroyed. Her child died young; she was unable to fix her. Her role as visengineer is the initial clue. She’s the fixer. The go-to colonist to deal with broken things. And mechanically she can fix just about anything. Except herself. And she knows it. A good third of Newman’s story delves into Ren’s psychoses which ultimate plays perhaps too large of a role relative to the length of the novel itself.
While Newman’s ideas around smart and self-sustaining buildings and 3D printing are not unique, I thought they created a nice mystique around the setting of the story and played a subtle but important role in the series of mysteries that lie at the core of Newman’s story. I found the mysteries of the story compelling:
- What happened to the rest of the crew after the initial planetfall;
- What happened to Suh, The Pathfinder — it’s repeated that something awful occurred with the first landing party;
- What’s behind the annual ritual of the ‘seed ceremony’ that Ren calls “the central pole that keeps the circus tent up”;
- Are there any secrets of the new comer, who claims to be the grandson of Suh, The Pathfinder? There’s something odd and unique that rests just under the surface of almost every interaction with him;
- What’s hidden in the upper most levels of the God’s city;
- And what are the driving forces that keep Ren closed off tighter than a spacesuit?
I’m torn about Planetfall’s ending. It will appeal to people in different ways: in some regards conclusive, though clearly open to interpretation. One won’t be able to help but make some analogies to Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey series, or Ridley Scott’s recent film, Prometheus. The core mysteries, however, are wrapped up rather nicely (although that’s not to say they’re all pleasant).
I liked Planetfall slightly more than Kat did, but I had most of the same problems she listed. Ren was not a likeable character, although I did find her interesting. While the depiction of the consequences of her mental health issue were revealed with good pacing, and laid out in detail, I never quite bought the condition, partly because it seemed like Newman went with the “literary” catalyst (loss) instead of exploring other causes of this kind of impulse control issue. I think Newman’s choice will work for most people; it just didn’t quite for me. I also had lots of small questions about the nature of secrecy in the colony (Ren isn’t the only one with secrets) given the “social media” nature of intra-colony communication.
As far as the plot went, with the entry into the colony of a newcomer who seems to be the visionary Suh’s grandson, the plot surrounding him was predictable, but I still enjoyed the details, specifically the pendants he carves for certain special people he meets.
Still, what kept me reading and wondering was the native complex the colonists have discovered on the planet they were led to by Suh (who was, in turn, led there by someone or something else) that the colonists call The City of God. It did remind me of Arthur C. Clarke and some New Wave writers, but I liked the strangeness of it, the alien-ness of it and the questions it raised (which aren’t completely answered at the end of the book).
My questions about The City of God, the mysterious seed, and Ren’s relation to the complex (not Suh’s, that was pretty obvious) kept me reading without question.
Reading a series out of order accidentally worked in my favor, for once — coming at Planetfall already knowing what types of stories Emma Newman is crafting and the ways in which she uses those stories to examine various types of mental illness and societal commentary carried me through some of the weaker and more confusing bits. There’s a lot left unsaid or described in broad strokes in this novel, from God’s city to the organization and interactions of the settlement’s residents, but the quality of Newman’s writing is as strong here as in subsequent novels like After Atlas and Before Mars.
Renata Ghali is hard to like and yet ultimately sympathetic, especially as her extra-curricular activities are brought more and more into the light, and I agree with Jason’s assessment that this may be more about me than Ren; I know all too well how easy it is to slip into the bottomless pit of thinking, “Oh, I can fix this,” or “I should keep this thing for later, you never know when it might come in handy” and before I know it, it’s unsafe to open closets for fear of what all might come tumbling out. The few descriptions we get of her childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, when combined with what readers gradually learn about Ren’s responsibilities to the colony, provided a lot of insight for me into how she ended up where and who she is during the novel. The other characters weren’t as fleshed-out, but I considered that to be a consequence of Ren’s inability/refusal to allow herself to become emotionally vulnerable, and felt that it made sense.
The overall story is compelling if a little vague in places, but my biggest complaint involves the ending: it’s nebulous and strangely abrupt, and left me with so many questions. (So far, each of the PLANETFALL novels I’ve read have had abrupt endings, but this is the least satisfactory of them to date.) However, knowing that Planetfall begins a series made me anticipatory for how Newman might someday return to the colony and potentially provide some resolution or create further questions in a way that I wouldn’t have felt if I read this book first, not knowing if it was intended to be a first volume or a stand-alone work.
After I finished Planetfall, I jumped ahead to the fourth PLANETFALL novel, Atlas Alone, and finally knowing the whole story of Lee Suh-Mi and her spaceship of the faithful made for a much more enjoyable reading experience. But as much as I’m glad I didn’t initially read these books in publication order, I don’t recommend that you make my mistake, friends! Though they’re telling largely discrete stories, there are details and discoveries revealed in each volume which, in turn, inform the others. Moreover, I’ve really enjoyed re-reading these books and discovering things I missed the first time around, and there aren’t too many books or series that I can say that for.