From the award-nominated author Emma Newman, 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...
This review is split into two parts: the spoiler-free and the hella spoilery, because this is one of those books that's hard to talk about without ruining some or all of the experience. And Emma Newman's Planetfall is an experience I highly recommend, so if you're not sure about it, read the first half of this review and perhaps that will convince you. Afterwards, come back and talk about anxiety with me!
I mention anxiety because it is a central theme of the novel. No, that is not enough. Anxiety is more than a theme, it is the immersive medium of the novel. Renata Ghali, or Ren, is the 3D printer engineer for a colony on an alien world. When her love, if not her lover (the text is never clear on this), Lee Suh-Mi comes out of a mysterious coma with visions of humanity's destiny on an alien world, Ren and roughly 1,000 colonists follow her to the stars. One of the first things I want you to know about this book is that it stars a 70-year old biracial bisexual woman. That alone is worth remarking on. But beyond that the book is a fascinating exploration of the spaces between community and privacy, religion and science, and, yes, anxiety and ritual.
Newman builds a believable future with two major underpinnings. One is the ubiquity of 3D printing technology, such that the colonists can easily print everything from food to clothes to drugs to an entire self-sustaining house. As the colony's primary 3D printing engineer, Ren is a valuable asset, and when the cracks in her psyche start to show, the reader can see how this is a dire situation for the colony. The use of 3D printing is well-extrapolated from present technology and very well-integrated into this vision of the future, managing to create a world that is simultaneously wondrous and delightfully mundane.
The other major technology of the book is the integrated chip that all the colonists have implanted in their brains, which allows everything from enhanced reality viewing a la Google Glass, to near-telepathic instant messages using eye movements or a virtual keyboard, to medical interventions that manipulate brain chemistry to dull pain or knock someone out. This technology nicely sets up one of the major themes of the story: the tension between community and privacy. Ren is a very private person, and the very technology that enhances her ability to interact with the world also makes it more difficult for her to remain apart from it. Newman shows numerous times how the chip technology is used to bring the community together, with things like group messages, location pings, and common-access files. One of the novel's climactic moments involves the colony all experiencing a video file together. But the technology can also be used for solitary purposes: Ren often uses it to visualize artifacts or things to be printed. All in all the technology itself is not far removed from similar depictions of the future, but Newman is careful to maintain a very human element to it.
All of this is backdrop to the story. Roughly 22 years before the setting of the novel, the colonists arrived at the alien planet to find a pre-existing structure they came to call God's City. The people who followed Lee Suh-Mi came for a mixture of reasons, but a strong component of faith resonates throughout the colony and the novel. This is unusual, as religion and science are often seen as mutually exclusive, and yet the colony is composed mainly of scientists. Ren herself is a scientist and a theist, and the interplay between science and faith is one of the tensions present throughout the novel.
Upon arrival, Suh-Mi entered God's City, and now the colony is awaiting her return. Ren feels her loss most keenly, and in many ways the novel is an exploration of grief as well as of anxiety. Every year Suh-Mi sends a message, the subject of much ritual. This ritual serves to alleviate the colony's anxieties about their situation, much as Ren's rituals serve to alleviate her own anxieties. The novel opens with Ren in the middle of such a ritual, rescuing something flawed but lovely from the Masher, the colony's recycling unit. This ritual is interrupted by an urgent message from the colony's Ringleader, Mack, about a stranger arriving on the outskirts of the colony. This stranger is Lee Sung-Soo, and he is, impossibly, Suh-Mi's grandson. His arrival skyrockets Ren's anxieties and pulls at dark secrets within Ren, Mack, and the colony's past.
So, what about Ren's anxiety? Ren is obsessed with fixing what is broken, but we quickly learn that Ren is possibly what is most broken in the story. The narration is in the first person, so we experience her anxiety in a very direct, visceral way. Newman's writing is supremely effective in this, sparse but evocative. But how much can we trust Ren's anxiety? She's anxious all the time about just about everything. How are we, as readers, supposed to judge Ren's world and Ren's experiences when everything is a potential cause for alarm? Of course, this is very much like the experience of living with anxiety. I do that, and this novel really spoke to me. With generalized anxiety, it can be really hard to tell apart things that are worth worrying over from things that aren't. This is a very clever and immersive tactic for Newman to use, because it hides Planetfall's mysteries in plain sight. There are things Ren obsesses over: some of them are valid and plot-relevant and some aren't. And there are things that Ren pushes to the edges of her consciousness and past even that. Here is an example:
An urgent message arrives from Mack and I'm tossed back into the fear that something terrible has come about because of the [spoiler]. I watch the icon flash insistently, unable to summon the courage to open it. I know it has something to do with Sung-Soo. Something to do with the way he looked as Marco spoke. My body knows it; it knew it back then and drove me out of the city.
Another icon begins to flash; over ten messages have arrived in the last minute. Then another. My stream is full of mentions of my name, but I don't dare open it and read what they're saying. I shut the notifications off, sit up, and tuck my arm back into its sling as my heart feels like a ram trying to butt its way out of the cage formed by my ribs. I'm paralyzed by fear of what is happening back there. I imagine a fierce crowd baying for blood, having learned [spoiler].
But if they know that, they have to know about Mack.
Perhaps his urgent message is a call for help. A tight croak is squeezed through my throat as I realize I have to open it. He may need me.
I can feel my pulse in my throat as I blink twice at the icon and the text floats across my vision. I have to read it twice to get the meaning through the thick fog of anxiety.
There's a share link below and my chest burns as I'm unable to take another breath. My cheeks are burning and my lips tingling. I can't handle this. I close the message box and curl into a ball, letting myself tip onto my side, holding my slinged arm tight against myself with the other.
How does the reader know the truth? Is the colony out for Ren's blood as she fears? What do they know? What do each of the colony, Ren, and the reader know about Mack?
Unlocking the mysteries behind the anxieties is the driving force behind Planetfall, and it's a thoroughly enjoyable process.
And now, to SPOILERS
So how do we tell which of Ren's anxieties are legitimate and which aren't? The answer is: we don't, because Ren is an unreliable narrator! The constant anxiety is a neat trick to hide the unreliability of Ren's own narration. I really wanted to call this review "Anxiety and the Unreliable Narrator", but I consider the fact that Ren is unreliable to be a spoiler, and I just couldn't put it right there in the title.
But now it's time to talk about it! Because the things Ren is most anxious about — Sung-Soo, Mack, her house — do end up being major problems. But she's also anxious about a lot of other things, which serves as a kind of white noise to mask the things she really does need to be worried about.
I was delighted by the slowly growing sense of wrongness that permeated the novel. It starts right at the beginning: why does Ren have to hide that she was at the Masher? Why did Mack print a gun? What's this about killing the new arrival? And then Mack drugs Sung-Soo against his consent. Right from the start, we're given the clues that Mack is not a good guy. If anything, he's a villain, forcing Ren to maintain secrets and keeping her caught in a web of lies and anxieties. For part of the book I was convinced that Mack had killed Suh-Mi, what with him waving the gun around. That seems to have been deliberate obfuscation on Newman's part, as was so much about Mack. Peeling back Mack's layers was almost as satisfying as peeling back Ren's.
But back to Ren. I mentioned earlier about anxieties and rituals. Rituals are a real-life tool used to deal with anxiety, and in the book both Ren as an individual and the colony as a whole use rituals to alleviate anxiety; this parallel is nicely and subtly built up. But then we learn that all of these rituals are futile; some of them are downright damaging. Ren's attempts to fix all the little things damage the colony's supplies and make her house unlivable, even killing parts of the house. I love the gradual reveal about Ren's house. We assume, as we do, that it's a normal house. But there's a crack in the ceiling. And some moss is dead. And Ren always curls up to sleep... Why can't she stretch out? It's a lovely drawn-out revelation.
The novel was also clever about keeping me unsure about Sung-Soo. On the one hand, he intruded constantly into Ren's space, with the reader experiencing Ren's dislike of this. On the other hand, he was trying to do healthy things for Ren and seemed to genuinely care for her. Of course, in the end he turns out to be a villain; the cracks that were showing in the colony due to his presence aren't even the ones that rupture in the end. He simply and literally blows the place up. I would have liked to see a little more about Sung-Soo at the end. Why did they blow up the servers? Why cripple the colony completely and doom them to likely death instead of just take what Sung-Soo's people needed to make their own lives comfortable? This overwhelming revenge, while arguably not unjustified given Mack's actions, still felt excessive and needless.
And, of course, there is the ending of the book. If Planetfall has one weakness for me, it is the end. It all comes together — or comes apart — a little too abruptly and transcendentally for me. The section at the end inside God's City kind of lost me a little. I could buy it changing Ren's body and making her adapt incrementally to the environment inside the structure, until she is ready to enter the final chamber. But I didn't understand what she meant at the end about those coming after her getting further. Commenters, any clarity?
Finally, it's a small thing in the overall scheme of things, but I mourn the relationship between Kay and Ren that was never to resume. They got so close, Ren even made some progress in opening up— but of course, it could never be; Ren's secret was too big and would have consumed the relationship no matter what. That said, it was nice to see such a relationship between older women, cautious and caring and yearning and sexual.
Overall, I loved Planetfall's treatment of both anxiety and the unreliable narrator trope. It was cleverly done and very immersive. I hear the book is picking up some awards buzz, and well it should! I look forward to seeing it this award season.
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