Book Review: Planetfall by Emma Newman

planetfall-emma-newman

Every time I come down here I think of my mother.

This is a striking work. It’s the only thing I’ve read by Emma Newman – a standalone science fiction novel about exploration, grief and god. Unusually for me, I had to take a break from reading it in the middle rather than just reading through. This is because the point-of-view character, Renata “Ren” Ghali, has a deeply seated anxiety issue that, although far more extreme than my own experience, managed to trigger some of my anxiety. Nevertheless, I came back and finished it because it is brilliant and I needed to know what happened.

Planetfall is written in the first person, so we are intimately entangled with Ren’s fears and feelings. And she has a lot of them, relayed to us with utter precision. Ren is the primary 3D printing engineer on a colony on an unknown planet, and the facts about the colony are drip-fed to us in a way that feels very natural; they are people who came here looking for God, following the Pathfinder Lee Suh-Mi. They are the only inhabitants of the planet, or they should be, and their colony is built at the base of a huge organic structure that they refer to as God’s City.

And then a man arrives: Sung-Soo, a stranger and the grandson of Lee Suh-Mi. To most of the community, this is at minimum a cause for celebration and at most a sign from God that soon Lee Suh-Mi will return. For Ren, it is the cause of gutwrenching anxiety and fear because she has been keeping a secret ever since planetfall, and Sung-Soo’s presence may just unravel everything.

This book is a study in narrative tension; we know there is a secret, but not what it is. We know that Mack, the charismatic ringmaster, is the only person other than Ren who knows. But what happened? And how? And, just as importantly, does Ren even remember? And how can Ren cope with her anxiety and her mental health when, at the core of it, is a secret so big that she can barely think about it? The plot is unwound through the present, but also through memories of family and friends, of leaving Earth and arriving on this planet. It’s a fragmented portrait of a fragmented person, written with skill.

As I said, I had to take a break in the middle of reading this, so the beginning and the end are a bit disjointed in my head. Against all the odds, I actually found it uplifting by the end (but perhaps that’s just me). Planetfall is inhabited by well-observed and realised characters, in a detailed and believable world. And I loved it, despite the fact that I kept having to take breaks to go and cry and once nearly had a panic attack because Emma Newman’s description of Ren having a panic attack was too accurate. It’s a tense, tight mystery that encompasses grief and guilt and lies and was, at it’s heart, wonderfully human. I highly recommend it, although perhaps step with caution if anxiety is an issue for you.

Rating: enjoy this book, but remember that trying to find God never ends well in science-fiction.

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