By Emma Newman
New American Library, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
Kindle book, 956 KB, 328 pages. © 2015
As an engineer and a pilot, Renata Ghali earned her place among the population on the Atlas, a small group of people following the vision of Suh-Mi to a distant world, where God would enlighten them with secrets of existence and provide an idealistic life. For more than twenty years after Planetfall, Ren prints houses, fixes the equipment, supports Mack in his drive to keep a shocking secret from the rest of the colony. Yet Renata doesn’t fit. The other colonists at the foot of God’s city know she’s odd. Quirky, even. She’s just a private person, they tell themselves.
Then a stranger approaches the colony from the wild, dangerous grasslands, a human. Ren knows they can’t turn him away. Not after everything that has happened. But his presence is the first strong wind to blow against the house of cards Mack and Ren have built on lies and deceit. Cracks begin to appear in Ren’s façade of control. When the stranger uncovers her deepest shame, she can no longer stay silent, even though she knows her revelations may destroy the colony.
Planetfall is a sci-fi novel set on a distant planet, twenty-two years after the establishment of humanity’s first extra-terrestrial colony. The entire story is told in first-person, present tense, through the eyes of Renata Ghali. Emma Newman’s depiction of this anxiety-ridden character is masterfully done. All the tiny (and not so small) details of Renata’s struggle to maintain the pretense of balance are woven into every page. As the story unfolds and the increasing pressure weakens her defenses, my empathy with Ren’s situation grew until I could no longer put the book down. I could feel Ren’s breaking point on the horizon, and by the time it appeared on the page, I was completely invested in the outcome.
Many other characters appear on the page through Ren’s eyes. Mack, the Ringmaster and leader of the colony. Suh-Mi, the Pathfinder, and the vision behind the entire expedition. Kay, one of two colony doctors, and Ren’s ex-lover. Carmen, the voice of trouble. Sung-soo, Suh’s grandson and the harbinger of change for the colony. All their roles fit naturally into the setting and the circumstances of the story. All felt authentic. Even given the despicable things some of them do, I had to admit I could understand why they acted in that way. Seeing those actions through Ren’s eyes, I found myself wondering if, in their shoes, I might have done the same thing. I don’t know the answer, but it was an interesting philosophical question that lingered in my thoughts long after I finished reading.
God’s City, an alien structure that towers above the city like a tangle of trees, black with nodules at the top that extend tendrils in the heat of the day, and in which lights can sometimes be seen at night. As far as they know, no one lives inside. Ren calls it an organic citadel, and piecemeal descriptions of its exterior and interior throughout the story reinforce this image. I loved the scenes that took place inside. I tried to envision it, but could only get so close to something so entirely alien to human experience. But as the story develops, it becomes clear that the City is far more central to the story than we first imagine.
There is a mystery at the heart of Planetfall, disguised by twenty-two years of carefully constructed mythology layered over a devastating truth. Newman doles out hints and clues like promising crumbs, each one so intriguing that I kept eating them up and following trail deeper into the dark forest of Ren’s mind. I found myself trying to piece together what really happened at Planetfall and, while I did come to a correct conclusion, my assumptions were nonetheless off-track. The truth was far more intense than I imagined, and left me gaping at the page, one hand to my heart. Especially given the way Newman wrapped me up in Ren’s perspective, I could only imagine how horrific it would have been to experience at all, much less to hold the knowledge to herself for so long.
While the ending seemed at first a bit anticlimactic, it lingered with me the rest of that day, and into the next. After, I realized it could not have ended better for Ren. The colony—well. I won’t spoil it for you. There are other books in the series, all of which take place in the same universe. However, this is a standalone novel, one I highly recommend. Planetfall is damn good science fiction, woven with threads of philosophy, psychology, and sociology that give it a fresh approach. Well worth reading.