Author: Emma Newman
Published: 5 November 2015
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, and 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, for the good of her fellow colonists, to perpetuate the lie that forms the foundation of the colony, 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…
Many will already be familiar with Emma Newman through her Split Worlds trilogy (a fantastic tale of fae and feminism in Bath – seriously, check it out and thank me later) but if you’re expecting more of the same with Planetfall, then buckle up because you’re in for one hell of a surprise.
In Planetfall, Newman has created an incredibly well imagined world, alien from our own, but home to a small community of colonists. Planetfall is full of highly original but plausibly well thought through science-fiction concepts; taking existing technology and flying with it, this is a world in which you can print your own self-sustaining home in a day, or send instant messages via an implanted interface.
The alien backdrop only serves to highlight how similar people and the communities they build are everywhere. For all the technological marvels Ren and her colony have mastered, and all the light years they have travelled, there is no escaping themselves. From the very beginning, it’s clear that something is rotten in Planetfall; an underlying cancer of deceit and obsession, initially only hinted at, which is slowly but surely consuming the community.
Our protagonist, Ren, is wonderfully compelling, secretive to the point of being sinister. She refuses to let anyone in either literally or figuratively, but struggles with the twin burdens of acting in the colony’s best interests and essentially grieving for Suh-Mi, who she followed out of love but has not seen since the first day they arrived.
The sense of wrongness becomes increasingly apparent with the sudden and shocking arrival of Sung-Soo, staggering half-dead out of a barren wasteland, making what seem to be impossible claims about his life. The rest of the colony believe him to be some kind of sign from Suh-Mi, who was largely looked upon as a kind of divine Prophet while on Earth, and now in her absence has achieved an almost god-like status. This exploration of faith and the psychological importance of ritual to support belief is particularly fascinating given that religion and science are so often seen as mutually exclusive; yet here, the colonists’ faith in Suh-Mi and her mission has formed the foundation of their community.
Sung-Soo’s arrival causes this foundation to crack. While ostensibly vulnerable and even kind, Ren’s uncertainty about whether he has a hidden agenda casts a cloud which renders him intriguingly ambiguous. Everything he does, whether it’s asking questions about Suh-Mi and the settlement, or inserting himself into Ren’s personal life, could be seen as either a sign that he is not what he seems, or that Ren and Mack (the colony’s leader, and the closest thing Ren has to a confidante) are themselves not to be trusted. Things come to a head when a small faction in the colony push for Sung-Soo to carry out a holy ritual which forms their only contact with Suh-Mi, and Ren begins to crack under the pressure of the secrets she is keeping.
While written in the first person, there is never the sense that Ren is an unreliable narrator or intentionally holding back from the reader, but rather that she is holding back from herself and half remembered horrors which she has compartmentalised and walled up in her mind. She gradually reveals her secrets as she is forced to face her own fears.
Planetfall is a brilliantly gripping psychological study of the ties that bind a diverse community together, of spirituality and science, love, loss, and the price of keeping up a pretence over a long period of time. Slowly unfurling its layers of lies until the worm in the bud is revealed, Planetfall is a story to be slowly savoured, a sublime mix of science fiction and faith. This is what Prometheus wishes it was.
Planetfall confirms Newman as one of the most versatile, talented and thoughtful voices currently in science fiction and fantasy. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Reviewer: Michaela Gray