I can’t remember the last time I didn’t get a book for Christmas. At least one. Sometimes I’ve gotten four or five thick, bricky novels. This year, though, it was just one novel: PLANETFALL by Emma Newman, released on November 3 2015. I’d read a blog post by Emma Newman; I vaguely remembered her talking about the difficulties and power in writing a main character with an anxiety disorder. Without going to deep into my personal life, I know very well a few people with anxiety disorders. This book intrigued me.
In brief, here’s PLANETFALL. Our main character is Renata Ghali, a 3d-printer engineer on a faraway world, part of a tiny colony of humans on an alien planet. The colony is built at the base of God’s City, a strange organic(?) structure that holds all the mysteries and secrets of the plot. The story opens with a stranger arriving at the colony – which is odd, since everyone outsidet the colony was supposed to be dead.
The story is a mystery that unfolds in several layers – the internal, as we learn the full extent of Renata’s anxiety and (as it turns out) OCD-spectrum; the interpersonal, as the dark secrets from the founding of the colony come back up to haunt those in charge; and the metaphysical, as God’s city slowly reveals itself.
The pacing in the book is quick and economical. The story moves, man; it glides right along, touching all the right spots as it passes. The mysteries unfold with surgical precision, and in three directions at once. It’s quite a feat of sleight-of-hand to tell a first-person story and still hide so much about the main character’s past. When there are flashbacks and exposition, they feel earned, not forced.
So all the writing stuff was strong (for the most part. I had a few minor quibbles. see later). But the sci fi was equally strong. The concepts were all what sci fi should be – projections of our present into a not-so-distant future. Smartphones were replaced with chip implants and virtual reality, 3d-printers were the main source of, well, everything – but this was not a fantasy world whistling with magic. Which made the strange organism, God’s city, all the more powerful. Emma Newman fills the book with the mostly-comprehensible, rending the incomprehensible all that much stranger.
But here I’m dancing around the real bright point of the book: Renata Ghali herself.
First off – go read this blog post from the author. Seriously, just go do it. She writes very, very well about Renata and her anxiety, and with far more grace than I have.
Because I know you didn’t just go read that post, here’s the most relevant paragraph:
I don’t suffer from the same disorder as her, although both are rooted in anxiety. There’s an overlap, and for those aspects, I could draw upon my own experiences, but for a lot of the more extreme manifestations of her illness, I relied upon research and empathy. I fretted a great deal about whether I wrote it with accuracy and with enough sensitivity and authenticity. When it was released, all I could do was hope it would find readers who loved it, like all authors do.
This research, sensitivity, and authenticity show full force in the novel. Ren is at once sympathetic and tragic. Anyone who has ever watched someone else struggle with mental illness will find that reading Ren’s POV is gut-wrenching at times, frighteningly familiar.
Ren’s mental illness, it turns out, is central to the plot. I won’t give it away, but throwaway lines about extra rooms built under her house become terrifyingly relevant in the final act of the story. And when the dark thing that Ren has built finally comes crashing down, so too do the lies she has perpetuated to keep the colony together. The parallels between Ren’s own mental state and the state of the colony are at once immediate and subtle. I never felt condescended-to; Emma Newman created a clear parallel without beating us around the head and shoulders with how clever she was.
Alright, it’s not a perfect book. Here’s my minor quibbles.
Early on, we are introduced to the character of Mack as the “Ringmaster,” which almost seems like his unofficial title. This title then disappears for most of the book, only popping up briefly again at the end. Very minor, but just a place where I could’ve used either more or less of the title.
Earlier I talked about how much I loved the pacing. There’s one exception: the end. Emma Newman rockets through the end of the story, and I almost felt cheated – the complete clusterjam at the end of the story, the culmination of all the plot threads, happens so quickly I almost missed it.
This next paragraph has spoilers, so avoid them if you wish!
Ren’s breakdown is wavering and weird as she deals with the colonypeople digging through her OCD hoarding in her house; it’s a slow, horrific series of chapters that really get under your skin. And then, suddenly, Sung-Soo betrays her and a bunch of other terrorists show up and the colony explodes. Just like that. It’s like once the valve was open, the story couldn’t be stopped from gushing out all over the pages.
In general, that was my main beef: the book glided, like I said above, but maybe it glided too much. It could’ve easily been another hundred pages long, I think; a few more quiet moments here and there, a little more development for characters who have only one or two scenes, and a longer climax. Usually, SFF authors have a problem with bloating in their books, but this book has the opposite problem. It could, in the words of every stereotypical Italian grandmother ever, use a little meat on them bones.
Although I do wish the ending had a little more flesh, the final moments of the book are utterly perfect. It reads like the end of Stephen King’s THE DARK TOWER books mashed up with the end to 2001: A SPACE ODDYSSEY by Arthur C. Clarke.
My takeaway from PLANETFALL was Honesty. Ren spends the entire book grappling with the fundamental lies at the heart of both the colony and her own psyche. She lies to herself about her disease, and that lie is inextricable from the lie that perpetuates the annual rituals and blind faith within the colony. When honesty finally comes out, kicking and screaming, the dark structures come crumbling down and we are left with the truth at the heart of God’s city. And this idea of honesty in the story is complemented by the honesty of Newman’s style. She depicts mental illness – and human emotion in general – with frankness and honesty. Form complements theme complements plot.
Despite a few pacing problems, PLANETFALL is well-worth the read. Books like PLANETFALL are few and far between – they change you, affect you, and leave something behind when they go.