What happens when your life is built on a lie? This is Renata Ghali’s problem in Planetfall. Emma Newman manages to construct a science fiction mystery with a mentally ill protagonist that is simultaneously about our need to believe and our desire to forget. The result is a captivating read I didn’t want to put down.
Ren is one of many colonists who came to this planet as part of an expedition led by Lee Suh-Mi, a woman who claims to have received a vision from God. Though most of the colonists would say they aren’t religious, many of them believed enough in Suh’s vision to leave everything they knew behind on Earth and settle on this planet outside an alien construct known as God’s City. Every year, the colonists receive a message “seed” from Suh, who is inaccessible within God’s City, communing with the creator. Or so we’re told. Only Ren and the mayor of the colony, Mack, know the truth. But when Suh’s grandson shows up with a story that he is the last survivor of a group of colonists long thought to be lost, secrets old and new alike will be uncovered.
Probably the best thing about this book is the utter chill Newman has about the central mystery. We make very little progress towards understanding the nature of this planet, of God’s City, of the connection between the plant that Suh ingested that caused her vision and the beings that created God’s City. Towards the very end, we receive … I guess you would call it a resolution. I’m actually not too sure what to make of the ending, but I guess that’s all right. The ending isn’t as important as the journey.
Really this is a story about belief. Ren and the others travel through the stars (the technology, like so much else in this story, is never really discussed; it’s implied humans have the capability for interstellar travel but it doesn’t seem to be commonplace) because they believe in Suh’s vision. Or they believe they will find something on this planet, some purpose they couldn’t find on Earth. In Suh’s prolonged absence, Ren has withdrawn into herself. She maintains the colony’s 3D printers and some other equipment, but she otherwise has begun to isolate herself from relationships. As Planetfall unfolds, we learn more about Ren’s poor mental health. Now, as a first person narrator she is technically unreliable. But it feels like Newman provides as lucid an insight into Ren’s condition as is possible. We go from “oh, Ren is quirky” to “oh, Ren is not well at all” and this informs how we look at what happened in the past, at Ren’s complicity with Mack and what happens at the climax of the novel.
Everything in this story is built on belief, belief in a lie. Mack believes that the lie preserves the colony’s unity—but he went to great lengths to achieve that initial unity, and now his bill has come due. The chaos in the climax of the story feels inevitable, a storm brewing from the first page, and it is a sharp contrast to the calm throughout the rest of the book. We spend much of Planetfall waiting, fed action only through flashbacks, as we are left to ponder the purpose of these colonists now. Newman doesn’t give everything away all at once, but it’s easy enough to read between the lines and understand what Mack and Ren did.
Perhaps ironically, the centre of this entire book is a character we only meet in flashbacks: Lee Suh-Mi. Her fate seals the fate of the colonists, in a way. There is hubris to this journey but also a sad inevitability. I think Planetfall is one of those books that is very open to interpretation in terms of what you get from the ending. What I got was the idea that, in the end, you can only reach apotheosis by completely giving yourself over to the process. Suh failed to do this because she saw herself as an individual separate from God (or whatever you want to call the being or beings behind the scenes here); she thought she could meet God. Ren’s journey reveals instead that one can only meet God through becoming, in a sense, God, although that of course isn’t accurate either (and I am deliberately keeping it vague).
I think what I needed more of from this book were other people. The colony seems to be fairly large but knit together, but we really only meet and interact with a handful of individuals. We never really get to know them all that well. Ren is our constant companion, our faithful narrator, and even her life is mostly a mystery. I can understand Newman’s reasons for this, but it left me feeling unsatisfied versus the rest of the book’s very satisfying elements.
This is a neat book. It’s a sad book too, don’t get me wrong. Not the best book to read if you want to be uplifted. But this is exactly the kind of science fiction I crave. Less emphasis on the hows and whys of the tech, more emphasis on exploring the themes of the journey. Call it “soft” science fiction if you will, but really, Planetfall is science fiction at its most human.