A future SF classic with ambitious storytelling, insightful characterisation and a unique premise.
I'd been told that 'Planetfall' by Emma Newman was a future SF classic so I wasn't surprised that it was good. I was surprised about what it was good at.
I'd expected that a book called 'Planetfall' would be rooted in tales of shiny spacecraft or huge asteroid-sized colony vessels and long discussions on hyperdrives, gravitational rings, weapons systems and strategic and tactical AI units, but it's not really like that.
There is a big asteroid-size colony ship, there's lots of plausible advanced tech and there is even an interstellar, interspecies mystery in the tradition of Arthur C Clarke or Isaac Asimov. But, at its heart, this is the story of Ren, a cripplingly anxious woman, struggling with guilt for a past decision not yet fully revealed but which we know involves colluding in a lie at the foundation of the colony, a lie which, twenty years later, is in danger of being exposed.
The story, which is told from Ren's point of view, occurring mostly in the present but including some of her dreams and memories, tells of a trip to stars, led by The Pathfinder, to an unexplored planet on which they find a large organic structure that they refer to as 'God's City'.
The power of the book comes mostly from the intimate portrayal of Ren's journey, or perhaps her pilgrimage, motivated by love and faith, hindered by self-doubt, broken by a single event and the lies that followed it, crippled by guilt and struggling painfully towards hope.
'Planetfall' gives a deeply credible and personal insight into the effect of anxiety and guilt on mental health. It's really not comfortable being behind Ren's eyes. Almost all of her memories are painful: the mother she could never please, the father she left behind, the best friend that she followed to the stars and then lost, her own role in perpetuating a lie for twenty years. If you've ever been in the grip of anxiety or known someone who is, you'll recognise what is happening to Ren. It's heartbreaking to watch her anxiety and her compulsive behaviour, brought on by the lie she's created, lead her to self-imposed isolation and leave her despairing and on the edge of hating herself.
Capturing this in any novel is an achievement. Wrapping it in a novel of planetary colonisation that is more a pilgrimage to meet God, is extraordinary. Inserting a seed of betrayal and deception at the heart of everything and revealing it slowly, like a dead body you can smell but can't yet see, is inspired.
The ending of the book was very satisfying. It was surprising, filled with action and delivered an outcome that both dealt with the consequences of the lie at the heart of the colony's foundation and revealed the mystery that had called the colonists to the planet. It also continued Ren's journey in a way that provided some hope but which didn't protect her from her own history.
I listened to the audiobook version of 'Planetfall' which is narrated by the author. I’m never sure what to expect of authors narrating their own work. Some of them get it very wrong, for example, I can’t listen to Stephen King or John Irving read their stuff. On the other hand, Barbara Kingsolver and John le Carré capture every nuance. I’m glad to say that I can add to Emma Newman to the list of authors who are good narrators. I’d be happy to listen to her read other people’s work too. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample of her work.