Planetfall is a sci-fi novel from Emma Newman, looking at the human colonisers of a new world, the public motives and private shames which brought them there, and what happens when submerged sins are brought up into the light.
Renata Ghalis is our protagonist in what, at first glance, appears to be a utopian world. Each of the inhabitants of this, the first human colony, live in balance with their environment. All of their collective and individual needs are met by a printer, which takes in raw material and dispenses whatever is required. Though the planet remains somewhat hostile – with flora and fauna hostile to the colonists – it seems mostly quiescent. It’s a place seemingly in harmony with itself. It’s also a settlement founded on faith; the expedition pathfinder, Suh-Mi, received the location of the planet in what she chose to see as a divine inspiration. Arriving, seeing that the planet exists and is safe for humanity seems to vindicate that faith. The colony is one of true believers, whose presence is itself a marker and a confirmation of what they believe. Though it’s not overly explicit, it’s interesting to see how the currents of realised faith move this community of scientists and explorers.
That said, there’s suggestion of a secret at the heart of the colony, something which may change the way that they think of themselves. Renata has some understanding of this, and she’s a fascinating protagonist – torn apart by the need to discuss the truth, for altruistic and selfish reasons, and the need to contain it in the spirit of maintaining the balance of the colony.
If this secret isn’t the centre of Renata’s being, it’s at least part of the core.Still, we’re shown other sides to her. There’s the genuinely imaginative, inspirational engineer, a woman who could end plagues, or solve hunger – but whose faith and love brought her to the stars instead. There’s love – and the delicate tracery of old feelings is alive and well here, a passion which mimics Abelard and Heloise in its transcendence and its prosaic nature. Rentata had a great love, to be sure, and one she was defined by – but the pain has been occluded, if not faded, and Renata has, if not moved on, at least moved sideways. She has, of course, also got her own problems – managing the waste that people discard, assessing what can be fixed and what should go into the printer. There’s an edge there, and a genuinely affecting exploration of obsession and its effects – romantic and practical , Renata had her romance, and it shaped her life for good or ill – and what she does as a consequence is itself an obsession of sorts, her character a portrayal of someone functioning in a society in which she exists with an incredible secret pain.
Renata is damaged and vulnerable, but also incisive, intelligent and pragmatic. That these characteristics balance out, and shape a sympathetic protagonist, one we can both sympathise and empathise with, is part of what makes Planetfall such a triumph.
Because it is, let’s be clear, a thoughtful, well characterised, high concept sci-fi novel. When something arrives to disrupt the carefully maintained stasis of the system Ren and her people inhabit, it very quickly spills out of control. There’s examination of the small community dynamics – as the village of civilised colonists becomes ever-more a Salem of the future. But it’s matched by a genuine and affecting search for truth That this search runs into the central mystery of the founding of the colony though, and there’s a dichotomy between the need for clarity and the requirement, in an environment which can kill, for stability. It’s one the text approaches carefully, and in a nuanced fashion, letting the reader make up their own mind – as much as Renata does.
Is it any good? Absolutely. If it isn’t full of laser-swords or rampaging alien hordes, it’s bursting with quietly affecting human moments, and some interesting discussions on the concepts of faith and the alien. This is a book which is prepared to tell you a story, and one which has its share of tension – but also one which wants you engaged, thinking through the dilemmas and struggles of its actors. If you’re in the mood for some uncompromisingly intelligent, highly engaging sci-fi, give it a whirl.