I first became aware of Emma Newman at the Olympus convention a few years back; I was attending a panel she was on and she seemed to be talking more sense than all the rest up there with her put together; made me sit up and take notice and I’ve ‘followed’ her since.
A highlight so far was last year’s Octocon, where I got to sit in on a live Tea and Jeopardy and where she was interviewed and talked a lot about her upcoming Planetfall. Now there’s a thing about me and new authors – considering starting on someone new, I’m like a hobo deciding where to invest his last nickel. I’m picky, I know what I like and it takes a lot of time, a lot of critical mass for me to take the plunge. Anyhow, Planetfall was that plunge moment for me.
I often read books concurrently and at the time Phillip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise was the bedtime doorwedge and slim, compact Planetfall became the travelling volume. Both have a major character called Mack – which caused me no end of confusion. Don’t think I’ve ever had that happen to me before.
Anyhow, to Planetfall. It’s an effortless read, beautifully written. Some writers’ prose you just fly through (I always finish Christopher Priest’s books in two or three days) and this was right there with them.
The basic premise of the book is 2001 with plants instead of monoliths, leading to an expedition to colonise another world. A succession of bad things happen in the early days of the colony; some colonists are lost and abandoned, presumed dead during the initial planetfall, then the leader of the expedition vanishes. Cover ups for both of these events occur and then the colony gets on with the business of existing, next door to a strange organic ‘city.’
It’s a slow burner of a book that kicks into overdrive for the last quarter as the colony is simultaneously visited with a savage retribution and narrator Ren gets her transcendent David Bowman moment. Ren is a brilliantly drawn character – part of the colony management and their 3D printing guru – she has an OCD that requires her to hoard stuff; the ultimate sin in a place where everything is 3D printed and waste needs to be assiduously recycled to feed the printers. Emma Newman’s greatest coup in the book is to find the perfect McGuffin to fit; just what is lurking beneath the tons of hoarded junk that stuffs Ren’s home to the gills?
Planetfall has flaws, chief of which is that the other characters never really get to come out of Ren’s shadow. One never really comprehends, for example, how Suh-mi was so charismatic as to attract people to follow her and to back and man the expedition in the first place. Then the chief antagonist in the book, the returned wanderer Sung-soo, apart from being mind-bogglingly, relentlessly irritating, is such a clear existential threat to the colony that you really wonder why the previously ruthless Mack hasn’t printed a gun and shot him dead by chapter 20. Is Mack trying to atone for past deeds or has he just gone soft; it’s never really clear.
The size of the colony is never really clear either; the events at the end of the book made it seem much larger than it had been, to me in my head up until that point. It’s rather sketchily drawn too – I wondered about the apparent absence of young children to the point where I thought it might have plot importance; similarly there appears to be no functioning police force in a place that definitely needed one.
Planetfall is very much worth reading despite these flaws. Ren is one of the great modern characters of SF and probably counts as one of the best OCD studies in all fiction, done with honesty and not a little humour. The exploration of the scope and scale of 3D printing in this sort of expedition is bang up to date and right on the button. The last quarter of the book, with the themes of retribution and transcendence really works too.