Planetfall - Emma Newman

Planetfall – Emma Newman ***

It involves space travel to a distant habitable planet and a colony attempting to overcome the difficulties of creating a society on a new planet, so there are quite a few science-fiction areas of interest in Emma Newman's Planetfall. For a while too there are several intriguing threads relating to the nature of the organic structure of God's city that the travellers find on this strange world, as well as some guilty secrets, strange behaviour and unusual practices that seem to have developed in the short 22 year span that the new arrivals have spent on this new world. It's soon apparent however that the SF elements are going to take second place to the exploration of human behaviour, which itself can be an interesting SF theme, but you are still left with a feeling that Planetfall has gone off course two-thirds of the way through.

Certainly, the science that has permitted the Pathfinder Lee Suh-Mi and her team of acolytes to set out for some distant world is not particularly well defined, nor indeed is its location. The technical parts are secondary to the nature of the mission itself and what the colonists do when they get there. Ren has been a friend of Suh from her university days, so although she may not entirely be convinced in her friend's belief that God can be found on a distant planet and that she has been granted the vision to find it, she nonetheless has faith in her friend and is excited by the opportunity to do something extraordinary, and assists Suh as an engineer to build the spaceship Atlas.

Some years later there are some gaps in the story that need to be filled in, but it seems that Suh wasn't totally delusional. The space travellers made planetfall twenty-two years ago and now form a colony close to the mysterious structure of God's city. Much of the planet outside the boundaries of colony is hostile to human life, so there shouldn't be anyone out there, but one day a young man is rescued from outside. He tells them his name is Lee Song-soo, the grandson of Lee Suh-Mi, the only descendant left from the survivors of the missing pod of lost colleagues that no-one in the colony is terribly keen to talk about. With a new message due to arrive in a seed sent by his grandmother, who is communing with God, Song-soo's arrival, and even his existence, is quite a coincidence, and indeed, it's not long before the whole dynamic of the colony is destabilised.

The gaps in the story are genuinely intriguing and do have an otherworldly quality to them. Just what is God's city and why after spending a couple of decades there are the colonists no nearer discovering its nature, nor indeed - other than Ren - particularly curious about exploring it? The 'seeding" ritual is also just one of a number of other mysteries, secrets and intrigues evident in the strange behaviour of some of the inhabitants. What seems particularly suspicious is the story behind the lost landing pod, and in the sudden appearance of a young man who should not have been able to survive out there. There is also some interest in discovering how the colonists have adapted to life on this distant world, how they 'print' everything, from housing requirements to food, how the new society is structured and in general how human life adapts to a new environment.

Considering the origin of the mission, inevitably there is something of a cult aspect to the colony, and Newman realistically relates the development of this religious devotion to the Pathfinder and her communing with God's city to the human need of "frightened, insecure little things millions of miles from home" looking for something to give comfort, solace and meaning to their lives, particularly in such an alien and hostile environment. There's a sense that they haven't really developed, and are still holding on to old ways of thinking, weighed down by feelings of guilt, and that living in a bubble - almost literally - and falling back on worship of a "holy place" has prevented them from scientifically exploring and advancing as a society.

Strangely however, one particular obsessive characteristic seems to takes over the direction of the book in the final third and it threatens to push the genuine science-fictional and anthropological aspects of this behaviour into the background. Like Ren, the writing itself almost falls into this OCD-like anxiety, looking inward, not really pushing the ideas as far as they might go, and Planetfall becomes very frustrating for a long period when it dwells excessively on this point. Once it is finally pushed beyond breaking point however, everything suddenly leaps forward. Answers and revelations come thick and fast, and they generally satisfy. So much so that the notion of sequels - the first After Atlas trailed in a short excerpt at the end of this first book - does hold a great deal of promise.

Planetfall by Emma Newman is published by Gollancz on 22nd February 2018.  Following Planetfall and After Atlas Gollancz will publish two further books in the series.

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