I look for all sorts of different things in SF: big ideas, beguiling strangeness or some kind of compelling otherworldly mystery. Not many novels combine all three elements as successfully as this one does. It’s been a while since I have been gripped to the last page without any clear idea of how the tale will be resolved and it’s even rarer for an author to splice ideas and emotions as cleverly as Emma Newman does here.
On a distant planet, a human colony thrives beneath an enigmatic structure known as God’s City. There is no irony to that title; the colonists genuinely believe they have found the dwelling of the Supreme Being. They have yet to meet him of course; having been led here by the messianic Suh, they await her return from the upper levels of the city as they have done for years. In the meantime, Suh’s best friend Renata hides a secret she can barely think about and busies herself as the colony’s brilliant printing engineer, utilising miraculous technology to make consumer products. Then, from out of the empty wastes comes a stranger, claiming to be Suh’s grandson…
The only other novel I can think of that uses enigmatic alien technology to open up a character’s psychological state so compellingly is Frederik Pohl’s ‘Gateway’, which is one of my favourite books. Like ‘Planetfall’, ‘Gateway’ deals with a profound personal shock and its aftereffects, which are based partly on denial but also on the need to maintain some kind of accepted social standing. However, whereas Pohl’s protagonist is undergoing therapy, there is no such comfort for Renata, the main character in ‘Planetfall’. Ren is so traumatised she cannot even fully remember how she came to be in this state.
It’s an approach that can feel claustrophobic but this effect too turns out to be entirely apt and a great fusion of subject matter and style. The author manages the same feat elsewhere, in her description of the weird geometry, such as it is, and unexpectedly, gloopily sensuous interior of God’s city, the huge artifact that may be alien but may also be something else again. As you read these sequences you are not quite sure where you are, what exactly is going on or even which way is up. It doesn’t matter; like Ren you are drawn on anyway.
Science fiction has always engaged with religion, from prophet characters like Paul Atreides in ‘Dune’ to the satanic-looking aliens in ‘Childhood’s End’. Perhaps part of the appeal of both belief system and genre is their attempt to comprehend the infinite or come to terms with the unknowable. The latter feels like the case here, although ‘Planetfall’ examines the nature of the unknowable in a unique fashion. Is the truth genuinely beyond us or merely repressed? The story examines this question in a number of beguiling ways, not the least of which is the manner in which the main character’s strength appears to be used primarily against herself.
However, one of the book’s themes is resistance to easy categorisation; Ren is a scientist whose religious belief is sincere and a mother whose last hope for love is with another woman. Fully functional, she also seems to be suffering from some kind of illness, probably psychological, which is also entwined with her beliefs, the weird fate of her friend and lover Suh and the future of the colony as a whole. For all Ren’s complexity though, the language of the book is deceptively simple. Like both the main character and the hard science underpinning the story, the author has no need to strive for effort. The reader does that instead, eager, even desperate to solve this puzzle, reflecting as it does the larger mysteries of the universe.
For all its occasional sense of claustrophobia, the story also conveys a terrific sense of distance; distance from Earth, distance from God and distance from each other. Far from being unified, the colony itself is a fiction, albeit a pleasant one; held together by meaningless ritual, sentiment and a kind of twee hypocrisy that we fully appreciate Ren’s quiet contempt for. When the stranger appears, he too embodies both truth and fiction but uses his ambiguity to ensure confrontation, forcing the story to its unexpected and very moving conclusion.
A novel about the redemptive power of loss, ‘Planetfall’ is that rare book that moves science fiction into inspiring new territory.
‘After Atlas’ is the sequel to ‘Planetfall’ and is available now