Emma Newman is one of our most consistently intriguing, original and compelling storytellers. Able to switch from Regency fantasy (the Split Words novels) and Hugo Award-winning genre comedy (the Tea & Jeopardy podcast) to the otherworldly beauty of her first SF novel ‘Planetfall’; she now turns detective in a book I didn’t expect, which is a ‘Planetfall’ sequel.
I could rant on about ‘Planetfall’ for hours; it was my Book of the Year for 2015 and I recommend it to anyone, regardless of whether they like science fiction or not. Nailing a multi-layered, confessional Frederik Pohl meets Sylvia Plath tale of celestial intrigue on a distant colony planet, its transcendent conclusion appeared to preclude any possible follow-up.
You don’t have to read ‘Planetfall’ to appreciate the very different ‘After Atlas’. However, the first novel casts its eerie light over proceedings in the second, lending them that shivery sense of the uncanny that all good murder/detective fiction has only with even more intensity.
It’s been forty years since the starship Atlas left Earth with the brightest of humanity and a big chunk of the planet’s most valuable raw materials. Its mission was defined by a woman called the Pathfinder, whose consumption of a strange seed gave her the coordinates of a distant planet that was the supposed location of the City of God. Nothing has been heard from Atlas in the decades since, although a time capsule left by the mission is due to be opened.
One person who couldn’t be less interested in the contents is hot-housed super-detective Carlos Moreno. Carl’s mother departed on Atlas, leaving her son in the care of a neglectful, broken father whose response was to join an anti-technology cult led by the dauntingly charismatic Alejandro Casales. Carl escaped, but was rounded and sold into white-collar slavery; his skills enabling him to become a police detective. A scary detail is that people Carl meets during the course of his investigation don’t realise he is a slave. Carl’s contract lasts for decades and any deviations will add more years to it, as will expensive purchases like proper food.
Indeed, the book opens with a scene like a drugs deal, except it’s real meat and vegetables being purchased as an alternative to the icky printed food jetted from mixer nozzles like those cola dispensers in pubs. That Carl never gets to eat the meal which costs him so much is an irony that perfectly expresses his desire for a normal, free life. His fate has the added SF drive of making the reader want to do everything possible to stop the world ending up like it is in the story.
However, this near-future is uncomfortably familiar. The author presents an evolution of the social media/work software axis with an AI personal assistant called Tia, who also enables seamless expositional delivery. The technology in the novel is a boon to the detective rather than a hindrance, although these advantages seem of little use when faced with a crime seemingly devoid of reason: the grotesque murder of cult leader Alejandro.
Assigned to the case because he is the best in the service and publicity created by his association with the victim will be useful, Carl is pursued by various furies as he tries to solve the murder. These forces include the journalists he loathes, the senior (non-slave) detectives who hold his fate in their hands and the higher level gov-corp operatives who have not only managed to do away with regulation but nation states as well.
The story is wreathed in mystery as it explores themes of parenting, good and bad (mainly bad); refreshingly fluid sexuality (the clever, asexual journalist is particularly fascinating) psychological restrictions and the kind of mentality required to bring about genuine historical change, usually in the form of violent death. Linked to the latter is the author’s ability to conjure a genuine sense of the alien, from the weird organic city on the distant world in ‘Planetfall’ to the questionably human psychopaths who run the gov-corps in ‘After Atlas’.
These influences make the pages of ‘After Atlas’ hum with intrigue. All the questions raised in the first chapter are spun into story layers by turns beguiling, terrifying and tender. The latter is important, and puts Emma Newman among the best of contemporary genre writers, because in a world this harsh love is hard-earned and never sentimental.
Fortunately, Carl is a great narrator, going from coarse to brilliant in the space of a line. His aching heart informs many of his responses; from the reaction to Alejandro’s body in the mortuary to the re-union with the father, a plausibly stunted encounter despite the emotional avalanche-in-waiting.
Carl is believably clever, too. The brilliant detective trope is a popular one, but here it’s given a high-tech spin with the ghastly hot-housing technique that has enhanced Carl’s abilities so that when he does end up one step ahead it is entirely convincing.
Not that it does him or anyone else much good. I’ve known some bleak endings; SF excels at them, but the emotional intensity of ‘After Atlas’ renders this one particularly powerful. If the climax of ‘Planetfall’ is transcendent then the resolution of ‘After Atlas’ is some kind of opposite.
Perhaps rightly so; it is a very different novel after all and no one could accuse this author of repetition. If any cheer comes out of it, it’s that the stage is set for many more ‘Planetfall’ books, such as the forthcoming ‘Before Mars’.
With an imagination like Emma Newman’s, the trip will be unlike any other.