Twenty years ago a group of colonists arrives at a strange planet in search of the City of God. Their landing doesn't quite go as planned. Part of the crew is lost after their landing pods malfunction. The survivors set up a colony that aims to have as little impact on the planet as possible. Ren is in charge of the colony's 3D-printers. She knows more of what happened during planetfall than the other members of the colony have been told. With the arrival of a young man, claiming to be a child of the lost colonists and the last survivor of their group, all the carefully hidden secrets come bubbling to the surface. The pressure on Ren is rising but telling what she knows might sweep away the foundations of their community.
The story is told in a first person perspective from Ren's point of view. It quickly becomes apparent that she carries a huge burden of guilt. One member of the community shares her knowledge and between them they keep the lid on what has happened twenty years ago. All this secrecy has taken its toll on Ren however. She is a loner, never letting anyone into her house. From the very start of the book she is busy pushing people away from her and minimizing her social interactions. Ren is taking this very far, to the point where she is clearly hiding things from herself as well as from the community. It's these repressed memories that form the core of the mystery the novel presents.
Newman uses Ren's mental issues to gradually reveal what went on twenty years ago. It makes Ren a classic example of the unreliable narrator. What she reveals to us is a selective truth, often only sharing what she is forced to admit to herself by the rapidly changing dynamic in the colony, rather than volunteering any information. The young outsider acts as a catalyst, forcing Ren to review her life constructed of secrets and lies. She soon feels that events are slipping away from her and becomes even more desperate to protect her secrets.
Planetfall is in effect a detailed portrayal of mental illness. Newman uses the circumstances to pile up the pressure on Ren. What happened twenty years ago is much less interesting than what caused Ren to behave the way she does. Her gradual slide towards confronting her fears and facing up to her guilt is described in detail and takes up the bulk of the novel. It is, in other words, not a novel about exploring the mysteries of an alien word. A little bit of light is shed on the reason for making the journey in the first place but it is not the focus of the novel. It may disappoint readers looking for a story of planetary exploration.
Personally, I found Ren a fascinating character. There is so much tension in her that you know from very early on in the novel something must give soon, but what it is exactly, takes a bit of time to figure out. The pacing of the novel is directly linked to the personal crisis Ren is facing and it works very well. Her problems make her thoroughly unpleasant at several points in the novel. Her behaviour is erratic, unreasonable and supported by increasingly unlikely rationalizations. Admiration, sympathy, frustration and pity war with each other when reading her tale. She is a well rounded character. With the science fictional and religious elements pushed so far into the background, whether the characterization works for you will make or break the novel.
There is more than a bit of science fiction in the story though. The way the colonists go about minimizing their ecological footprint was of particular interest to me. With the resources of a whole planet available to them, they nevertheless stick to a strict system of recycling, reusing every scrap of material for the printers. Recycling as a religion, maybe Newman is on to something here. Other science fiction elements include advances in information technology, biotechnology and of course space travel. Most of it is pretty low key, although information technology used in the novel allows the characters to pass on events almost instantaneously. It's another element Newman uses to put pressure on Ren.
As a character study, this novel is one of the most interesting ones I have read in quite a while. Mental illness isn't a topic that science fiction usually successfully deals with. Many a character brushes off life changing events that would almost certainly result in a sever case of post traumatic stress syndrome in the real world. I am not really qualified to judge how realistic Newman's portrayal of Ren's mental issues is. In fact, I would be very interested in hearing the opinion of a professional in that field about this book. It feels quire realistic to me though, and the way Newman uses it to shape and pace her story shows she is a very capable writer. Planetfall is another 2015 novel you really ought to read.
Author: Emma Newman
First published: 2015