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Monthly Archives: July 2016

“Planetfall” by Emma Newman

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Although I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and reading Ray Bradbury’s short stories, most of the speculative fiction novels I read are fantasy, magical realism, or slipstream rather than sci-fi. When I heard about Emma Newman’s novel Planetfall, I was looking forward to reading a science fiction novel after a relatively long time.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about this book is the way much of the advanced technology is extrapolated from fields that are in their infancy now. The interstellar colonists in Planetfall make extensive use of genetic engineering, virtual reality, and 3D printing—all technologies that researchers in the real world are working on but which haven’t yet come into their own. In this sense, Planetfall truly lives up to the label of “speculative fiction.”

The colonists’ journey begins when Lee Suh-Mi comes into contact with an item of extraterrestrial origin, which “uploads” a great deal of advanced technological knowledge into her brain, along with the coordinates of a planet. Suh, along with many of those who choose to follow her to that planet, view this event in a quasi-religious way. They even go so far as to refer to the alien structure they find on their destination planet as “God’s city.” The novel never really explains why so many of the colonists believe that the entity who’s led them here is divine rather than a very advanced alien civilization. Some major events in the book are driven by the way the colonists relate to this unknown entity, and I think that understanding the underpinnings of that would have made the story stronger.

While I’ve mostly talked about Suh to this point, she isn’t the main character of the story. That’s Renata Ghali, known as Ren, who is drawn as a very real person with both strengths and flaws. Her character arc is intimately tied into the overall plot of the book, which creates a lot of interest in her personal story. But there are other compelling characters too: Sung-Soo, a survivor from another group of colonists that had been thought lost; Mack, the charismatic de facto leader of the colony; Kay, a brilliant doctor who’s also Ren’s ex-girlfriend.

One criticism I had regarding this book concerned the denouement. Following the colony-wide crisis that forms the climax of the book, we don’t learn the final state of some of the major characters. We also don’t see how the crisis affects the colony as a whole. Having built a compelling cast of characters that the reader cares about, Newman doesn’t let us see the full extent of the effects that the novel’s events have on them. It may be that some of this will be addressed in the related novel After Atlas (scheduled for release in November), but in order for Planetfall to truly stand on its own, it should have been part of this book.

“The Complete Stories” by Flannery O’Connor

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Flannery O’Connor is widely considered to be one of the twentieth century’s great authors. Unlike many others who hold that status, her short stories have eclipsed her novels, with The Complete Stories having won the National Book Award in 1972, and being voted the best book ever to win that award in 2009.

It has been said that the mark of a great writer is that their work retains its significance long after it’s written (and often even long after the author’s own death). While many of O’Connor’s stories were written in the 1940s and ‘50s, their themes still resonate today. In one of her most memorable stories, “The Displaced Person,” the mistrust and prejudice shown by the main character toward a Polish refugee family who have come to America fleeing the Holocaust mirrors that of some Europeans and Americans toward refugees from the Syrian civil war: “Mrs. Shortley had a sudden intuition that the Gobblehooks [her mispronunciation of the family’s name, which is Guizac], like rats with typhoid fleas, could have carried all those murderous ways over the water with them directly to this place. If they had come from where that kind of thing was done to them, who was to say they were not the kind that would also do it to others?” One can also see modern worries about technology putting people out of work (for example, the concern that self-driving cars might eventually reduce or even eliminate the need for taxi drivers and long-haul truckers) reflected in Mrs. Shortley’s fear that mechanized farm equipment will result in her husband losing his job.

One recurring theme in O’Connor’s work is that of conflict between parents and their grown children, particularly mothers and sons. Most often, this conflict results from the child’s ingratitude for the hard work and sacrifices of the parent. Sometimes, however, as in “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” it has its roots in the parent’s inability to adapt to a changing world.

O’Connor was a devout Catholic, and this is reflected in many of her stories. She once said that “all my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it,” and this shows through clearly in stories such as “Parker’s Back.” This grace often acts in unlikely ways: in “Parker’s Back,” for example, the title character’s religious awakening comes through a tattoo of Jesus. When his wife, believing the tattoo to be idolatrous, hits him with a broom, the bruises mar Jesus’s face in the tattoo—making literal the Biblical passage, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me.” In many cases, the characters find their religious experiences unsettling or even painful. In “Revelation,” for instance, the main character is shocked and dismayed to receive a vision of people whom she considers to be her social inferiors entering Heaven ahead of her. (As in “Parker’s Back,” there’s a direct Biblical allegory being made here: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be raised up.”)

One aspect of O’Connor’s writing that I particularly enjoyed was her use of vivid metaphors. In “The Comforts of Home,” she writes, “Rage gathered throughout Thomas’s large frame with a silent ominous intensity, like a mob assembling.” A more extended metaphor is presented in “Everything That Rises Must Converge”: “He groaned to see that she was off on that topic. She rolled onto it every few days like a train on an open track. He knew every stop, every junction, every swamp along the way, and knew the exact point at which her conclusion would roll majestically into the station…” These figures of speech often present us with a deeper insight into the workings of a character’s mind.

The Complete Stories is a compilation of 31 pieces. It spans O’Connor’s literary career and includes nearly all the short fiction she wrote. For anyone who’s already on O’Connor fan, this is the definitive collection of her work. For anyone who isn’t, it will probably make you one.