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.