Novel: Planetfall by Emma Newman

April 18, 2016

Color me frustrated with Planetfall (2015) by Emma Newman, an atmospheric and rather interesting tale of colony world science fiction that’s full of great ideas, but doesn’t quite overcome its executional issues. It’s narrated by Renata Ghali, an expert on 3D printer technology who supports an expedition to a colony world far from Earth. The group’s settlement at the base of a mountain they call God’s City is surviving in its new environment, thanks to advanced technology, but it’s a place founded on lies to which Ren is complicit. The colony’s peaceful existence is threatened when Sung-Soo, a long-lost survivor from an accident in the early days of Planetfall, finds his way to the settlement, and becomes a threat to its carefully guarded secrets.

Planetfall opens well, carried on the strength of effortlessly read prose, technological world-building that feels realistic and compelling, and an engrossing sense of mystery. Underlying the surface plot is a riveting cosmic intrigue that raises interesting questions about the intersection of science and faith, and certain chapters down the home stretch are dramatically powerful. But there’s an inherent problem with the execution, in my view; the plot depends largely on strategically revealed secrets, but the protagonist is privy to those secrets and excessively coy about bringing us in on them. In a first-person narrative this is highly distracting at best, if not a systemic narrative cheat. A crucial aspect of the character’s personality somewhat justifies this authorial approach, but it still feels like a story that only works by consistently lying to the reader; and when the lies come out, a not particularly likeable protagonist loses some of her understandable sympathy.

It’s a shame, because the structural bones of the novel are strong, it’s thematically thought-provoking, and it reads along effortlessly at the sentence level. Unfortunately the viewpoint issue is crucial, and while it didn’t totally derail my enjoyment, it did severely temper my enthusiasm.