Some books, I read quickly. I read like someone finally sitting down to dinner after a day-long fast. I no longer function like a normal human – my entire being is devoted to finding out what happens next. I read at every spare moment, I stay up way too late, and sometimes read until my head hurts and my eyes burn.
Other books, however, I read slowly. These are the books that I don’t want to end, stories that I’m so immersed in that I think about them for days and need a break from reading afterwards. These are the books that evoke feelings and reactions to not only the story, but the beauty of the prose. I enjoy the book like a particularly fine scotch or a lengthy, contemplative, conversation with an old friend. Planetfall, by Emma Newman, belongs to this category.
The book follows Renata Ghali, an engineer and expert on 3D printers, who has traveled from Earth and settled upon a new, unnamed planet. She and the other colonists had followed Ren’s best friend Lee Suh-Mi there with an almost religious devotion, and now they wait for Suh, the Pathfinder, to return to them with secrets from God about the human race. However, Ren harbors a dark secret, and the arrival of Sung-Soo, a young man who claims to be Suh-Mi’s grandson, threatens to undo Ren’s web of lies.
The book builds slowly and then the last ten chapters were a whirlwind and made me wish the novel was 50 pages longer. The twists and turns caught me off guard and I was left unfulfilled at the end, with more questions than answers. It took me a few days of thinking about the story for me to decide how I felt about it. While sci-fi in setting, this is really a human tale. Renata’s mental health, or lack thereof, is a central tenant in the story. As we see the world through her eyes, we cannot immediately tell how badly she is suffering until other characters point it out, because Ren herself does not believe there is anything wrong. However, Newman never portrays Ren as a victim. She never asks for the reader’s sympathy and this saves her from being a whiny or irritating protagonist. Ren is also a genius; she is mixed race, seventy years old, multilingual, and homosexual. Science fiction has always been a safe haven for nontraditional characters and the “futuristic” or “otherworldly” settings allow storytellers to introduce concepts that may not be easily accepted by the public in other genres. Ren may not be your typical hero, but it doesn’t matter. She is human. Her complexity and her flaws make her interesting and easy to relate to, even if she’s different from you. Newman writes this character lovingly, and with a gentle hand. The book is about Ren, more than the mysteries of the planet or the colony, and the end, without giving too much away, is fitting for her. I do wish, however, that Newman had given the supporting characters more of that loving detail, as many of them come across as flat by comparison. They’re clearly unimportant except as plot devices, and Newman’s treatment of them in the final chapters is abrupt and chaotic.
Planetfall should not be read as an exhilarating science fiction adventure or mystery. To do so will leave you disappointed. It is a story about a woman who has given up everything to follow her best friend to a new world, one that breaks her in ways she couldn’t have predicted. It is also a story that speaks about mental illness plainly, from inside the mind of someone suffering though it, as well as the trauma after said illness has been exposed to the world. Author Emma Newman has crafted a beautiful written study on her protagonist and that makes Planetfall worth a read.
3.5 spaceships out of 5.