Planetfall by Emma Newman is Enjoyable Enough, but Not For Everyone

To me, one of the great narrative failures is when important information is kept from the audience simply because the author wants to maintain the secret. The narrator knows. They share winks and nods with other characters in the scene. It would take a few lines of text to provide the broad context and content of the secret. Yet, this trope persists. It persists in Planetfall, which parses out slowly in flashback a story the broad strokes of which could still be explained in a few sentences.  It is a toothpick in the gums to the text, exacerbated by the tendency of the text to drift in and out of all sorts of timelines and flashbacks directly embedded in the scenes, as if the narrator just starts staring off into space in the middle of moments. Characters comment on this, in the text, and mention that our narrator seems to be zoning out. It throws the pacing of these individual scenes as well. As I was reading this text, immersion kept breaking around this constant annoyance that not only was the narrator refusing to tell me something important to understanding the plot for no discernible reason, but author preference was to keep poking me out of the moment of the narrative with reminders that the narrator is keeping a secret from us. Not everyone is as bothered by this technique as me, I will admit, and the book was well-written enough that I was able to keep reading it, otherwise, but I never really was able to be immersed in it, so to speak, because there was this constant poke in the tooth, and it left me ultimately unsatisfied for this and other reasons.

Despite my annoyance at the structural decision, the book, itself is smooth and clean and, at a sentence level, refined. It is a very traditional science fiction novel, with elements that hearken back to classics of the genre. A new colony on a mysterious near-earth world with an alien construct that forms a central mystery at the heart of the colony. The main character is an engineer that handles most of the 3d printing and construction. To solve the problems at the heart of the story — ultimately this is a story where problems need to be solved — involves overcoming serious emotional baggage that is revealed slowly, as previously mentioned. The baggage is real. The people who love this book will likely feel a strong connection to the characters who are dealing with this damage. The author’s argument in the text for withholding plot-critical information until such time as it is convenient to the pace to reveal it is a form of PTSD that the narrator, herself, chooses to actively suppress certain places in her memory. She does not let people “in” among her felllow colonists both figuratively and literally. Her house is mostly off-limits and it is a challenge for her to let the bumbling newcomer survivor of a family unit formed from a lost colonist pod, a grandson of her love and inspiration for journeying to this planet, into her private space. This aspect of the text, where every major character is sort of dealing with all so much emotional baggage and loss that no one wants to even discuss it is well-done, and one of the main reasons the book is still an enjoyable enough read for a busy holiday weekend.

The story reminds me of other, better versions of this story. In particular, I longed for the narrative complexity and crushing beauty of Dan Simmons’ Shrike in Hyperion, or the visual magic in the film by Ridley Scott oft-mentioned by other reviewers of this book, Prometheus. It reminds me of Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X trilogy. It reminds me of Kij Johnson and C. J. Cherry and Tiptree and Orson Scott Card and… When writing into such a prominent trope, and one that has been done so well so many times, the challenge for any author is bring something new to the idea of the piece, and I’m not convinced I really read anything new. It was well-made. The parts moved and arrived as intended, but soon after reading it, I would be hard-pressed to name a single character’s name, and I suspect in a few years, it will be mostly forgotten in my mind. An easy read, and not the worst book for an airport lobby. I can put it down and pick it up again and because of the familiarity of the trope, get back in without feeling lost.

The ending will never be completely satisfying when the text is trying to describe an encounter with something so alien that humans can’t adequately describe it. Most of the time, authors who approach this problem lean heavily on the human interactions that break or strengthen against the unknown. This text is no different, really. Again, I am left thinking of texts that perform the feat and stick the landing as I am reading. It is up to individual readers to decide if they like this version or not. Many may disagree. The text, itself, is complex enough to create the sort of unknown, the sense of mystery, that the reader can believe or abandon.

So, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, but it is a perfectly fine thing to pick up during this busy holiday season to take a break between all the things, and explore the cosmos, a little.

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