December 12, 2015

Review: Planetfall

Planetfall Planetfall by Emma Newman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

ARGGHH! This book.

This book is as close to the mental illness that used to be called "split personality" (I believe the current term is "disassociative identity disorder") that I've ever read. It knows it wants to be a science fiction mystery, but it doesn't know whether it wants to be reasonably hard SF or dissolve into mystical bullshit.

Which, unfortunately, it does at the end, squandering whatever goodwill it's managed to build up.

This is the story of Renata Ghali, the geneticist and engineer of the first offworld colony (the planet isn't even given a name), who's hiding a terrible secret. Twenty-two years ago, the colonists aboard Atlas reached their destination. (The star system isn't named, nor if the Atlas is a generation ship, although there are a few hints that this might be the case. Ren does say they could return to Earth if they threw all their time and effort into it, but if they did so, everyone they knew would be dead.) They were led by a charismatic prophet named Lee Suh-Mi, who apparently talked these thousand people into following her to this planet to solve a galactic mystery: did humans originate on Earth, or this planet, and is some being there calling them home? After ingesting the seed of a mysterious plant on Earth, a plant which is not related genetically to any Earth species, Suh claims this is the case.

But something happened during the colonists' first trip to the surface, called Planetfall, spoken with capitalization and a hushed, reverential whisper. Something terrible, something that Ren and the colony's de facto leader, Cillian Mackenzie, have hidden for twenty-two years. Mack has gone even further and turned Planetfall into a religious ceremony, once a year at the base of the planet's alien city (called "God's city") where Suh is still supposed to be communing.

But as is usually the case with these things, the secret inevitably comes out.

This book frustrates me immensely, because there's so much right about it. The characterization, for instance, is sparkling. Ren has a case of OCD/hoarding and is subject to panic attacks, and the author is unflinching in her depiction of it. (Although as the story unfolds and the reader understands just what she has done and kept hidden for all those years, it's not surprising.) The pacing is very good, the plot is a wonderful puzzle piece that fits together with a sure hand, the suspense is skillfully mounted--and I wish I could tear out the last few pages, because the ending undoes everything that has gone before. I literally sat up as I got to the last page and said, "What the hell?"

I mean, Ren climbs to the top of God's city, leaves her body and ascends to the same place the city's makers apparently went (a higher plane of some sort) all those millions of years ago? Leaving behind the mess she made, and abandoning the people she screwed?

ARRGGH, indeed. I don't know what the author was thinking. Unfortunately, this ending was built into the book from the beginning, so I can't say the author wasn't playing fair. But it doesn't sit well with me.

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