Thursday, February 1, 2018

Planetfall

Major spoilers ahead. A (less spoilerish) version of this review first appeared in Interzone 262. A spiritual sequel to Planetfall is After Atlas (2016).

There was a lot to like in Emma Newman’s first novel, Between Two Thorns (Angry Robot Books 2013), first of her Split Worlds urban fantasy series. But it did sometimes carry the atmosphere of an awkward workplace induction day. Dear reader, your new fairy colleagues can’t quite figure out what they know that you need to know. The folk in Mortal Resources, bless them, don’t even know that they don’t know what you need to know. Your questions somehow all go astray, and besides – let’s be honest – although everyone’s being very kind, they’re obviously a bit busy? So your best bet is to stick around, and you’re bound to muddle through eventually.

Planetfall is a different beast altogether. This classy and absorbing science fiction novel – about a human colony hunkered below an ominous, shlurpy complex known as ‘God’s city,’ on an unnamed, presumably mind-bogglingly distant, Earthlike planet – totally nails in media res. The worldbuilding is just as intricate as in Between Two Thorns, but information arrives in waves of tantalizing mysteries mingled with satisfying answers, all shrewdly judged so that there’s always something you’ve just found out, plus something you really want to know next. You know what my Swype predictive text thinks “worldbuilding” should be? “Spellbinding.” For once, Swype predictive text, you and I agree.

This does, however, make Planetfall a bit tricky to review. The novel is built out of fun-sized revelations. Even just remarking on the voice, personality, and development of its protagonist, the 3-D printer engineer Ren, feels spoiler-ish. It’s definitely safe to say that, just like the sustainability-adept colonists themselves, Planetfall makes smart choices about things it doesn’t need. For instance, the colony structures are described in detail – nodules, moss, glows, valves, pings, dimples, fish-filled windows, star-filled ceilings – but the surrounding alien verdure is suggestively vague. Likewise, we only really need the outlines of the colony’s culture and religion. They have zeal aplenty, but minimalist doctrine and ritual, intriguingly fused with a strongly rationalist, scientific outlook. As for getting to this God-forsaken (or is it?) planet, our imaginations are already pretty well-prepped to portray a perilous voyage in a star-ark with sacred-spec hyperdrive-tech under the hood. So Planetfall can skip that stuff, making space for goodbyes to mum and dad.

This thriftiness allows Planetfall to be the perfect size for what it is. If it had been longer, the withholding of certain secrets might feel contrived. It’s possible that the expediences could be a bit alienating for less genre-savvy readers, particularly toward the end of the novel. Then again, if you’re that unfamiliar with the basic alien tropes you probably don’t even mind being alienated. Those expediences could also alienate one or two genre-savvy readers who have boxes to check and inflexible expectations. If you like your author to signal that she knows that you know that E = 1/2 * (mv2), make up some reason why it doesn’t matter, then feed you a weird plant and a bughunt as a cookie, perhaps Planetfall isn’t for you. It’s not that kind of book.

The story is set in motion when a mysterious newcomer stumbling into the colony. He is a refugee – or so he says – from a natural disaster. Is this refugee . . . human? Y-es: Sung-Soo’s a bit weird; the new big-man-on-campus has a big map on his hippocampus; plus he lacks the ubiquitous neural chip; and even if he is basically a sound bloke, he has brought his dodgy xenomorphic pal nestled in his digestive tract.

Sung-Soo’s humanity is not taken for granted. It’s uncanny, an object of controversy and contest. He is filtered through the colonists’ perspective: Sung-Soo is a nebulous threat, he’s an innocent, he’s a primitive, he’s uncomfortably close to nature, his cultural upbringing is a cluster of question marks, he’s sweet and charming. He’s a tad messianic, sorting the sheep from the goats by bringing out the best or the worst in people. And he’s liable to put his foot in it, and stir up all the colony’s latent conflicts.

Sung-Soo is an asylum seeker, who gets the reception that asylum seekers deserve. The colonists feel suspicious, justly guilty, and afraid. But they suck it up, get turnt and print Sung-Soo a house. The way houses work in Planetfall is really interesting. There’s no suggestion of burdening Sung-soo with some kind of space mortgage to keep him in line. Having your own house is not an imperiled privilege of the middle to upper-middle classes, it is a bare minimum for belonging to the community. Houses are vessels of an almost utopian self-expression, as they might be for children playing House. A house is something ... natural, something fruitful, perhaps with fish-filled windows and ceilings that stars can glimmer through. So Sung-Soo’s house can articulate the colonists’ open-hearted solidarity, their accomplished philosophy of sustainability, as well as Sung-Soo’s own childlike playfulness and hopefulness.

His reception, and all that follows, asks to be read in the context of the current European reception of war refugees. There’s no tabloid newspaper branding Sung-soo a terrorist, a scrounger or a health tourist. There’s an assumption that Sung-Soo will contribute labour to the colony eventually, but there’s no big rush. They even hook him up with a space version of a John Lewis wedding-list.

In case it’s not obvious, I like Planetfall a lot. I also think it’s extremely problematic. Maybe that’s not quite the right word. It’s difficult not to be either coy or spoilerish here, so I’ll go for spoilerish.

Sung-soo does have ulterior motives. The colony was ‘too trusting’, and pays the price. Here’s the memorable revelation:
But there’s someone standing behind him, holding his hair in a fist, drawing a blade across Mack’s throat. Sung-Soo.
The blood falling from the wound in a torrent paralyzes me. Sung-Soo is looking at me as he cuts, ending the act wiht a wide arc that flicks the blood away from the blade.
[...]
“I waited so long to do that.”
The unavoidable implication here is that Sung-Soo would not be cutting people’s throats if he were locked up in Yarl’s Wood, or sent back to where he came from. I’d go so far as to say that this moment's iconography specifically recalls Islamist terror incidents in 2013 and 2014, including the killing of Lee Rigby and the many captives, including James Foley, beheaded by ISIS. Either way, this is a novel that ultimately chooses to be – whatever else it is – a fable about the justified fear of the other.

It is other things as well. If Planetfall relies on some intertextuality with sf giants such as Lem, Herbert, Clarke, and Butler, it’s also bang-up-to-date in its treatment of social media, mental health, and the meeting of the two. Digital technologies often tend to usurp tropes and degrade subgenres – “you could never have Romeo and Juliet with Phones,” and so on – so it’s really intriguing to see social media used to create new, concrete, rationales for long-established pieces of storytelling artifice. Plot points can be diegetically warped to wherever and whenever the narrative needs them: for instance, the contents of Ren’s blinking inbox can do the work of a “meanwhile, back at the ranch” cut-scene. Or an “immersive recording” tech can let Ren vividly re-experience her own backstory.

I think something peculiar happens when mental health themes get inscribed on the grand scale of interstellar science fiction. The ‘order’ from which mental ‘disorders’ deviate starts to look oddly arbitrary. Somehow, it’s harder to see (just for instance) washing your hands raw – or mutely fleeing from a cute-meet, or cramming your house with junk, or endlessly looping home to turn off a tap that you kind of know is already off – as a pathology, when it occurs in orbit around a distant star.

That’s not to say that Planetfall presents some kind of radical antipsychiatry stance. Mental illness is portrayed as real, debilitating, distressing, antagonistic, and tragic. And of course, the novel’s scale isn’t just sweeping, it’s also a single village, with nowhere else to go. Although progressive (non )perceptions of race and sexuality are normal for the villagers of Planetfall, they’re still not quite past the stage of shaking pitchforks at neurodiversity. Digitally networked communitarianism makes the village vigilance all the more suffocating. Nevertheless, distinctions between sane and insane, between lucidity and confabulation, although entirely real, do feel strangely sentimental – like keepsakes brought from what was once home.

In short, Planetfall is a hugely confident and accomplished foray into science fiction for Newman, and a novel which all proffers the pleasures of escapism, but woven with the uncertainties, pain, glitches and contradictions of the real world.

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