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Planetfall by Emma Newman (Books 2021, 27)

This is a novel about a human colony on an unnamed planet. There are, as we soon learn from the first-person narrator, Renata, lies and mysteries at the heart of the colony. Not least of those is how and why the humans came to live on this particular planet, in this particular place.

The place is at the foot of a mountain-like, biological, probably engineered structure they call the ‘City of God’. Twenty years ago — or more: the colony has existed for twenty years, but it’s not clear how long the journey through space took — a small group of humans managed to get there in a spaceship. They were led by ‘The Pathfinder’, a woman who, we discover through flashbacks, knew what planet to head for because of a revelation she had had after ingesting the seed of a mysterious plant.

The intrigue of the novel is about how that backstory and the rest is filled in, how the colony keeps going, and what happens in the ‘now’ of the story, when a mysterious human arrives.

How they designed and built a ship capable of getting there is not explained, and how far away from Earth it is is never stated. But I don’t think Newman really understands the scales applicable to astronomical distances. On several occasions characters refer to having travelled (or in flashback, being about to travel) ‘millions of miles’ to get to the new planet.

Our sun is 93 million miles from the Earth. If we’re talking about distances that are sensibly expressed in terms of millions of miles, then we’re talking about places inside our own solar system. And this is definitely not that.

Just to check, I asked Siri how far in miles it is to Alpha Centauri. It looked up Wolfram Alpha and told me, ‘About 25.8 trillion miles.’ That’s the closest star system to our own. It’s not wrong to call that ‘millions of miles’, but it’s not exactly accurate. A trillion, after all, is a million million. And that’s just the closest system.

It doesn’t affect the story, but it’s a weird thing for an SF writer to have missed, for no beta reader to have picked up, for an editor working at an SF publisher not to have caught.

Other than that, she does a great job of telling a first-person narrative from the point of view of someone who has some mental issues. All narrators are unreliable, and perhaps this one more so than usual. So we wonder how much we can rely on her telling of what happens, especially at the end.

There’s a religious background to this: the Pathfinder believed — and convinced those who came with her — that they would find God in the mysterious ‘city’. Did they? Maybe, maybe not.

It’s part of a four-book series, which apparently can be read in any order. The next one (in terms of when they were written) looks like it takes place back on Earth, so we may learn nothing more about what happened in the colony, which was cut off from home.