Emma Newman‘s Planetfall (newly republished by Gollancz, who provided a review copy) is a brilliant SF psychological thriller. Renata Ghali is an engineer on a high-tech extra-terrestrial colony founded by the visionary Lee Suh-Mi who brought together a group of colonists to flee Earth and travel to a new planet. The colony is small, but stable, living around the base of an alien structure part plant, part animal and part city. Suh-Mi is inside, communing with an alien civilisation, and the colonists have been awaiting her return for more than 20 years. But the colony’s peace is over-turned when Suh-Mi’s grandson walks out of the grassland and into their lives, claiming to be the only survivor of a group of colonists believed to have crashed on landing.
Renata is a troubled protagonist, and the novel slowly reveals both her mental illness and the likely cause of it. She suffers from anxiety, struggles to connect with other people and hoards goods. She fell for Suh-Mi, her former flatmate, and followed her across the stars to escape a troubled relationship with her parents, and an increasingly dystopian Europe of scarcity, diminishing opportunity and encroachment on freedom. The colony project is a grand vision of escape she can throw herself behind, running away from the challenges of Earth. Newman’s depiction of Renata famously draws on some of her own personal history of anxiety, and is one of the best and most sympathetic portrayals of a complex and flawed character I’ve come across recently.
The reader quickly realises that all is not as it seems within the colony. The Machiavellian and manipulative figure of Mack looms large within the novel. Known as the Ringmaster, his job was to bring the colonists together and help broker their departure from Earth, using his charisma and influencing skills to create a shared vision and manage the people dynamics. After landing, he has turned those skills to keeping the colony going while it awaits Suh-Mi’s return. Superficially jovial, charming and caring, the reader soon realises there is a much more sinister undercurrent.
Newman is an accomplished novelist, though Planetfall is her first foray into SF. The plot unravels with a beautiful balance of twists, reveals and insights that never once feels like Newman is artificially witholding information from the reader for plot purposes. We travel with Renata as she revisits traumatic events of the past that she has tried to bury and forget. And Newman gives us a brilliantly diverse cast of all races, genders and sexualities.
I am delighted that Gollancz has picked up this series of books, enabling Newman to finish writing and publishing the sequels. This is exciting and fresh fiction.
Goodreads rating: 4*