Planetfall by Emma Newman
“Mack understands these people far too well. They may be scientists and experts and handpicked from thousands of hopefuls vying for every single place on Atlas, but they’re just people. Just frightened, insecure little things millions of miles from home.
“This is home now.”
Disclaimer: I’ve found it impossible to talk about this book without talking about spoilers and my mental health. Proceed with the appropriate caution.
This is not going to be an easy article to write. Emma Newman’s Planetfall is a smartly written and engaging science fiction tale that interrogates ideas around privilege and faith. It explores the potential of 3-D printing technology in building sustainable habitats on alien worlds. But far more strikingly it is an unflinching and discomforting exploration of anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive behaviour. Planetfall’s protagonist and viewpoint character, Renata Ghali, suffers from these conditions, and Newman embeds the reader in her experiences. For any reader who also suffers from any of these conditions, it is an incredibly powerful and uncomfortable reading experience. I very much enjoyed Newman’s prose, her rich descriptions and well drawn characters, and the kinetic plot that drags the reader in and keeps them guessing until the devastating big reveal. However, I found it a difficult novel to read. Planetfall made me cry on the train, it left me emotionally exhausted and troubled. But beyond that I found the experience of reading it incredibly powerful. Seeing some of the things I’ve struggled with explored in science fiction and with such depth, empathy and bravery was incredibly cathartic. There is something so powerful in seeing those struggles reflected in fiction, portrayed empathetically. It lets you know that you are not alone, that other people experience these feelings too. And it gives you something to point to when you speak to people who just don’t know what undergoing a panic attack is like. Renata’s mental illness is centred in the text, her struggles with it are portrayed from her perspective, rather than from that of an outsider. And her anxiety and depression are key to the central metaphor of the text, a society built on a comforting untruth that hides a truth too ugly and painful to be processed. I have never seen this done in genre fiction before.
Much of fiction boils down to the protagonist making difficult choices. By the time we meet Ren, she has already made her difficult choice – out of fear, she collaborates with Mack in hiding both the death of the colony’s spiritual and intellectual leader, Lee Suh-Mi, and Mack’s murder of the colonists who disagreed with his decision. This has been eating away at her for twenty years. Her house is literally built on this lie – Suh-Mi’s body is hidden in her basement, under all the accumulated garbage that Ren’s OCD doesn’t allow her to throw away. This isn’t the only body buried in Ren’s subconscious. She is haunted by the death of her child, something she has never even talked about with any of the other colonists. Ren lives alone in her house, isolated from her community, surrounded by objects she has given sentimental meaning to, living in fear of her and Mack’s secret being found out and of her unusual behaviour being exposed. The precarious balance of her life is thrown into jeopardy by the arrival of Sung-Soo, the son of the colonists Mack betrayed, as Ren is forced to confront her past.
One of the refreshing things about Planetfall is that because Ren is the viewpoint character, we understand the reasons behind her behaviours, even when she appears irrational to other characters who don’t understand her condition. Ren cannot throw any of the old things in her house away because each object ties specifically to a memory, a memory she might forget if she throws the object away. Her hoarding behaviour has its roots in this understandable urge, even more so when you consider that in order to joint Suh-Mi on the Atlas’s quest to find God on another planet, she had to give up her family and friends on Earth, who she will never see again, and her daughter died. The terrible secret she shares with Mack prevents her from forming new attachments with the other colonists. The objects provide Ren with the feeling of being tethered, in a world in which she is increasingly isolated. However, the book doesn’t shy away from the fact that, on a planet with limited resources, Ren’s hoarding is both stopping her house from working efficiently to make its own energy and depriving the colony of valuable metals and elements that would otherwise be recycled. This combination of both empathy for Ren’s point of view but clear-eyed portrayal of the consequences of her actions is beautifully done. Similarly, Ren’s panic attacks have understandable and relatable triggers, being brought on whenever she is forced to confront her role in Mack’s deception, or by people invading her personal space.
The sections describing Ren’s panic attacks I found especially gruelling, as Newman does not hold back at all. Newman unflinchingly conjures the feelings and emotions that accompany such attacks, capturing exactly what going through one is like. But it is not these alone that make her depiction of Ren so brilliant and so troubling. Newman describes what it’s like living with a mental illness, the constant exhaustion of having to fight something like that every day, especially on the days when you already feel wrung out by it. She captures Ren’s self-loathing and self-doubt, the feelings of bitterness and anger at oneself for being so broken, the endless recapitulations of one’s own failings. She portrays the discombobulation of depression, the numbness and the sense that you are a passive observer disconnected from everyone and everything around you. One of the central drivers of Ren’s actions in the book are her very understandable fear of ‘being found out’, the whole thing of hiding your mental illness from people who care about you because you are scared of how they will react. All these things will be very recognisable to anyone who has suffered from mental health problems. Many of the book’s most powerful moments involve all these elements coming together, as in this incredible section in which Sung-Soo comes into Ren’s house, having made her promise to throw something away from her hoard:
“Some part of myself is surprised this is happening. Is that the real me? I feel like I’m watching my actions through gaps in my skull, like I’m trapped inside my body and things are unfolding around me that I can’t quite hold together in my mind. Why did I give in to him last night? Am I weak? Or does another part of me agree with him? Where am I among all these parts. Am I just a mosaic of myself, held in the shape of a whole person? Perhaps the cracks are too tiny for people to notice. Perhaps I only let them see the mosaic from a distance, still looking Ren-like.”
One of the valuable roles of fiction is that it allows us to explore dangerous or troubling scenarios within a safe space. Thus in Planetfall, poor Ren undergoes the painful experience of the entire colony finding out first hand about her illness. In a particularly brutal scene, her door is broken down and a mob descends on her house, reacting with all her feared disgust, horror and pity to the mess they find inside. There is something very powerful and cathartic about confronting this fear head-on in a fictional context. Another thing that Newman utterly nails is the colonists’ various reactions to Ren’s illness. Ren is faced with the realisation that this has forever changed the way these people see her. Some people react by ostracising and othering her immediately, others express their concern in patronising or damaging ways that only make her feel even more uncomfortable. What makes the scene even more disturbing is that it’s not just a realisation of the fear of being found out, it’s a realisation of the fear that someone will use your mental illness as a tool to manipulate you. Sung-Soo essentially concern trolls Ren in order to get a mob to break into her house and expose her secrets, because he has been planted by the survivors of Mack’s betrayal to bring the colony down. Whilst fear of being seen differently by those who you love and respect is one thing, the fear of having one’s mental health used against oneself, and, as happens to Ren, having one’s objections to this being dismissed because of one’s mental health affecting one’s perceived reliability, is another thing entirely. I am a good deal more careful of who I tell about my mental health now than I was when I was first diagnosed for this very reason.
Planetfall winds up being partially about manipulation. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two central manipulative figures, Mack and Sung-Soo, are both men, one a father figure and one a potential romantic foil. Both are weird reflections of each other. Mack essentially bullies Ren into bolstering his lies and carrying out dangerous tasks, as well as using her as his emotional support whilst ignoring or belittling her emotional needs. This is a reflection of his manipulation of the entire colony. Because he has decided that the colonists wouldn’t be able to handle the truth about Suh-Mi’s death, he’s built an entire religion around pretending that she’s still alive, using her memory as a mouthpiece to make his visions for the colony law. Sung-Soo pretends to be concerned for Ren’s health, but all along he is trying to find out how complicit she was in Mack’s crime. Similarly, he uses his perceived naivety as the newcomer to charm all the colonists whilst plotting the destruction of the colony and selecting the most useful colonists as slaves. Ren winds up caught between the push and pull of these two characters; in the end her one act of heroism and reclamation of her own agency is to defy both of them.
For all this darkness, Planetfall is not a cynical book. Although Mack has twisted the cult of personality that blossomed around the character Suh-Mi to protect himself and forward his own agenda, Suh-Mi’s encounter with an alien plant that led her and her followers to this planet is portrayed as a genuine transcendental experience. This is contrasted nicely with God’s city, the unknowable alien city looming above the colony, which is like a giant pulsating intestine. However, for all its visceral weirdness, it remains a source of mystery and wonder. In the final sequence, Ren escapes from the destruction of the colony to walk into God’s city. A beautifully trippy sequence ensues, reminiscent of the weirder end of the New Wave of SF, in which, finally free of the baggage of the past and society’s expectations of her, Ren achieves the transcendence denied to Suh-Mi. Underneath all the lies and deception, for all its unfamiliarity, there does exist a deeper truth worth reaching out to understand.