Notes on Diversity:
This book is rich with diversity on multiple levels. The cast is composed mostly of people of color. I read Ren, the main character, as a woman of color. Many of the other important characters–Suh-Mi, Sung-Soo, Kay, Carmen, Pasha, Neela–are also people of color. Their race seems to impact their lives only minimally; it’s presented or coded matter-of-factly, but I didn’t pick up any situations where Ren or others experience outright racism or microaggressions due to their race. I don’t know how much of this is Emma Newman writing as a White woman, and how much of this was intentional on her part (presenting the colony as a space without racism, but some scenes are flashbacks where Ren could have experienced racist interactions?). In any case, the characters are carefully chosen scientists, and they come from a wide array of backgrounds.
Front and center is Ren’s deteriorating mental health. Much of the plot is actually predicated on Ren’s mental disabilities, which are presented here as hoarding, possibly with some OCD symptoms woven in.
Ren (and Kay) is also queer. Like the representation of race, her sexuality is presented without any struggle or any antagonism. She simply is bisexual. This, for me, was refreshing–it was clear that Ren had shame around her sexuality, but it was not because of her desire for other women. It was bound up with her mental health issues. I welcomed and connected with a character who was queer, and crazy, but not crazy because she was queer. And I welcomed that the book acknowledged that craziness impacts how we connect with partners and lovers.
I both loved this book and felt dissatisfied with it. Like Ren herself, Planetfall is slim and enormously complicated. I wonder if it’s not actually two books stitched together. Right from the start, there are two competing plots. Newman tries to weave them together, but by the ending, it was clear to me that they could have been utterly separate books. And I wanted them to be. And I think I could have loved them both.
Renata Ghali is brilliant. Back on Earth, she figures out technology to print her father a new pancreas, which opens the way for new medical technology that has the potential to save millions of lives. Ren is brilliant, and devoted to her roommate, Suh-Mi, who becomes the Pathfinder. A fluke (or perhaps not?), a mysterious plant, a seed, and then Suh-Mi falls into a coma. Ren stays by her bedside. When Suh-Mi wakes back up, she has a plan, and a vision, and a path to a planet to find God. Ren knows she’ll follow.
But all of that is backstory. The plot takes place on the planet that Suh-Mi has guided Ren and a thousand other carefully chosen devoted to. Ren’s brilliance has leaked into other domains–she’s learned to pilot spaceships for Suh-Mi, she’s learned to engineer sustainable houses for the colony. Planetfall did not go as Suh-Mi planned. Ren has been keeping secrets, and the secrets have taken their toll on her, wearing her down over the years. When a young stranger appears at the edge of the colony, everything in Ren’s carefully calibrated world unravels.
There is part of this book that is about secrets and trauma and healing. That was the part of the book that I was most interested in. Ren as a broken woman, Ren as a woman simultaneously fascinated with and hiding from and trying to heal her past. Over and over again, Ren refers to herself as a mosaic–and I think the metaphor is an apt one. She is loss after loss, and none of them resolved, each one fracturing and shattering her fragile self a little more. Circumstances break her, and she retreats into herself, trying to glue the pieces together.
And above all, Ren is still brilliant. No matter how wounded, Ren is still brilliant. She is the picture of a functional mentally ill person. And as someone who has struggled mightily with depression and anxiety while being functional (while being called smart and impressive), I saw so much of myself in Ren. I don’t hoard things–if anything, I throw them out, get spare and Spartan instead–but I understood her insatiable need to collect, to fix, to make a tangible mosaic between herself and everything that reminds herself of what’s gone so very wrong.
If that was all the book was, it would need to be set on a planet far away, though, would it? It would, however, be a much cleaner book. The book is also a murder mystery. And a book about faith. And about the (literal) nature of humanity. And a book about revenge. I could do with it folding in the murder mystery and the faith*, but this last piece is what really breaks the book for me.
Ren’s redemption is as much to do with faith and her facing a reckoning with long-buried guilt and violence as it is the internal work of mental health. What breaks the book is that this great human reckoning is only hinted at and glanced at. It is crammed into the last few pages of the book, and–most importantly–Ren escapes that reckoning. When the colonies collective chickens come home to roost, Ren watches its effect on her fellows, but she scrambles away and literally goes on a journey of faith herself. It is implied, at the end, that the choice she makes services a collective good, but I found myself left with so many questions. Would she have made that choice if not driven there by the threat of bodily violence? Maybe her choice leads to good for future individuals, but what about her friends and lovers she’s left behind at that moment, the ones facing bodily harm literally at that moment? Is it a redemption, or is it an evasion?
And if there was to be no narrative payoff, no closure for all of that chaos and violence only just introduced in those last few pages, then why introduce it in the first place? why not drive Ren to those final choices in another, different way?
So much of the book was so very very good, but the book seems to lose narrative cohesion right at the end. I understood what was happening, but not the narrative choices that Newman employed here. The gravity and stakes of the ending was so high after I was so invested in the characters and the book that refusing to give closure–and guiding Ren to a choice that frankly, seemed to minimize, what was happening below her–felt like a cheap shot.
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