Jalapeno Score: 39/50
Reading Planetfall instilled controversial feelings in me. I am going to write this review with some spoilers, because I don’t think I can otherwise express myself properly. If you read other reviews, there are some people who did not like the controversial aspects of the story, and you can decide for yourself, whether flexible attitude to sexuality is something you are comfortable with or not. This aspect does not influence my rating in any way.
The premise of the story is rather unique. I feel like it’s one of those that people will either love or hate. It certainly kept me captivated after I finished reading the book, despite that I struggled through some parts of it in the middle. The narration of the book keeps you in the dark about everything until the end. Reading it is like holding an end of the thread, and somewhere in the dark room is the rest of the ball of yarn, and you need to untangle it somehow, small bits at a time. For this summary, I will have to summarize it in the linear fashion, so it will demystify the story to a great extant.
So once upon a time, there lived a scientist (botanist) woman named Suh-Mi (pronounced [Sue Me] if you wondered, but I found out about that half way through the book). She and her girlfriend, from whose POV the story is told, Renatha (Ren) Ghali, went to a nature preserve in France, to smell flowers. There Suh-Mi saw an unusual plant with the seed and felt compelled to eat it. After she ate it, she passed out and spent some time in coma. When she got out from coma, she had the coordinates to a distant planet. Suh Mi claimed that God called her to be a prophet and to guide people from Earth to him, and those coordinates were the God’s address. I kid you not, I am not making up any of it. It gets better. Suh Mi becomes a genius, and somehow convinces everyone in the world that her knowledge of science is so advanced that it must be from God. Fast forward, the Earthlings gather a delegation, build a ship, and head out at those coordinates. Suh Mi becomes a religious leader, a visionary, and they call her a Pathfinder.
Once they arrive to the planet, all alive and well (of which process we know nothing from the book), they drop to the surface. This descending they call a Planetfall. What is a Planetfall we also find out not right away, but everyone in the book refers to the Planetfall.
On the surface, the conditions are almost perfect for humans, with some unique microbial life, but the team receives immunizations, and that issue is squared out. When they descent, they see a valley, and something like a mountain. And sure enough, they call it a God’s city. The mountain is huge and made of organic tissues. There is a lot of mystique about this ‘thing’, but it is quite clearly a gigantic alien organism, whether sentient or not, we don’t know. But you can walk in it like in a city built from tunnels. These tunnels are built from veins, and arteries, and all kinds of organic-like tissue that react to their presence, contract and change shape. But the Pathfinder tells that they need to climb to the top of the city, because that’s where God is waiting. Sometimes the passages are impossible to walk through and the explorers cut through the walls of this ‘thing’, and they notice that these cuts heal very quickly. It is dark and slimy inside, and the environment is toxic to breathe, so they all wear the protective suits.
Long story short, they get to the top of the ‘God’s city’ with a small group of explorers. There is a ‘room’, and the Pathfinder touches it, it gets transparent, and she slips through. Nobody else can go through though. In some time, the Pathfinder emerges, all distressed, and claims that the God is already dead, and they are too late. She takes off the protective suit and within minutes she is dead.
Now another leader of the group comes to play. Cillian Mackenzie (Mack), who they call a Ringmaster, and we also do not know why, convinces a few of the present explorers to keep this under wraps, but not everyone agrees. So he shoots those who disagree with the only gun that they brought with them (really???). His argument is that the knowledge about the failure will destroy the colony.
For some reason Mack spares Ren. They were friends on Earth, but I cannot understand their friendship, because it sounds like Mack always manipulates and uses Ren as a puppet. Ren, by the way, is a genius scientist in her own right, and she is the one who invented all the 3D printing technology (I’m pretty sure there are people in our day who can be credited with this invention though, but ok, Ren made significant progress, and the 3D printers became like the Replicator in Star Trek). Anyway, Mack convinces Ren to fabricate a story that the Pathfinder went to talk to God and ordered to settle down and wait for her. Some of the surviving researchers who Mack didn’t trust to keep this a secret, were sabotaged, and their shuttles experienced a crash during the next time they descended from the orbit. Since then, Ren became an accomplice to unspeakable lie and murder.
Let’s pause right there. So our protagonist is a slimy, easily swayed into major crimes, person. The charm of this character does not stop there.
Ren is not only deeply introspective. She has a complicated mental health situation: clinical anxiety disorder and hoarding, but we don’t know about it right away, we only know that she has a low self esteem, lives in constant fear, feels trapped and stuck. The author explains that Ren lost her small child on Earth, and that started to derail her. On top of that, Ren is hopelessly, pathologically in love with Suh Mi, and when she kills herself, Ren snatches her body, digs a basement in her house, and places the casket there. This is such a traumatic event for Ren, that she manages to forget what is in that room. All she remembers is that under no circumstances anyone can go there. So she starts collecting trash from the recycling facility. Over 20 years, entire Ren’s house is so cluttered that it becomes a hazard to her life, because the piles of garbage, that line up walls and ceiling, can avalanche at any time. Nobody knows about any of this, not even Ren’s accomplice Mack.
I will omit a lot of details. Sufficient to say, that at one point all lies and crimes come to light. Ren is painfully confronted with her problem, which she refuses to recognize, and remains in denial till the end. Ren and Mack become pariahs of the colony and are kicked out after a trial. Then more troubles happen, and Ren feels so hopelessly cornered, that she runs into the ‘God’s city’ without the gear, with the dislocated shoulder, and in the darkness.
What happens in the end is up for an interpretation. My point of view is different from what the protagonist Ren tells us. In her opinion, she goes to God, and the price she needs to pay is to give up all her possessions. This is philosophically reminiscent of Christian and even Buddhist views, but I think the author uses God in a rather agnostic, or even metaphorical way. Ren herself goes back and forth on the issue of faith, being torn between wanting to have easy comforting answers that would tell her weak personality how to live; and between the scientific method, which she aspires to uphold.
My take on the end of the story was that Ren could not cope with the reality. Her compartmentalized identity was confronted so hard, that she couldn’t even lie to herself anymore. Her tribe kicked her out, she had no place to go, and then, all of a sudden, Ren gives herself to blind, irrational faith. That faith gives her the permission to go to the toxic ‘God’s city’, where she hallucinates and experiences religious rush, and, obviously, dies.
There is also an aspect of a story where the scientists suspect that this ‘God’s city’ lured beings from entire universe through those transcendental seeds. I offer an explanation that this whole God’s city thing was just a predatory being, vastly different from us, and it lured creatures in for… anybody’s guess. I’d say, basically for food. I like my explanation, but I regret that the book was written from the point of view of an unstable Ren with all her mysticism and inability to think critically. I think if the story was told from the point of view of another character, someone like Ellen Ripley, that would be one hell of a thriller. But the author had a totally different bent, emphasizing the trap of mental illness. In that case, the goal is achieved. Through Ren’s eyes, I felt trapped, confused, scared, and, most of all, I absolutely hated myself. Case closed. I guess it is up to everyone to decide whether this type of a protagonist is interesting or not. But hey, look at me, I wrote a ‘War and Peace’ memoir on it, and spent a few days between finishing the book and getting to write a review, in order to sort it out in my head. So at the very least, I was challenged. Now, let’s get to rating.
The science and tech is pretty awesome.
3D printing. The major tech pillar of the story is the 3D printing, taken to the heights of technological perfection. The characters could even print on a molecular level, creating basic elements from atoms. Think about that! We have certainly heard about the 3D printers, and what an amazing potential they hold for medicine, infrastructure, and well everything really. So this idea is super thumbs up. However, this is also the reason for deducting a point on this scale. 3D printers, really? I doubt this is how it is going to be called in the future. 3D printers are not exactly sci fi in our days any more. Not that it is a dead end of tech evolution, quite contrary. But if you read the book, you will see that it is 3D print this, 3D print that, it’s just a clumsy phrase that we came up with, and it jars my senses. This tech aspect, however awesome, felt like it came from the last year’s space.com or Scientific American article, and I expected something at least a bit more visionary.
Sustainable environment, total recycling. This part was super cool. The colony was established the way to eliminate waste. Every house had a ‘shute’, where all the waste was dropped, and it traveled along the pipes under the city to the central recycling facility, the Masher. From the Masher, all the raw materials were deposited back to the printers.
Organic tissues combined with inorganic materials. This human civilization developed the ability to combine organic tissues with in-organic materials. For example, their homes were built from different semi-organic compounds. To unlock the door, a home owner pressed the palm to the wall to let the house ‘taste’ him – a form of ID. Inside, the floor was made out of moss. The furniture was also ‘grown’. Some people had aquariums instead of windows. The algae that lived in them produced clean energy. Also, if I understood correctly, the walls of the house were made in part of living human tissue, grown in a lab. If someone watched Stargate Atlanis, the Wraith had all their tech made from organic compounds. The idea is very interesting, because only organic material creates additional matter, like a plant grows from a small seed.
Cloud technology, human-machine singularity. Every member in the colony had a chip, and the author went at great length to describe in what ways they interact with the network. There are elaborate discussions pf privacy issues, levels of access, and other ideas of human-computer singularity. That part was pretty awesome.
That’s the best I can do! There is an interesting premise, but for me it was lacking in many ways. Some of them I touched on in the previous sections of the review, but here I will focus on the limitations of the world-building. The way I can describe the world of the story is that I was shown it through a blind person. I know virtually nothing about the Earth at that time, and hardly anything about the planet where the explorers arrived. The only well-described place is the God’s city, but the description is oddly tactile, rather than visual. No, Ren was not blind in a conventional sense. But in a sense that her mental illness made her blind to everything around her, she did not pay attention to those details as much. Of course I am not a psychologist, but the way I felt in Ren’s skin, was somewhat on the autistic spectrum, academically brilliant, highly functioning at times, but nonetheless with shifted perception focus.
Well, I think I understood the characters well. They are not likable, but for the most part well-outlined.
Personally I did not feel that Suh-Mi’s character was well-contextualized. Maybe because everything was narrated through Ren, Suh-Mi was presented as an object of romantic attachment, painful dependency, and even religious worship. I don’t think we can tell who Suh-Mi really was, because she was described through this very warped lens. Honestly I was even questioning if Suh-Mi really loved Ren all that much, or it was all in Ren’s head? The few times that we see them interact on a video, Suh-Mi is rather detached from her lover.
Mack was a sleaze bag, manipulative, self-preserving, power hungry sociopathic leader, and Ren could not break away from his sprawling tentacles. I felt sorry for her, and also I was angry at her. She is all that we learn to reject in complacent Germans who were ‘just doing their job’.
Here is a good place to state that I am empathetic to mental illness, but when I am critical of Ren’s choices, I stop short of enabling and excusing serious crimes, like the first degree murder. Any mental illness, whether it is anxiety, schizophrenia, or depression, feels like a trap to an affected person.
If I could rewrite the story, or write a script for the movie, my concluding scene would be Ren in a mental hospital, talking to Dr. Kay (a doctor from a colony and a woman that Ren had relationship with after Suh-Mi’s death). This Dr. Kay would be a beautiful woman in a white doctor’s robe, soft-spoken and reliable, and she would be assuring Ren that she is ill, and she needs treatment. That, my friends, would be an appropriate ending for the story, and it would make sense then. The one-dimensional perspective on all the secondary characters would make sense if they were only figments of an ill imagination. Read for yourself, and you will see that there are more clues that hint that the entire story is nothing but a narrative of a schizophrenic, like in the movie “The Beautiful Mind.” Just like in that movie, the characters in the Planetfall also hardly aged. Aha!
Anyway, the way I rewrote the story in my head, I liked it. But the way that it was actually written, I am less definitive.
Outside of somewhat less original technology, the story was original. Since I already deducted points on the science scale, I will give this aspect a high mark.
Finally, the writing is not bad, certainly no typos and such. My problem was, again, in the way it was narrated through Ren, who bogged down the story with heavy introspective material. This slowed down the pace and did not contribute to the story as much.
My concluding words: controversial, memorable, ambiguous. This is the one that you will either love or hate, or will grapple with for a long time, like myself.
Thanks for reading this review. Please let me know what you think, I’m looking forward to read your comments. Do you have a favorite 2015 or 2016 sci fi novel? You can nominate it for the award.
To find out about the Jalapeño Fiction Award, go to this page.
Read other 2015 sci fi novel reviews here.
Copyright Ellie Maloney (2016)