I have a terrible habit of taking io9’s book recommendations as, y’know, actual recommendations that one should follow. Thing is, one day, io9 recommended a little book called Leviathan Wakes, and Leviathan Wakes turned out to be one of my favorite currently running space operas. Since then, though, every book they’ve recommended that I’ve picked up has left me cold. (I had a similar experience with horror movies. I saw The Ring, was terrified and in love, and now I keep watching horror movies hoping for another The Ring. It happens every so often, but only every so often.)
It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, I suppose. I’m a Sad Puppy kind of guy, and by and large, io9’s not a Sad Puppy kind of place. The kind of fiction they want is not the kind of fiction that I want, typically, overlapping Venn diagram circles notwithstanding. io9 loved SJW darling Ancillary Justice; I had a reaction to it similar to my reaction to Avatar— an “It’s alright, I guess” that faded to loathing over the course of a few days.
Emma Newman’s Planetfall isn’t as empty as Ancillary Justice or Avatar. It’s not as distasteful. But when Wrongfun Podcast‘s Sean tried to convince me to skip it in favor of Marko Kloos’ Frontline books (Which are coming after I finish The Martian.) he described it as “literary scifi.” And he was right. Thing is, while those words fill me with dread, I’m not opposed to literary scifi. I think the literary forms of character driven conflict are a good thing to aspire to. And I think it can work– Dan Simmons and Gene Wolfe have both produced kicking scifi novels with strongly character driven conflict. But “Literature” is a dark god that consumes all it touches, and it ate Planetfall.
Here’s the elevator pitch: a woman, Suhn Mi, emerges from a coma with knowledge of an alien bio-organic structure on another planet and leads humanity’s first interstellar expedition to this structure to meet God. She never returns from the first visit to “God’s City,” and twenty years later, a young man claiming to be her grandson shows up at the edge of the colony.
That sounds fantastic! Sign me up!
Ren, our narrator, is the technician in charge of the colony’s 3D printers, and she’s pretty clearly hiding a secret that she doesn’t want to be hiding, something about Suhn Mi. This secret is shared only with Mac, the former ad exec that is more or less running the colony, and we get some hints very early on that it’s about Suhn Mi. So when Suhn Mi’s grandson shows up at the colony’s edge (Her son was supposed to have perished during a landingcraft malfunction, a long with quite a few of the colonists.) it causes Ren and Mac no small amount of concern. There are some great moments here early on, not the least of which is a routine test of the young man’s blood returns an error message stating “DNA sample compromised; verify subject is homo sapiens.”
But Planetfall squanders those moments. With a few (fairly predictable) mysteries lurking at the heart of the book (Where has Suhn Mi been for twenty years? What happened to the other colonists?) and a standard, but always fascinating premise (What’s the alien artifact do?), it should’ve been an entertaining romp. But what it quickly devolves into is a story about…..
Hording, of all things. Society’s favorite mental illness du jour. Ren, for reasons easily predicted but still thoroughly explored in the back half of the book, has been abusing her position as maintainer of the colony’s 3D printers– their only manufacturing capability– to horde random things with the intent of fixing them. And of course, she never does. So the junk piles up in her house and becomes the focus of the story. The whole time, I was left wondering when the story would return to the premise I bought the novel for– the promise of an unsettling “space colonization novel that will mess with your head in the best way possible.” And it never did mess with my head. At no point did I sit back and say, “Wow, didn’t see that coming.” Even when we do finally return to God’s City, the answers behind it are the sort of cop out non-answers you get when the author can’t think of something suitably transcendent.
Maybe I’m spoiled by Gene Wolfe; when the man tells you he’s going to tell you the secrets of the universe, he does, or he at least gives you the feeling that he knows. And to be fair, I suppose Newman never promised to mess with our heads, explicitly, but she started a book about a journey to an alien planet to commune with God, and loaded it with some suitably creepy, weird stuff early on. The promise of something astounding is implicit if not explicit.
And I think that’s the problem with the great dark god of literary ambitions; the scifi takes a back seat to the feelings and character drama. That stuff’s all great and good; I don’t want cardboard cutout characters. I want John Sheridans and Roy Fokkers and Amos Burtons and Martin Silenuses. I want to remember the character’s names, their personalities, and their problems. But I want to remember what they did to change the world, for good or for ill, and not wallow in their emotional problems at the expense of the world the author’s presented us. If I wanted to read about people’s baggage, I’d read literature.
And I’m not saying it’s bad! I don’t read straight up lit all that often, but man if I don’t love me some Wes Anderson films– movies that are more often than not about family baggage. But I come to those films looking for that stuff; I don’t go to 2001 expecting Dave Bowman to be lonely for a hundred of the last one hundred and fifty pages while we ignore the monolith. And that is precisely Planetfall‘s sin.