A Tech-Heavy Murder Mystery: Emma Newman – After Atlas

When I finally picked up Planetfall for my Reading the Hugos project this year, I was blown away by Emma Newman’s ideas and her original characters. It ended up ranked second on my Best Series ballot (just after The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden), so of course I couldn’t wait to continue the series. I am very pleased to say that my initial euphoria for the series continued with its second volume even though it was a completely different experience to Planetfall.

AFTER ATLAS
by Emma Newman

Published: Roc, 2016
Paperback: 369 pages
Audiobook: 12 hours 46 minutes
Series: Planetfall #2
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: It’s times like these, when I’m hunkered in a doorway, waiting for a food market of dubious legality to be set up, that I find myself wishing I could eat like everyone else.

Acclaimed author Emma Newman returns to the captivating universe she created in Planetfall with a stunning science fiction mystery where one man’s murder is much more than it seems…
Govcorp detective Carlos Moreno was only a baby when Atlas left Earth to seek truth among the stars. But in that moment, the course of Carlos’s entire life changed. Atlas is what took his mother away; what made his father lose hope; what led Alejandro Casales, leader of the religious cult known as the Circle, to his door. And now, on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of Atlas’s departure, it’s got something to do why Casales was found dead in his hotel room—and why Carlos is the man in charge of the investigation.
To figure out who killed one of the most powerful men on Earth, Carlos is supposed to put aside his personal history. But the deeper he delves into the case, the more he realizes that escaping the past is not so easy. There’s more to Casales’s death than meets the eye, and something much more sinister to the legacy of Atlas than anyone realizes…

Carlos Moreno is a detective working off his debt as an indentured servant to the Noropean Ministry of Justice. When the leader of a religious cult is found dead, Carlos is sent to investigate, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that he himself was once part of that cult. He discovers a lot more than the usual stuff you’d expect from a murder mystery. Cause of death, murderer, murder weapon, sure. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. And it all ties into the events that led to the story of Planetfall.

Although it’s called the Planetfall series, I heard that the individual books were tied together loosely and can all be read as standalones. That is true at least for the first two volumes (I have yet to find out about the rest). After Atlas takes place 40 years after the crew of Atlas left Earth to find god. If you’ve read Planetfall you already know what happens to the people on that space ship. But they also left something behind. First and foremost, a capsule that is supposed to be opened 40 years after their departure. Secondly, people! Carl is only one of them and he was only a baby when his mother got a coveted spot on Atlas and left him and his father on Earth to go searching for god…

After that came a time spent with the Circle, an anti-tech religious cult founded by Alejandro Casales. When Carl left the Circle, his life didn’t exactly become easier but finding out more details about how he came to be an indentured servant is part of the fun of this book, so I won’t spoil.
The idea itself is both brilliant and terrifying. Carl is one of the lucky ones. He worked his ass off to turn himself into a useful “asset” and so got a well-paying job with the Ministry of Justice. It’s not a bad job as such, but there are many, many little ways in which he is reminded that he is not free. Making choices is not an option. He goes where his boss says, he does what his boss wants, he has to keep his anger in check and never step out of line, or else his contract might be prolonged for a few years and freedom may creep ever further away…

Needless to say, I really enjoyed the worldbuilding. Whereas in Planetfall we saw a completely different planet with a small society of people, here we return to Earth and learn what’s been going on there. Not only is the world run by Govcorps – corporations that own everything and so are essentially the government – but people are chipped and constantly connected and monitored. The way Emma Newman used existing technology, spun the idea further, and created her version of a future Earth felt utterly real and very much like something out of Black Mirror. The tech is both a blessing and a curse – it’s nice when MyPhys monitors your heart rate and sends an ambulance your way in case of a heart attack, for example. It’s less nice when your boss finds out about an elevated heartrate in the presence of certain people, or when your flaring anger is reported to your superiors and gains you a black mark.
I also really enjoyed Carl’s relationship with food. Most food is printed – it looks like food and it has all the necessary nutritents, but it’s not food the way we know it. You don’t use something that has grown from the earth, prepare it, cook it, spice it, and then enjoy it. You just push a button and something resembling lasagna comes out. Carl’s one luxury is that he goes out of his way to get to real food and while it’s not a very important part of the book, I totally understood him and liked him all the better for it.

But this book is also a murder mystery. Carl is sent to the hotel where Alejandro Casales was found dead. And not just dead… hanged, drawn and quartered dead. He does what any good investigator would do – he interviews people, visits the scene of the crime, looks at the evidence and draws possible conclusions. The murder itself is actually solved pretty quickly, except some small details just don’t seem to add up. Even when it becomes truly clear who killed Alejandro and why, there is still a third of this book left to go. So while the murder mystery was engaging to read, it was not the most important part of the story.

Let me talk about Carl for a second. For quite a while, I didn’t know what to make of him. He is likable enough from the start and his reaction to journalists wanting interviews with the (former) baby that was left behind by his own mother when Atlas left, is understandable to say the least. But for a long time, I didn’t see how his work for the MoJ was all that bad. It read mostly like any old job and the fact that Carl is a slave didn’t really come into play. Until it does, of course! This story may be pretty fast-paced but the worldbuilding unfolds slowly. For that reason, one of the plot twists hit me really hard and apparently put a look of utter shock on my face (the boyfriend asked me if I was okay). Because the Govcorps that owns you doesn’t just decide where your job takes you. They also decide what restrictions on technology apply to you, what music you’re allowed to listen to, which websites to visit, which mersives to watch… As comparatively easy as Carl might have it, there is always this possibility hanging over his head that his owners (how fucked up is it that Earth would find its way back to slavery in this future setting?) could take everything away that makes life somewhat worth living for him.

We follow Carl as he unravels the mysteries within mysteries, but the side characters are worth mentioning as well. There aren’t many of them but as I think back, every single one of them felt multi-layered and real. There’s not even a single character that came across as totally good or totally bad. Even the hotel staff that Carl interviews and otherwise has little contact with, felt like real people. I don’t know how Emma Newman does that, but she is damn good at it!
Throughout the story, Carl explores not just a murder, but confronts his own past and his own history with Alejandro, as well as his fraught relationship with his father whom he hasn’t seen in 20 years. Even his one friendship with fellow indentured servant Dee takes a hit. There’s a lot of emotional baggage to unpack for Carl and that was as much fun reading about as the plot itself.

This book does tie into the larger Planetfall universe in that the time to open that mysterious capsule has almost arrived when the story begins. No spoilers here, but I’ll let you know this much. You will get answers to the most pressing questions and Carl’s story – with its ups and downs – reaches a somewhat satisfying conclusion. The ending was phenomenally done, not because everything is suddenly all sunshine and happiness – that doesn’t seem possible in Newman’s version of Earth – but because it, like the book’s characters, felt so eerily real.
I didn’t love this book quite as much as I did Planetfall but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fantastic sci-fi novel. I’m pretty sure I’ll finish the series this year because as wrapped-up as this story may be, there is a lot more to discover in this universe.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!

 

Mental Health and Space Colonies: Emma Newman – Planetfall

Thank you, Hugo nominators, for pushing this series onto me! I have said this quite a few times in the last months because I am genuinely grateful for the wonderful books I’ve discovered this year due to the Hugo Awards. People have been raving about Emma Newman’s Planetfall series for years but because her fairy-inspired series didn’t work that well for me, I’ve been hesitant to pick up another book by her. Boy, was I stupid! This is one of the finest science fiction books I’ve read and it also does something I’ve never encountered before: combining science fiction with all its tech and (potential) alien life with a very human protagonist who deals with mental health issues.

PLANETFALL
by Emma Newman

Published: Roc, 2015
Ebook: 336 pages
Series: Planetfall #1
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: Every time I come down here I think about my mother.

From the award-nominated author Emma Newman, comes a novel of how one secret withheld to protect humanity’s future might be its undoing…
Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown.
More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony’s 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.
Ren continues to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony for the good of her fellow colonists, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi.
The truth Ren has concealed since planetfall can no longer be hidden. And its revelation might tear the colony apart…

Renata Ghali, called Ren, lives in the only space colony on a planet far from Earth. She and the other settlers came here on the ship Atlas because they were following a genius named Lee Suh-Mi who was looking for God. That may sound super religious but the book is really not. In fact, we know right from the start that the things most colonists believe aren’t true. Religious rituals are firmly in place but Ren and Mack – the Ringmaster and kind of, sort of leader of this place – know what’s what. Finding out the details of what exactly these two are hiding from the rest of the colony and why is one reason this book was so intriguing. But that’s not all there is to it.

The story kicks off with a new arrival to the colony. There shouldn’t be any humans left alive who aren’t already part of the colony, so naturally Ren and Mack are worried. Who is this person that looks so much like Suh but couldn’t possibly have survived out in the wild, far from the technology that keeps the colony going? It turns out this person is, in fact, Suh’s own grandson Sung-Soo, the only survivor of a group that apparently landed far away from what has become the human colony at the foot of God’s City. Oh yeah, I haven’t even mentioned that part. Just outisde the colony, an alien “building” looms, made of tentrils and organic-seeming matter, filled with corridors and secrets… This is believed to be God’s City and it’s where a big ritual is held every year that keeps the colony in touch with the now almost mystical Suh.

Throughout this novel, we follow Ren, who suffers from anxiety and who also has a secret or two. Ren is such a fantastic character, not only because she represents people who don’t often get to be the hero in a science fiction story but also because she is flawed but her flaws are understandable. She constantly feels guilty about the past (you’ll find out all the details about that), she has trouble letting go of things and people, she is a very private person with few – if any – close relationships. It is strongly suggested that Ren, a brilliant engineer responsible for the colony’s 3D-printers, was in love with Suh and followed her on this mission to find God for reasons other than pure logic. She also had a relationship with one of the colony’s doctors, Kay, that didn’t last because Ren just wouldn’t open up. She just felt like such a real, complicated person that can’t be described in a few lines, and that’s exactly how I like my protagonists best!

There’s a lot more going on in this book and I haven’t even scratched the surface yet. I’ve given you headlines, hints of what’s to come, but reading this and discovering all of it for yourself is so much fun! And let’s not forget that amazing surprising moment around the middle of the book. Ren deals with social anxiety and that much is clear from the start. But she is dealing with much more than that and the way this was revealed showed just how much skill Emma Newman possesses as a writer. Without naming the thing, without explicitly describing it, she nonetheless made it clear for the reader what is going on, what Ren has been hiding for years and years, and I was stunned and impressed and deeply unsettled. I can’t tell you more than that without spoiling and, trust me, you want to experience this for yourselves.

Emma Newman manages to weave her themes into a thrilling plot with so much ease, I almost didn’t recognize her writing from her other books. This book deals with guilt, anxiety, the way society works, religious fanaticism, technology, living in tune with nature, and so much more! Again, I can’t tell you any more details without spoiling things, but this book is an example of how to advance plot, world building, and characters all at the same time. There are no info dumps, no lengthy expositions, everything just happens organically and  everything the readers learn, we learn through context.

The plot is pretty fast paced for a novel that also focuses so much on Ren’s feelings. Things are always happening, there is this underlying sense of tension that turned this into a proper page turner. Which is another thing I don’t come across that often. A book that’s both exciting because our protagonists are in danger, but still has enough time for introspection, for developing those characters, for making them come to life and having them grow. I found the side characters just as interesting as Ren herself but this story is clearly her journey.

The ending may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it brings Ren’s character arc to a beautiful and satsifying close. Had I read this when it came out, I might have liked it less because the ending leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But knowing this is only the beginning of a loosely connected series, I’m perfectly fine with the way things ended here. I also won’t be able to wait very long to dive into the next book, After Atlas. Newman has created a fascinating world, peopled with diverse characters that all feel real. I’m sure there is plenty more to discover and I look forward to going into the next book completely blind. Is it a prequel or a sequel? Do we meet characters we’ve heard about? I don’t know and I don’t care. Emma Newman has a new fan and I trust that I’ll love the next book as much as this one.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!