Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This is at once a tale of planetary exploration, a mystery, an examination of spiritual faith, and a unique look at mental illness. The person who suffers from that illness happens to be the first-person narrator, who harbors a dark secret that could shatter the lives of everyone around her. Renata Ghali is an engineer, expert at 3D printing, an invaluable resource for the colony of humans on an alien planet. They were drawn there by a revelatory vision experienced by Ren's friend and lover, Lee Suh-Mi, after she had consumed the seed of a mysterious, unknown plant. Suh is convinced that God has directed her to a location where all of humanity's questions about truth and purpose will be answered.
Twenty-two years after second Planetfall, the humans have adapted to the new planet's environment, and the colony has flourished at the foot of a structure known as God's City. It seems to be more an organic growth rather than an alien structure, and Suh-Mi surmised it was the source of the plant she had found on Earth. First Planetfall saw the initial exploration of God's City by Suh, Ren, Cillian McKenzie (the expedition's administrator), and a few others, including Suh's son Hak-Kun. The legend the colony believes is that Suh entered a pod inside the city to commune with its deity and never came out, but yearly she imparts news and inspiration to another acolyte that enters the city and consumes a new seed. On second Planetfall, several of the landing craft malfunctioned and crashed in remote locations. By the time the rest of them had established their encampment, McKenzie began the search for the lost, but he reported no trace of them could be found. The truth is only slowly revealed through Renata's narrative.
She does give us minor clues early, mere hints, but the truth does not come out until late in the book. It would be easy to assume Ren is a high-functioning autistic. She is obsessive about her privacy. No one else has been allowed inside her home, she has cultivated very few friendships, and only one other romance since Suh-Mi. She has buried the source of her anxiety and anti-social behavior deep in her subconscious, but all of those walls start crumbling when a stranger enters the colony, a young man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi. He ingratiates himself with Renata, enough to gain entrance to her home...only to learn a disturbing secret. Mineral and manufacturing resources are few for the colony, so a strict policy of recycling has been established. The 3D printers that build everything from tools, furniture, even food stuffs, rely on replenishment of materials from broken and discarded items sent to the "Masher." Why has Renata retrieved items from the Masher and hoarded them in her home, even manipulating the figures of what is available for reuse?
The world-building and characterizations are handled with subtle skill. The story ranges from sadness and regret, to love and exhilirating hopefulness. We learn in flashbacks of Renata's strained relationships with her estranged parents, the first time she met Suh-Mi, the despair of sitting with Suh during her coma induced by the seed. Renata is an interesting woman, sympathetic both before and after the secrets are revealed. Perhaps not if someone else were telling the story, but this way we develop a bond with her, feel her pain and anguish, the longing for her lost love. At one point, she says she is stuck between Scylla and Charybdis. That's from Homer's Odyssey, and infers a choice between two evils. But can the truth ever be evil, even if remembering it and revealing it reinforce the pain? Can it be that the truth will set you free? The ending could be interpreted in at least two ways. One would be pessimistic, with Renata possibly deluding herself, trapped in her tortured mind. I prefer to think she experiences what Suh-Mi had invisioned, a bonding with a higher power, whether or not that power is God.
I started this with the audiobook I got through a free trial at audible.com. It is read by Ms. Newman herself, who not only writes her own stories, but also records audiobooks for others in many genres. She has a soft, melodic voice, with a pleasant British accent. Anyone else who likes audiobooks should enjoy this one. For me, my mind tends to wander even when reading print, but that's easy to backtrack and re-read a paragraph or two. My Kindle has a 30 second back-skip, but I found I was having to use that too often. I'm glad I didn't give up on the book though, and bought the Kindle version as well. I found I could access them both at the same time, so I still listened to Ms. Newman, but read along with her too. That proved to be an enjoyable experience. This is only the ninth novel I've read that is eligible for a Hugo this year, but it's one of four that would go on my nomination list at this time. Definitely recommended.
The follow-up novel, After Atlas.
The third in the sequence, Before Mars.
The latest, which closely follows the plot of the second: Atlas Alone.
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