Series: Planetfall (#4)
Publication Date: 18/04/19
Earth is gone, destroyed in a nuclear apocalypse. But on the ship carrying the last survivors of humanity, not all grudges died with the past . . .
Emma Newman’s Planetfall quartet (though I strongly suspect there are more books to come. there’s certainly enough dangling plot threads for them) falls some way outside my usual reading. There’s no space battles, very few explosions and no interstellar empires. What it does have, is some of the most well-realised characters in SF. While I’m generally drawn more to plot than to characters, there can be little doubt that Newman has a phenomenal grip on the emotional and mental state of her characters.
While all of the Planetfall novels work as standalones, Atlas Alone is a fairly direct sequel to After Atlas, the second book. One of the secondary character from that, Dee, is our protagonist this time around. Dee is an interesting character. Almost emotionless, she has very little in the way of social skills or indeed emotional connections. As someone who rarely empathises with people myself, perhaps this is why I find her so interesting. I believe Dee is also asexual and possibly aromantic, though I won’t claim to understand all of the terms involved there. I personally am not that concerned with diversity in SF, but Newman knocks it out of the park with her representations of minorities. There are characters of all ethnicities, gender alignments and sexual preferences. Most impressively of all, the diversity never feels forced, only natural.
Dee occupies her time on what is likely to be a multi-decade journey to humanity’s new home by playing video games. Mersives, in Planetfall jargon. Hyper-realistic simulations that can let you live any life you want. So when a mysterious stranger offers her free access to cutting-edge technology, and Dee receives an offer of being a beta-tester, the story really gets going. Especially when actions Dee makes in the game appear to have a direct impact on the real world of the ship. The technology on display is always plausible, if never explained in any great detail. But detail isn’t really needed here, because that’s not the focus here.
Atlas Alone concerns itself with a simple question, with only complicated answers. If you found out who was responsible for the deaths of billions, what would you do with that information? Would you let the past lie, or would you seek justice? It’s this moral quandary that Dee finds herself in, soon uncovering a conspiracy that could threaten the remainder of the human race.
At its heart, Atlas Alone is an angry novel. The characters are angry at watching their world die, and being powerless to do anything about it. Newman herself seems angry about a world that makes her bleak future look increasingly plausible. This is a book firmly rooted in present-day politics and concerns. At times too much so, with one scene being a flashback to only a few years in our future, and the problems being the same as those faced almost a century from now. But this concern with modern life never gets in the way of telling a good story.
This is the best Planetfall novel yet, and though no more have been confirmed, I hope the series can continue its current upward trajectory.