It’s been a few months since I read Planetfall and I still have mixed feelings about the book. I want to love it, in fact I love parts of it, and my feelings about the story itself are still quite jumbled around…
Planetfall is set on an off-world colony, settled by people on a religious pilgrimage, and narrated by Renata Ghali. The story starts when a stranger arrives at the colony and there are hints of secrets and lies that date back to the founding of the colony.
The story moves both forwards and backwards as it’s told through Ren’s eyes and her memories. We get quite a bit of background for Ren, and why she made the trip, to follow her lover, whom she was almost addicted to. As we progress through Ren’s memories we see that Suh-Mi was the person behind the mission and was revered by many as a prophet. Ren makes this distinction in her memories; there is Suh-Mi, the person, and The Pathfinder, the prophet.
Ren is the engineer in charge of the massive 3D printers that manufacture everything needed by the colony. We get a good amount of detail about the work Ren did on earth, developing printers that could reproduce organs, so we know she’s not just an ordinary engineer. It’s hinted that many of the colonists were at the apex of their profession.
Not much is revealed about the colony aside from the fact that it is built outside a massive building-tree that the colonists call ‘The City of God’. The Pathfinder lives in the city, communing with God, but no one else enters. Once per year she sends a message in the form of a seed that grants visions to the person who ingests it. We get shown very few of these details because Ren is focused on other things.
Which highlights the issue I have with Ren. She has no small number of problems, and her coping mechanism was to withdraw, resulting in a very narrow vision of the colony. Like trying to watch a movie through a cardboard tube, we only see a fraction of the picture, even though there are hints that we’re missing some very important stuff.
So I made my way through the book waiting for the picture to expand, confident that many of the questions (and they are good questions) hinted at about the formation of the colony would be answered. Tension builds and more hints are dropped, we get some answers to the big secret, then some shit goes down and the story is finished. But we’re still looking through that cardboard tube throughout the end of the story. Ren, and therefore the poor readers, are completely blindsided and it is all over just like that.
I get that some questions cannot be answered, when dealing with something completely alien we can only describe it in terms of our experience and assumptions, but it’s the human side I would’ve liked to know more about. We get a lot of detail about one, very isolated person, but for everything else it is like looking through frosted glass. Planetfall is ambitious, deliberate, and all makes sense. However upon reaching the end of the book I realised that the story Ren is telling was not the one I wanted to hear.