How is it the middle of December already? I could swear that the last time I looked around, it was only October. This whole business of time travel only taking us to the future is terribly infuriating: how am I ever supposed to catch up on my reading?
(It might not really be time travel, but damn does it feel like time sped up when I wasn’t looking.)
If I were a less cranky person, I might have thoroughly enjoyed Emma Newman’s Planetfall, instead of appreciating it as a well-written novel that did very little for me. Decades ago, a thousand people followed Lee Suh-Mi from Earth to a new planet, a planet whose co-ordinates came to her when she woke from a coma, a planet home to a mysterious structure that the colonists call “God’s city.” As far as most of the colonists are concerned, Suh has remained in “God’s city” since their arrival, communing with its maker, the force that called her there. Renata “Ren” Ghali is one of a very few who know the truth about Suh, and about the seeming accident that diverted—and apparently destroyed—several of the pods that were to have delivered the colonists to their new home. The colony’s outward stability is built on a tissue of lies, a tissue that comes unravelled over the course of a few short days.
The colony’s outward stability and inner fragility is mirrored by Ren’s. An extremely talented 3D printer engineer whose skills help smooth the colony’s relatively high and self-sufficient standard of living, Ren is also a woman suffering from anxiety and a pathological need to hoard things. She cannot let go. As a compelling and sympathetic study of a character with mental illness in a community built on falsehood, Planetfall is an excellent work. As a narrative, its conclusion is strangely unsatisfying: in order for that ending to work—I’m going light on spoilers, since I’m not inclined to write an academic paper—it would need to evoke a kind of religious awe and transcendence that it reaches for too late, and thus fails to attain. The novel fails to lay the emotional and thematic groundwork for its conclusion, and so I’m left with the faint, dissatisfied feeling of And what was the point, again?
The point of Francesca Haig’s debut, The Fire Sermon, is a little easier to grasp. In a world where only twins are born, one whole and one deformed, and where the death of one twin kills the other, a strict social hierarchy separates “Omega” twins from their “Alpha” betters. The Omegas, seen as tainted, live apart. The Alphas can’t kill them off without killing themselves. But Cass, an Omega and a seer, discovers a plan to take away what freedom the Omegas do possess by putting them in suspended animation—and, in running away from that fate for herself, falls in with a resistance movement fighting for better lives for Omegas.
The Fire Sermon (and the title’s quite a clever piece of literary reference) is a fairly straightforward post-apocalyptic-event dystopia with fantasy overtones. I can’t make the details of the worldbuilding make sense, and it’s not particularly deep, but it’s a fun ride.
Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti is a fraction the length of The Fire Sermon, but it’s nothing but depth. It’s a novella about bridging divides, communicating between worlds, about moving between cultures; and the permanent, unexpected and unavoidable changes and costs to oneself that come as a consequence of doing so. It’s really good. I enjoyed it more than I expected to.
“And The Balance In The Blood” by Elizabeth Bear in Uncanny Magazine surprised me with its understated depth. The precision and quality of the prose did not surprise me—Bear is to be relied on for such things—but I didn’t expect a story about an elderly cleric and her innovation in automated prayer (so she can get more research on her monograph done in her old age) to culminate in such a note of power and grace. “And The Balance In The Blood” has both a gentle tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and the ability to drive its climax home with an elegant ruthlessness. You should all read it. You really should.