I very nearly want to call After Atlas a sequel to Emma Newman’s well-received Planetfall. But that would stretch semantic logic to breaking point: although After Atlas takes place in the same universe as Planetfall and is in part enriched for the reader who knows some of Planetfall’s details, it not only takes place on an entirely different planet and features an entirely different cast, but in absolute chronological terms, its events precede that of Planetfall’s. Moreover, its events don’t affect Planetfall’s, either. (Although one is given to suspect there will be a third novel that relies on the events of both of these.)
Earth, forty years after Atlas and its religious-visionary leader left to seek their truths in a different solar system. Carlos Moreno was an infant when Atlas left, left behind by his mother. His father didn’t do such a great job of raising him, and he ended up in a religious cult called the Circle run by a man called Alejandro Casales. For a while, at least — before he ended up indentured to one of the corporate governments that run the planet for most of the rest of his natural life. Now Carlos is an investigator, a really good one, but his life is a tightrope walk between adding more debt on to his indenture and the small pleasures that make life more than merely survivable.
Then Alejandro Casales dies. Thanks to complicated politics, Carlos is the only acceptable person to investigate the mystery of his death. There’s more to Casales’ apparent murder than meets the eye — and more to the Circle, some quarter-century on from when Carlos left it, than meets the eye as well. The world’s been hiding more than one secret about Atlas since its departure, and Carlos, more or less by accident, ends up investigating his way right into the middle of it.
After Atlas is a peculiar sort of book. Were it not for the constant background presence of the departed Atlas, and the knowledge — at least for the readers who’ve read Planetfall — of some of its significance, it’d be easy to classify After Atlas as a dystopian noir murder mystery. It has, after all, many of the hallmarks: the made-cynical-by-life-and-circumstances investigator, the dissolution of national governments into the capitalist nightmare of people as property and money buying the law without recourse, the faintly Sherlock Holmesian setting of a fancy old-fashioned rural hotel.
But that knowledge exists, and comes into play at the very end of After Atlas. There, at the end, the novel itself jumps genres in a way only previously signalled by the reader’s knowledge of things that exist outside this particular narrative. Much like Planetfall itself, in fact, it’s a very good novel that throws the reader for a complete loop in the conclusion — although compared to Planetfall, the loop in After Atlas is a lot less completely weird.
Newman’s writing is both fluid and straightforward. The choice to tell the story from Carlos’s point of view, in the first person present tense, imparts a heightened sense of immediacy to the narrative: is and am bring an almost cinematic tension to proceedings. Carlos himself is a striking character. His backstory makes him odd, almost unique, and his voice is strong.
But the narrative suffers from the fact that Carlos is a character in isolation, at least in emotional terms. He interacts with other people — and he’s good at connecting with them, manipulating them, investigating them — but he has no close personal bonds with anyone. None, at any rate, that we see on screen: he’s estranged from his father, he’s estranged from his upbringing, he’s an indentured servant instead of an employee and thus estranged from people who might otherwise be his peers, and he spends much of After Atlas also estranged from the one person who could really be said to be his friend.
This lack of relationships with any real emotional weight (something not infrequent in mystery noir) reduces Carlos’s depth as a character, and thus reduces the emotional weight of the narrative as a whole. I find Carlos interesting, much as I find the murder-puzzle he’s been set to investigate interesting. But it’s hard to find much to really care about in a puzzle alone. Once the puzzle is solved, after all, what’s left?
After Atlas is an interesting novel, and an entertaining one. But for me, it never becomes more than the sum of its parts. And some of those parts are a little insubstantial.