Today is the last for 2016 Hugo Award nominations, and I need to get this review of Emma Newman’s Planetfall out there before the clock strikes midnight. This novel is particularly noteworthy in light of the troubled history of the Hugos over the last few years. I’ve watched this ongoing saga unfold with distress, while doing my best to stay out of the fray. At the risk of oversimplifying and misrepresenting both sides, my own take is that this is a battle between science fiction with an old fashioned “sense of wonder,” and “character driven” science fiction. I know that neither side characterizes the other so generously, but this is my own personal distillation of what is really going on in this dispute.
For my money, the very best science fiction has both a sense of wonder and first rate characterization. Very few novels actually fall into such a rare category. I believe Planetfall is one of them. Any reader who approaches this novel with an unbiased mind, and sticks with it all the way to the end, will most certainly find this to be true.
If there is anything one might criticize about this story, I can see many being annoyed by how long Newman takes to flesh out her POV character Ren and weave her into the larger story. I actually enjoyed that Newman did this and found myself rewarded later as this groundwork paid off in a character symbiotically linked to the story events. Ren wouldn’t be Ren without the story events, and the story could not unfold as it did without Ren. And Ren is a hot mess! Her problems are actually off-putting at times, and yet they draw you tighter into Ren.
Ren is such a well developed character that I found myself lulled into thinking that such strong characterization might mean a less than developed plot. Wrong! Every time I figured I had a handle on where things were going, Newman surprised me. And every surprise had an integral, organic feel that left me slapping my forehead for not anticipating it. As for “sense of wonder,” the last few pages left me tingling with the same type of awe I felt as a kid first discovering the genre.
This novel will definitely find itself as one of the “best novel” choices on my Hugo ballet. If, like me, you are torn and saddened by what has gone on with the Hugo’s, then give this novel a try. I believe it has everything anyone could want in a science fiction novel.