Book Reviews

Review: After Atlas (Planetfall), by Emma Newman

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After Atlas (Planetfall)

By: Emma Newman

Published: November 8, 2016

The Rundown: Forty years ago, a prophet left on the starship Atlas to find God, taking Carlos Moreno’s mother with her.  Carlos, now an indentured servant working for the Noropean Ministry of Justice, would rather not be reminded of his past.  Unfortunately, the cult leader who took him and his father in after Atlas, Alejandro Casales, has just been murdered.  Carlos must face his memories head on if he hopes to uncover the reason for Alejandro’s violent demise.

Don’t Get Strung Out by the Way I Look: The cover is an image of Carlos’s head and shoulders constructed from ones and zeros.  This stylized use of binary code is a reference to the near-ubiquitous use of technology in the novel.  The main problem I had with the cover was that it too heavily emphasized the science fiction elements of After Atlas.  In reality, this is a noir gumshoe novel set in a science fiction universe.  The only reason the cover looks the way it does is because the publishers wanted to visually connect it to the first book in the series, Planetfall.

The Good Guy: Carlos Moreno is a detective with a dark past and a miserable future.  After escaping from Alejandro’s cult as a teenager, he found himself kidnapped by slavers, mentally conditioned to be marketable, and sold to the highest bidder.  He is now working off his “debt” to his employer; however, given that he needs to take on more debt to purchase things such as housing and food, he will spend at least the next fifty years a slave.  Carlos is understandably bitter about his lot, and is constantly battling to keep his anger under control.  After all, any outburst could mean more conditioning, and thus a greater debt.

The Bad Guy: It’s difficult to talk about bad guys in a murder mystery, so let’s focus on a secondary antagonist: Stefan Gabor.  Stefan, a billionaire with a finger in every pie, thinks that he is above all legal and moral restrictions.  He has no qualms ruining people’s lives for the pettiest of reasons.  Stefan represents the glaring class inequality on futuristic Earth.  While the poor toil away, beset by debt and constant advertisements, the rich have a total carte blanche.

The Guy in the Good Guy’s Bed: Carlos, being essentially a slave, is not permitted to cohabitate or have children, and thus develops few close personal relationships.  That said, there is a man who catches his fancy, and it is strongly implied that they will get together after the events of the novel.  Unfortunately, their romance is given very little development in the story itself.

Organic Produce: So, anyone who’s read the first novel in this series, Planetfall, remembers that the first 95% of the book is grounded in reality (well, a science fictional version of reality), while the last 5% gets weird and mystical.  This book does something similar, but pulls it off much better.  Here, it’s mostly a noir mystery in a science fiction setting, while the ending is pure science fiction.  Since the sci-fi elements are there from the beginning, it doesn’t feel so weird when they come into play in the end.  Also, as in Planetfall, the end of this novel will tear your heart out.

Ten Years onto Your Debt: Because of his traumatic past, Carlos is hesitant about forming close personal attachments.  He has only one friend, an indentured servant named Dee, but he spends most of the novel too angry at her to speak with her.  While Carlos’s attitude makes sense, it also makes him feel flat as a character.  Sometimes, the reader has to be told about aspects of his personality.  For example, we learn from Stefan’s reading of Carlos’s psych eval that Carlos is a repressed homosexual.  Shouldn’t this information be revealed from his behavior toward the love interest?

Does it Represent…

Women: This novel has a large number of female supporting characters: Dee, his boss, Alejandro’s lover, the mortician, etc.  However, with the possible exception of the boss, Roberta Milsom, they all play an ancillary role.  Then again, a central theme of the novel is personal agency.  In real life, the people who take away other people’s freedom are almost always men.  I suppose it makes sense that the oppressors (except Milsom) are all guys.  It makes you wonder, though: why didn’t Newman make Carlos and/or Travis female?

People of Color: Goodness, yes!  Carlos, the main character, and Alejandro, the murdered cult leader, are both Hispanic.  The story mentions a couple of times just how dangerous the future version of the United States has become for “nonpersons” of color.  This is a nod to how hostile the real US is to undocumented immigrants, particularly those from Latin America.  Furthermore, there’s the fact that Carlos is essentially a slave, and can be bought and sold by those in power in his world.  In addition to Carlos and Alejandro, there are a few minor characters of color: for example, Milsom and Nadia Patel, the owner of the hotel in which the murder takes place.

LGBT People: One of the antagonists, Stefan Gabor, has a trophy husband named Travis.  Stefan is a disgusting, domineering man, and Travis is desperate to escape him.  This is a relationship that could easily have been written as heterosexual, but was not.  I liked that the story acknowledged that queer relationships can be just as toxic as straight ones.  While the story doesn’t delve into Carlos’s sexuality, it is strongly implied that he is gay as well.  There’s also a journalist named Naal Delaney who is agender.  You don’t see nonbinary characters that often in fiction, and it was nice to see one that was accepted without question by the world around them.

The Disabled: It’s not explicitly stated, but Carlos is almost certainly suffering from PTSD.  From the very beginning of the novel, it is shown that Carlos won’t eat printed food.  He claims that this is because it doesn’t taste as good, but when the actual reason is revealed, it is heartbreaking.

Memorable Quote: “It was the constant cognitive dissonance of being so desperate to get out yet too scared to leave.  Of being so afraid to fail yet wishing I did so it would all stop.  Of being told I was lucky when I was being abused.  Of hearing I was a valuable asset when I was being treated like a fucking object.”

Recommended for: People who want to use dystopian fiction to escape from an increasingly dystopian reality.

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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