NOTE: This essay discusses the entire novel with no regard for spoilers.
Readers, can we agree that the idea of teleological evolution doesn’t hold water scientifically? That’s fine. In the world of Planetfall, though, when the narrator speculates, “Could it be that our existence was somehow engineered and the same process carried out across multiple solar systems in the galaxy? Could it be that God scattered our building blocks, then called us back when we were ready?” she is nothing but right.
This is one hell of a frustrating novel. On the one hand, it’s nicely written and the main character, Renata (Ren) Ghali, is appealing (in my opinion, that is; many other readers have been put off by her); her anguished search for a way through her personal and social troubles keeps up steady suspense. On the other hand, the entire plot rests on multiple instances of immense stupidity by many people, and ultimately goes nowhere at all; if there’s a God pulling the strings of this plot, they’re just as stupid as the characters.
Ren’s beloved, Lee Suh-Mi, came across an unknown plant that compelled her to eat its seed, whereupon she was granted a vision of the location of another planet and how to get there. She planned an expedition (leaving a planet Earth ravaged by misgovernment and environmental collapse) and gathered over one thousand people to go along, people from all backgrounds and religions who paid their passage with either money or expertise. Her head of personnel, so to speak, was the “Ringmaster” Mack, a man with a genius for advertising; he chose most of the expedition members.
This group includes biochemists and geneticists. And yet, we don’t hear of any of them expressing surprise when the new planet proves to be populated with organisms that use the same DNA coding as on Earth (an impossibility if life originated separately there), and many of which strongly resemble earth life, down to “grasses” and “mammals”.
Shortly after arrival (Planetfall), the disaster strikes which, unrevealed at the start of the novel, will be gradually made clear: Suh-Mi leads an exploration group, including Ren, Mack, and Suh-Mi’s son Hak-Kun, through the innards of an immense organism they dub “God’s City”, since her visions tell her God will be found at the top of it. Here, as throughout the story, she is being treated as a charismatic leader rather than an organizer: she has taken along those members of the expedition who are closest to her rather than ones with relevant expertise. They wear protective gear since the inside of God’s City is full of biologically active exudates and microorganisms. They find signs of technology on their journey, and writings in no earthly language. At the top, Suh-Mi passes into a hidden room, then runs out of it saying that they’re too late and God is already dead, tears off her mask, and dies choking on the environmental toxins.
What to do? Mack, singlehandedly, makes the decision that Suh-Mi’s death (and what she said) must be concealed from the rest of the expedition, coercing Ren into backing him up and attempting to kill the others who know about it by marooning them far from the encampment. This is the point at which the plot becomes even more unbelievable than it has been so far. Mack manages to convince all thousand expedition members that Suh-Mi has remained in God’s City communing with the Creator, and plants a “message” from her each year... for twenty-two years. During all this time, the colonists sit around in their encampment at the foot of God’s City, building houses, enriching their comfortable lives (enabled by molecular printers), and thinking of their missing leader with round-eyed awe. They exhibit remarkably little curiosity: not doing much to investigate the peculiarities of their setting, not exploring the rest of the planet, and never, ever questioning Mack’s story. I can only explain this by supposing that when Mack chose expedition members, he specifically chose people who were gullible, incurious, and lacking all skepticism. (This is supported by noting that one of his few critics, whom he had to eliminate, was Hak-Kun who was not one of his choices.) This may be a good make-up for the members of a religious cult, but it is not at all suitable for a planetary colony, as the events of the novel will show. If he chose people who would go along on the expedition out of awed reverence and not out of curiosity or hope of gain (seriously, how many people wouldn’t be wild to see a new planet?) that explains why he felt he had to conceal from them the collapse of the rationale. I see no reason why he would make that choice except intending to keep them under his personal thrall. And I find it hard to believe that he succeeded with all thousand of them, no matter what a brilliant manipulator he is stated to be.
Twenty-two years later, a young man, Sung-Soo, turns up claiming to be Hak-Kun’s son and the sole survivor of the marooned expedition members. He is immediately accepted into the encampment although, to me, he seemed fishier than last week’s cod, telling inconsistent stories about his life, poking into every corner of the encampment, and acting much more naive at some moments than others. Sure enough, to everyone’s surprise he turns out to be scouting for a group of other descendants of the marooned who will attack and make off with technology and prisoners to run it. Even Mack doesn’t see through him, perhaps because he is preoccupied with shoring up the shakiness of his own deception.
This outcome demonstrates the extreme fragility of the community the expedition created. First, Mack’s deception diverted them into a pattern of doing nothing except waiting for Suh-Mi. They have shared values of tolerance, responsibility, and nonaggression; yet the way they turn on Ren at the end of the story shows that they don’t always adhere to these values. They were chosen for lack of aggressive tendencies; but the next generation, struggling to survive in the wilderness, reverted to more warlike ways. They became too reliant on one person, Ren, for maintaining the molecular printers. It really didn’t take the attack to bring down the colony; they were failing quite well on their own.
During these events, Ren is going through a personal hell: the anxiety and OCD she has suffered from all her life are greatly worsened by the events, starting with her daughter’s death decades ago, that load her with grief and guilt. Keeping up her part in concealing Suh-Mi’s death is nearly too much for her. She is also desperate to not let anyone know how badly she is doing mentally; she thinks of it as not wanting them to pry into her life and judge her. Her fear that people would react badly proves to not be entirely unfounded, although perhaps the sudden revelation after concealment didn’t help with that; but it also clearly arises from distorted thinking. This, for me, was the most compelling aspect of the book: learning more about Ren’s life and personality, and following her struggles as she tries to keep up a functional facade. She is also intelligent and creative, and it is interesting to watch her do her engineering work. Her story is essentially parallel to the other events, although there may be thematic significance to the similarity between the museumlike areas of God’s City and Ren’s attachment to objects that evoke memories and emotions. Her narration conceals the events of Planetfall from the reader because she is very reluctant to think about them.
But ultimately, the novel is a huge trick, a joke. Nothing that Ren learns during her final passage through God’s City contradicts her supposition that human evolution was intended and the expedition was led to this location. She sees an image of the story of how this happened, the last survivor of a humanlike species “throwing something depicted as tiny dots upward... The sender created the city and then people came from lots of different places to enter it, all much smaller than the sender. A segment shows the tiny people inside stylized tunnels and pods, each one showing the person getting bigger until there’s one of the topmost pod with a symbol that has to be the sun above it. The sender is above the city now and the little people who have grown during their passage through the city are reaching up.” We can believe this, because if Ren’s interpretations are sometimes unreliable, her perceptions are not, and also it explains (sort of) the shared biology of the two planets. But... what are we to make of the purpose and value of the long, long elaborate series of contrivances that led Ren here, as the first but perhaps not last of her species to reach this point?
What we see of Earth shows humanity mired in inequality, exploitation, and conflict, neither very spiritual nor very moral. Technology has advanced (in spite of medical tech such as artificial eyes, there apparently still is no easy solution for mental illness), but nothing else. They now have the ability to get to “God’s” planet, but does ability equal worth? The sheeplike expedition members are not glorious representatives of their kind either. All of their failings and problems keep them from entering the City. Ren (no paragon) ultimately stumbles into God’s City without protective gear, unplanned, out of sheer desperation... the lack of gear turns out to be necessary for her transformation and preparation. Gosh, if only all those years ago, the message that told Suh-Mi exactly where to go had somehow managed to tell her not to wear an environment suit! Somehow the genius mind that foresaw human evolution, and placed a message in a plant specifically engineered for them, didn’t foresee that! Apparently, all that a human(oid) needs in order to join “God” is to somehow arrive at God’s City; they are then passively transformed by its bioengineering. I cannot see much connection to spiritual worth in that, for all that the iconography of upwards travel, growing larger, and rising to the sun is very spiritual. I am left very much wondering why “God” had to go through so many steps to get to that point, sending DNA away to other planets and waiting billions of years for something to become technologically capable (whatever its other qualities) of returning. And then chose a quite inefficient means of getting them into the City.
I wonder if Newman is actually mocking the idea of humans being cosmically intended in this novel. She develops the scenario and leaves it looking thoroughly ridiculous. It would be no wonder then that the believers come off seeming like fools even though they are basically right. Even if this is her sneaky intention, I still think the story is pretty much a failure because its plot depends at so many points on the improbably idiotic behavior of human characters.