The basic premise of Planetfall is that Renata Ghali and a group of fellow scientist and explorers have left Earth and set up a colony on a distant planet, but something happened in the process of getting there and getting set up. There are some mysterious goings on that Ren has complicated feelings about and doesn’t quite understand, especially when it comes to their leader and her former roommate/love interest Lee Suh-Mi. Everything starts to unravel when Suh-Mi’s supposed grandson appears out of nowhere, and Ren has to face the consequences of hiding a lot more than she wants to admit.
Most of the reviews and references I’ve seen for Planetfall have been raves. I should have known better since I rarely have good luck with books like that, but in my defense I loved the Split World series by the same author so I had hope. It turns out Planetfall is too much psychology and not enough action or interaction for my taste. When you’ve got a first person potentially unreliable narrator, you need other characters or situations to hold her up against; otherwise she ends up sounding overly emotional and self-centered. It’s especially irritating when the narrator is first person (not my favorite) and clearly knows more than she will tell or admit. The way around this is creative and adds some interesting pathos (it turns out Ren may have some sort of mental or emotional illness) but there’s more time spent on this than I’d like. It gets old after a while when you hear the same problems and justifications repeated over and over, and when it’s done in a narrative style I don’t especially like, it just doesn’t work so well for me as a method for storytelling. It’s an interesting way to build character and the world, but it’s too slow in terms of plot and the unravelling of what’s really going on. If Ren had been able to interact more with the people and world around her, I would have gotten a little more info about her surroundings and maybe even liked or understood her a little better.
Then there’s the fuzziness surrounding the ending. I’m not entirely sure what happened, although I admit that’s probably the point since the narrator herself doesn’t seem to quite get what’s going on. But if all has finally been revealed, it would be more meaningful if I had some sense of what had actually happened. There’s something transcendent going on, but if there’s virtually no context, then there’s little actual meaning for the reader. I really don’t care if Ren has suddenly realized all the answers unless she shares. Her sudden understanding is meaningless without even just a hint for me to at least try and understand what’s going on.
There are a lot of great possibilities here with Ren as a narrator who has mental and emotional struggles but never manages to admit much about them, making her a unique type of unreliable narrator. The premise of a group of human scientists setting up a colony on a distant planet and how society is managed and created in a place where there are a lot of unanswered questions could also be really intriguing as a premise. The external conflict (not the ones in Ren’s head) is also promising but it never gets developed once Sung-Soo’s actual intentions become known, not even in part. I’m ok with an open-ended conclusion on that level, but there’s so little development or explanation for what happens that again there’s very little meaning to the events and characters.