Emma Newman’s novel Planetfall is getting a ton of buzz, with people comparing it to Ursula K. Le Guin. And now you can see for yourself why, with our exclusive excerpt.
In Planetfall, Renata “Ren” Ghali lives on an alien planet, in a seemingly perfect colony, underneath the mysterious structure called God’s City. But long-buried secrets start to come to light when a young man, who appears to be the grandson of the colony’s founder, appears out of the blue. But he’s not entirely what he appears.
Here’s an excerpt from chapter two, where Ren and the colony’s leader, Mack, find the young man approaching the colony:
I haven’t gone out of this gate for a long time. There’s nothing on this side of the colony that interests me and the sensor net maintains itself. There are animals that range nearby sometimes, but they tend not to come any closer than the edge of the zone monitored by the long-range sensors. I agree with Kay’s theory that God’s city emits something that keeps them away, but she’s still looking into it all these years later. Like all of us, she gets distracted by other experiments. It’s low priority.
“What do we say to him?” Mack asks and drags my focus back to the young man.
“I was going to start with hello and then see how it goes,” I reply. I’m trying to sound light and relaxed because I don’t want to push the magma chamber of unspoken shit into an eruption. I’m barely handling it as it is.
“He must have been born after Planetfall,” he says, his pace fast but steady. “He doesn’t look old enough to have been born on the ship and there weren’t any babies in their pods.”
“Small mercies,” I whisper and thankfully he doesn’t hear. When I glance at him to check whether he’s looking pissed off at me, I see the sweat on his forehead and how white his lips are against the black of his beard. “Are you sure he’s alone?”
He looks at me like I’m an idiot. “I checked that.”
“But you didn’t see him coming.”
“I haven’t checked on them for a long time. I thought . . .”
He doesn’t finish the sentence, but the unspoken half lingers between us. We thought they were dead. We thought we had killed them.
The urge to turn around and go home and tell everyone to fuck off until it’s all over bears down on me. I can feel guilt and fear and ten thousand questions I’ve asked myself since Planetfall rising up with the contents of my stomach and I want all of it to stay deep down where it should be.
“We stick to the story,” he says with the firm edge in his voice that means he’s made up his mind and it’s not up for discussion.
“But he’ll know what really happened.”
“Stick to the story,” Mack says again and I don’t have anything else to say. There are too many unknown variables to make any useful predictions and I try not to speculate these days. “Let me do the talking,” he adds.
As if I wouldn’t do that anyway. He’s the Ringmaster. He knows what to say to the crowd and to the latecomer without a ticket. I just maintain the rigging and make sure the tent doesn’t collapse on us all.
The sky is now the same deep blue as that of a Mediterranean summer and when I look straight up and see a couple of clouds I can almost believe I’m on Earth again, like my brain cannot help but return to its default setting. Ahead of us the highest mountain nearby, dubbed Diamond Peak by the more romantic members of the colony, will soon be tipped by the sun rising over that exact point. They have a silhouette reminiscent of the Alps. It’s only when I look at the details here—the way the seeds are shaped on the grasses we’re walking through, the slight sparkle of the silicates in the soil beneath our feet that give it a magical quality and the hard shells of unfamiliar creatures tucked between the stalks—that I remember we’re so far from home.
The stranger has sunk to his knees, the exhaustion setting in now that he knows we’re coming to him. As we pick up the pace, he falls forward onto his hands, his black hair hanging straight. I can see his pack now. It’s a basic design from the survival pattern folder on the local server of each of the Planetfall pods. It has a built-in water filtration mechanism and a more primitive version of the porous fabric we use on houses in the colony, designed to absorb water and push it, via an osmotic mechanism, to the internal filter. He’s probably been living off dew and rainwater for the whole journey—and his own urine, if he had any sense in the dry spells. I have no idea what he would have done for food; there are gels designed to produce fast-growing fungi but not enough packs to sustain such a trip.
He’s thin and his clothes are worn and patched in several places. We knew their printers would fail, and without access to the cloud they had no way to run complex diagnostics. None of the people in that group were printer specialists and so unlikely to have any specs or spare-part patterns on their personal servers. The clothes he’s wearing are basic survival patterns designed to be durable and breathable with a sensor net built into them designed to help the body’s homeostatic system in adverse conditions. The built-in transmitter must have failed; otherwise it would have pinged our network when he was five kilometers away.
Mack and I break into a run when he collapses, disappearing in the tall reed-thin plants. While we run, I check the network to see who’s awake and whether there’s any talk of Mack and me leaving the gate, but no one seems to have noticed. The sun is rising and in a couple of hours the air will be teeming with insects. I don’t have any protective clothing nor repellents on me and I wonder how this man survived without them.
I half expect him to be dead by the time we get to him, but the pack is rising up and down and his head is turned to the side. I think of the parasites and organisms in the dirt only millimeters from his mouth and nose and the millions of microscopic assailants he can’t possibly be protected against.
“We’re here,” Mack says as we stop and kneel down on either side of him. “You’re going to be all right.”
“Hi,” the young man says with a slight American accent as he struggles onto his hands and knees to tip back and rest with his backside on his heels. He sweeps his hair off his face and both Mack and I gawk at him.
He looks like Suh. He looks like the Pathfinder.
I can see her in his eyes, his lips, the shape of his chin and cheekbones. The genetic signature of her Korean heritage is written across him and I want to laugh and cry and kiss him a million times and hide my face with shame. He is an echo of her beauty. He smiles at me uncertainly and I see her again that day at the observatory, holding the piece of paper in her hands.
“Holy crap,” she said and held it out to me. “It’s real. It’s a real thing. It’s . . . it’s a real place.”
I took it and scanned the numbers, but astronomy wasn’t in my repertoire. Then I noticed a string of numbers that were more than familiar—just the sight of them made me feel nauseous. They were the first things she wrote when she woke from her coma, before she even spoke or asked where she was or why she was in the hospital.
“It’s a place, Ren. There’s a planet in the exact location the numbers describe.” She laughed, the first time she’d laughed since the day she wrote them down. “Isn’t it wonderful? We know what it means now!”
I shook my head. “No, I don’t think we do.”
All these years later, this stranger has tears in his eyes too. “I knew it wasn’t true,” he says. “I knew it was real and I knew you wouldn’t kill me.”
Mack is speechless for the first time in the forty-odd years I’ve known him.
“Of course we’re not going to kill you,” I say.
“My name is Lee Sung-Soo.” He grasps my hand tightly and I can’t help but squeeze back. “My grandmother was the Pathfinder.”
I want to take a moment to let it sink in, but Mack is obviously struggling and I need to make this boy think everything’s all right. “I’m Ren—Renata Ghali—and this is Cillian Mackenzie, but we all call him Mack.”
He smiles at me—I want him to never stop and I want to never see it again, all at once—and then he looks at Mack, who musters one of his warmest smiles as he shakes Sung-Soo by the hand.
“How did you find us?” Mack asks.
“The planet’s topography was on one of the pod servers,” he replies. “I pieced together some of the things my parents said and worked it out.”
“What did they say?” Mack is trying not to look terrified. I’ve known him too long to be fooled though. That clench in his jaw says it all.
“About the mountain and the plain below it, the things the Pathfinder saw before we got here.” His gaze shifts to focus behind us. “That’s it, isn’t it? That’s God’s city.”
I nod. “Not the bit at the bottom—that’s the colony—but the rest is.”
“It’s . . . amazing,” he says and then laughs. “That sounds so stupid. They said it was all a lie, but here I am looking at it!”
“Where are the rest of the people who . . .” Mack doesn’t know how to describe them.
Sung-Soo’s eyes lose their joy. “They died. I’m the only one left.”
Mack takes the pack from his shoulders and puts it on his own back; then we both take an arm, wrap it over our shoulders and hoist him up between us. There’s barely any weight to him at all.
We head back toward the colony, and I can’t help but look up at God’s city, just like Sung-Soo does but with less wonder. I’m used to it now, but it still draws my eyes up.
It stretches above the colony like a huge forest of ancient baobab trees tangled around one another, forming an organic citadel. The outer membranes of the structure are black, to absorb the most sunlight, and at this time in the morning the nodules at the top of the structure are spherical.
“It changes with the weather,” I tell him as he walks between us. “When it gets hot, the nodules in the upper levels grow tendrils and look a bit like dendritic cells. It increases the surface area to—”
“To manage the heat,” he says, nodding. “My father taught me some of my grandma’s knowledge.”
Mack’s silence feels like a fourth person stalking us through the grasses.
“We’ll take you to Mack’s place,” I say. “To check you over and let you rest.”
“Thank you. Can I stay? There’s nothing to go back to. There was a storm . . .”
I glance at Mack. He’s staring up at the top of the city and doesn’t notice. I know where his mind is. I don’t want to go there. “Of course you can, right, Mack?”
He snaps his head to look at me. “What?”
“Sung-Soo can stay, can’t he?”
“I don’t have any objections,” he says diplomatically. “But you must understand, we have to speak to the rest of the colony and give them the chance to ask questions and voice any concerns.”
Sung-Soo nods. “Very fair. I can hunt and I can carve well and I’m strong, when I’m rested.”
Hunting and carving? Such primitive words. I slip my hand down to hold his and feel for calluses. When I find them, I’m relieved, but why? Did I think he was lying? What else could they have done to survive?
“It’s going to be fine,” I say, and Sung-Soo smiles as if I meant the words for him.