‘Atlas Alone’ is the fourth novel set in Emma Newman’s ‘Planetfall’ universe, all of which I have enjoyed and found to be engaging and emotionally charged, with wonderfully complex characters and an intriguing background. Each of the first three novels stands alone and could be read in any order, but this book follows on directly from ‘After Atlas’ and really needs to be read in the right order and probably why Amazon calls it book 2.
The setting is a colony ship of ten thousand passengers who are following in the wake of the original Atlas ship that headed off decades earlier on a pseudo-religious colonisation mission and has not been heard from since. Detective Carl and his best and only friend, gamer Dee, are on board due to a convoluted set of circumstances from the previous novel and find themselves among religious zealots and genocidal leaders.
Each of the three previous novels had a different setting and a different set of characters that were immediately fascinating and led to some subtle yet detailed world-building. This book had a different feel to it to start with, entering the story as it does with familiar characters and a previously-introduced set of circumstances.
It’s a few months into the voyage and Dee, who is the main focus of this book, still feels isolated and unsure of how she fits in with the segregated passengers on the ship. She’s an emotionally isolated, self-reliant person, unwilling to trust anyone, even the two people she knows from before the trip began. When she is contacted by a woman named Carolina and invited to do some data analysis and game design, it opens up a whole new window into the social structure of the ship and the unknown crew. When she is also contacted by an enigmatic hacker with unfeasibly good skills, it makes Dee’s life far more complex.
When a death among the crew mirrors the death of a character Dee killed in a virtual reality game or mersiv, as they’re known, things start to get really worrying. Especially as the death is then investigated by her friend, Carl, the frighteningly efficient detective who featured in ‘After Atlas’.
The set-up of the ship, its mission and the complexities of Dee’s life make for a fascinating and enjoyable read, but the thing that made this much less intense and gripping than the previous three books was that much of Dee’s action takes place in mersivs. What this means, especially when the mersivs are virtually indistinguishable from real life and, indeed, some of them are based on recordings made by Dee’s own implants, is that you start to wonder what, if anything, is real and how much of it actually matters or has any consequence.
Part of the plot of this book is, as mentioned, that Dee’s in-game actions seem to be spilling into the real world, but I found myself losing the immediate connection with Dee’s character. This was a skill demonstrated powerfully by Emma Newman in her previous books in her ability to create such realistic, powerfully complex characters that absolutely hooked you to their tale. Although Dee has a lot of backstory and a complex personality, I just did not connect as much with this tale.
As part of the ongoing ‘Planetfall’ universe it was still intriguing. Indeed, the ship is heading towards the colony featured in ‘Planetfall’, so I’m hoping some of the characters from that book will still be around when they arrive in the next novel in the series that I’m really hoping Emma Newman will be writing.
Gareth D Jones
(pub: Gollancz, 2019. 320 page paperback. Price: £14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-47322-392-9)