Thursday, April 20, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Before Mars (Planetfall, #3) by Emma Newman

Before Mars is the third book in Emma Newman’s loosely related Planetfall series. Curiously, I still have not read the titular first book in the series, Planetfall. There are a  number of reasons for that, but the primary one is that despite having the most number of ratings (11,056) and reviews (1,654) on Goodreads of any of the books in the series, Planetfall also has the lowest average rating, 3.72, which is slightly lower than the 3.75 threshold that I typically use for deciding on whether to start reading a new book. With that said, since I have now read the other books in the series, curiosity will almost certainly lead me to conclude the series by reading the work that was written and published first.


Regarding reading order, the author herself says that the Planetfall books can be read in any order. I'm actually not sure I agree with this view that it would lead to the optimal enjoyment of the series. The events of Book 3, Before Mars, and Book 4, Atlas Alone, clearly happen after most of the events of Book 2, After Atlas, and the events of Book 3 and Book 4 overlap somewhat so that these two can be read in any order. Clearly, the events of Book 1, Planetfall, happen before the other three books, but since its primary event (the Pathfinder project leaves Earth on the Atlas spaceship on an interstellar journey to “find God” out among the stars) is referred to in each of the subsequent books in the series, this means that Book 1 can be read at any time. Books 2 and 4 are the ones where there's a definite causal relationship that precludes reading them in a different order. I know this is a bit long, but I think I have talked myself into recommending this reading order: 1, 2, 4, 3. (This is roughly the temporal order in which the events depicted in each book occur.) I also think that books 3 and 4 can be read in any order but must come after book 2. After I read Book 1 I will discuss whether it would be best read before or after the other 3. My reading order will have been 2,4,3,1.


This review is about book 3, Before Mars, which I think is the most effective of the four books. The story in Before Mars is told from the perspective of Anna Cubrin, a geologist and painter. Cubrin is the latest addition to a small group of specialists at a Mars base named Principia that is exclusively run and operated by people loyal to Stefan Gabor, a multi-billionaire who I'm pretty sure is one of the rare characters who has a speaking role in all four books.


Cubrin is the prototypical unreliable narrator; we discover that her father experienced some kind of mental collapse that led to a near-fatal attack on his wife/Anna’s mother and his subsequent incarceration. As soon as Cubrin arrives at Principia, strange things start to happen which causes her to question her grip on reality and it is during this period that her father’s mental problems are revealed to the reader, as well as Cubrin's fervent wish that the mental collapse that happened to him will not happen to her too. By centering Cubrin’s mental state so early, the author makes it clear that Before Mars will be more of a psychological thriller than its preceding books. The reader also begins to question whether how well Cubrin’s perception of events jibes with reality, which is what the character also does.

The vast majority of the content of Before Mars either takes place in Cubrin’s head or is communicated to the reader in her voice. Oftentimes, this literary device would be unappealing to me but the circumstances here are so unusual and the character is so unlike others that I have spent time with in the first-person in a science fiction story that this time it kept me engrossed in the book.

As the plot proceeds the reader gets more and more examples of things that are not what they seem at Principia, and we also learn more about the other members of the Principia team. We also learn more about Cubrin’s relationship with her husband and infant daughter that she left on Earth and spent 9 months traveling to the red planet to be on Gabor’s payroll to produce paintings of Mars that he intends to send exclusively to private collectors. When events come to a head towards the end of the book (reflecting the effects of events that happened at the end of Book 2), the emotional impact on the reader is immense.

Overall, I think Before Mars is the best of the three Planetfall books I have read so far because while it still contains the technological advances of the other books (machine-neural interfaces that allow artificial intelligence to directly monitor bodily functions and mental well-being; augmented virtual reality called “immersives”; and interplanetary space travel) it has a more compelling (if less likable) central character in Anna Cubrin than Book 2's Carlos Moreno and does a better job of being a psychological thriller than Book 2 did in being a police procedural murder mystery. However, I definitely am curious to see what genre categories Book 1 (Planetfall) straddles and to find out how well it is done.

Title: Before Mars (Planetfall, #3).
Emma Newman.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 352 pages.
Publisher: Ace Books.
Date Published: April 17, 2018.
Date Read: April 13, 2023.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).

Thursday, April 13, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Atlas Alone (Planetfall, #4) by Emma Newman

Atlas Alone is the fourth book in the Planetfall series written by Emma Newman. This unusual speculative fiction series is set in a near future where humanity has launched colony ships to the stars and technological advances have transformed human society in many ways, not all for the good. The series of books in the Planetfall universe are Planetfall (2015), After Atlas (2016), Before Mars (2018), and Atlas Alone (2019). Interestingly, the author says that the books can be read in any order, because the stories in each are only loosely linked to each other, although events do occur in line with the publication order. 

I chose to read After Atlas first because it is a police procedural set in an advanced technological future. One of my favorite thigs is reading genre mashups, and murder-mystery combined with science fiction technothriller is right up my alley. (See my A review of After Atlas.) 

The story in Atlas Alone takes place after the events of After Atlas but while many of the characters are in both books, their prominence changes. In After Atlas the protagonist and source of most of the first-person perspectives was Carlos Moreno, who is a detective working for the "gov-corp" (government-corporation) of  Norope (i.e. Northern Europe). Moreno is tasked with finding out who was responsible for the death of Alejandro Casales, the founder of The Circle, a religious cult formed after the departure of the Pathfinder mission to "find God" in orbit around a distant star (these events are depicted in Planetfall). Carlos' best friend is Dee, a fellow immersive gamer who understands and appreciates his personality quirks.

However in Atlas Alone, Dee is the main character. She, Carlos and Travis (another legacy character from After Atlas) are on Atlas 2, are on a spaceship headed towards the same star that the Pathfinder mission sailed to in the first Atlas when people start dying on the ship, apparently while connected to augmented reality gear. Dee has recently been given access to an advanced AR system on the ship so she can participate in an ongoing virtual reality competition with some of the most important people on the ship. As Dee does so she begins to find out more of the secrets behind the ship with the help of a mysterious person who doesn't appear on the manifest and seems to also have unfettered access to the ship's systems. The story comes to a surprising (and somewhat violent) end which resolves most of the questions raised in Atlas Alone but does lead to more questions about the future of the Atlas 2 mission, hopefully to be addressed in future books in the Planetfall series.

Overall, I didn't enjoy Atlas Alone as much as I had After Atlas. The first reason is that despite superficial similarities (there are dead bodies in both, a whodunnit plot thread, and an advanced technological setting) they aren't really the same genre of book. Atlas Alone isn't really a police procedural/murder mystery like After Atlas, it's more of a psychological thriller. We spend a lot (maybe too much?) time in Dee's consciousness as she grapples with some of the more serious ramifications of the some of the events at the end of After Atlas. Secondly, the commentary on corporate/capitalistic overreach that was a significant feature of After Atlas is simply not as pungent or salient in the later book.

I think I will eventually read the other two books, Planetfall and Before Mars in the series. The books tend to be relatively short (under 400 pages), peopled with a diverse cast of characters and often include interesting/thought-provoking questions. For people who are anxious to spend more time in the Planetfall universe, Newman is releasing a brief collection (161 pages) of 10 short stories called Before, After, Alone which are set there.

Title: Atlas Alone (Planetfall, #4).
Emma Newman.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 336 pages.
Publisher: Gollancz.
Date Published: April 16, 2019.
Date Read: January 22, 2023.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★ (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A/A- (3.83/4.0).


Wednesday, April 05, 2023

2023 OSCARS: The Winners!

The 2023 Oscars happened and the big winner was Everything Everywhere All At Once, which went home with Seven Oscars overall: Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay and Editing. Netflix's All Quiet on the Western Front was not far behind with 4: Score, International Feature, Production Design and Cinematography. The billion dollar sequels released last year, Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water did not go home emptyhanded, winning Sound and Visual Effects, respectively.

In my predictions post of the Top 8 categories at the 95th Academy Awards I only got 5 of 8 correct, missing Jamie Lee Curtis's upset win over Angela Basset, Brendan Fraser's Best Actor win over Colin Farrell and Austin Butler and The Daniels win for Original Screenplay over Tár and The Banshees of Inisherin.

Overall, this year  I ended up with only 15 of 21 Oscar wins correctly predicted. Anyway, here are the winners of this year's Oscars.

Best picture: “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best actress: Michelle Yeoh, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best actor: Brendan Fraser, “The Whale”

Best supporting actor: Ke Huy Quan, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best supporting actress: Jamie Lee Curtis, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Original song: “Naatu Naatu” from “RRR”

Film editing: “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best director: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best animated feature: “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”

International feature film: “All Quiet on the Western Front” (Germany)

Documentary feature: “Navalny”

Live action short: “An Irish Goodbye”

Cinematography: James Friend, “All Quiet on the Western Front”

Makeup and hairstyling: “The Whale”

Costume design: Ruth E. Carter, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”

Documentary short: “The Elephant Whisperers”

Animated short: “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse”

Production design: “All Quiet on the Western Front”

Music (original score): Volker Bertelmann, “All Quiet on the Western Front”

Visual Effects: “Avatar: The Way of Water”

Original screenplay: “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Adapted screenplay: “Women Talking”

Sound: “Top Gun: Maverick”


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