In the fourth stand-alone novel in the Planetfall series, Emma Newman once again deftly combines science fiction, mental health, and looking to the stars for answers.
Dee is one of the survivors onboard Atlas 2, the generation ship that left Earth after a group of people ordered a nuclear strike that killed billions (these events took place in book 2 of the series, After Atlas). Six months on and struggling with the grief and the rage, Dee feels like she is adrift even though her close friend Carl is also alive. Until she is invited to participate in a new secretive, violent game where the setting and the events are not only incredibly true to her memories of traumatic events from her childhood but also end up having repercussions in real life when one of the people she kills online end up dead in meatspace. And that person, that man, is actually one of those responsible for the genocide.
With the help of a shady virtual guide with lack of consent issues, Dee starts making the connections between the game, her past and how it goes back to what happened on Earth. And maybe, just maybe, she can find some measure of peace if she can avenge those killed. Especially when she discovers a plot engendered by those with social and financial capital, to continue replicating the unfair, oppressive systems that made her an indentured worker all her life. She cannot, will not let that happen.
Atlas Alone is a deeply, deeply unsettling horror novel, one that juxtaposes the personal trauma of one woman and a world-wide catastrophe and what happens when the two combine to tell a story of post-traumatic stress disorder and vengeance. In many ways, this is a great read that goes together with The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley—both science fiction novels that deal with oppression, revenge, taking matters into one’s own hands and the ethics surrounding the latter. The caveat is that whereas The Light Brigade ends on a hopeful tone, Atlas Alone ends on a chilling note that questions the morality of decision-making and who gets to decide. The most unsettling aspect of it—without spoiling—is how as a reader, I was onboard with Dee’s decisions until I too, was confronted with the book’s examination of it.
One last note: the main character is presented as asexual and a lot of the talk surrounding Dee is about how emotionally cold she is. To me, the book deconstructs this image of Dee throughout—it is clear that she is anything but. The way I read it, Dee’s mental health issues and how she protected herself from feelings in order to survive were separate from her sexual orientation, but I recognise that my reading is just that: my own. I will be in the look-out for ace readers’ interpretations of the novel.
In Booksmugglerish – 7 out of 10.