Reality Is an Impossible Game: Emma Newman’s Atlas Alone

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Reviewing a novel four books deep into a series is always a little tricky—even if, as with Emma Newman’s Planetfall series—the novels are less a continuing storyline and more a sequence of standalone narratives in a shared world.

Planetfall, After Atlas, Before Mars, and now Atlas Alone all take place on different planets—or on no planet at all—and are told by four different first-person narrators. Up until Atlas Alone, the singularity of the voice and the triangulation of a certain event—the mission of a vessel known as the Pathfinder, which ferried a zealous scientist and her band of followers to an alien planet in search of God—have served as the connective tissue between one novel and the next.

That all changes with this fourth installment, which takes place in the wake of the events of Before Mars, and with a cast of characters we know from After Atlas. Even by the standards of previous Planetfall novels—which all conclude with brutal, perspective-wrenching revelations—the ending of Before Mars is a doozy, one that I don’t want to detail too closely, lest I blunt that final knife-twist. If you haven’t read the earlier books, I will attempt to tread lightly—but beware of spoilers (not that these are strictly the kids of books that can be spoiled, as preoccupied as they are with the twisting thoughts of their narrators).

The events of Atlas Alone are told to us by Dee—Deanna—who was sold alongside Carlos (from After Atlas) to the hot-housers of the post-democracy world they inhabit. To be hot-housed is to be brutally conditioned into a useful, indentured nonperson: Carl was trained to be a detective; Dee was trained in something like PR crossed with data analysis. It’s slavery in everything but name. The third of their small circle is Travis, once husband of the head of a powerful gov-corp. They’re six months into a 20-year voyage to the Pathfinder’s planet, all three of them reeling from calamitous events they witness upon liftoff. We first meet them in the midst of something of an intervention for the three of them: Carl is starving, refusing to eat 3D printed food; Dee won’t take up the immersive games that have always been her balm and succor; Travis is both inscrutable and twitchy. They are tearing themselves apart with what they know, and what they can’t tell anyone.

Dee is given a chance to find out more about the other people on their ship, the Atlas 2, when she’s invited to join an immersive game tournament by a member of another social group. For unknown reasons, social contact between groups, and even individuals, has been “deprioritized.” Carolina wants to hire Dee to crunch numbers and work out the most desirable game models. They have 20 years in space, after all; gaming will kill the time. But what Dee finds in the data is disturbing, hinting at intentional divisions between the passenger groups, from the older and wealthier gamers; to the members of the Circle, a cultish, low-tech group of people who rarely engage in immersives.

But before Dee can begin to explore Carolina’s social circle, she’s sucked into an immersive game by a mysterious agent. The content of the game is incredibly upsetting: Dee finds herself climbing stairs in the apartment building she lived in during a pivotal period of her childhood, stepping over the corpses of everyone she knew during that time. Nothing about the game runs according to the spoken or unspoken rules of game design. And horrible evidence suggests that violent actions that happen within the game have consequences in the real world—an impossible porousness between gaming and reality.

Heretofore, the Planetfall narrators have been prickly, damaged people, avoidant of their personal traumas by way of elaborate defense mechanisms. They are expert examples of the unreliable narrator, telling complex stories from complex perspectives, the kind where what they focus on is as important as what they avoid. Dee is no different, but she’s also our iciest narrator yet. Much of the overt plot is spent in immersive games—Dee’s true landscape and release—but she doesn’t treat them much differently from her real life. She’s always plotting the angles and reading the terrain. She says what she needs to say and projects what’s she’s supposed to feel to advance the plot (her life); otherwise her interior world is flinching and cold.

Atlas Alone ends with the same kind of gut punch that has become the series’ hallmark, but there’s something deeper and more difficult going on as well. The ethical test at the center of the narrative doesn’t have a name—it’s something like the prisoner’s dilemma crossed with a more terrible version of the Milgram experiment—but it’s a moral dilemma our protagonist fails utterly to solve. The hardest truth to swallow is that we know we might fail with right along with her, depending on how closely we align with her cold, rational way of approaching the game and rationalizing the traumas that made her who she is. Is it all just a game? Does that matter?

Atlas Alone is available April 16.

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