Book Review: Atlas Alone by Emma Newman
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 4 of Planetfall
Publisher: Ace (April 16, 2019)
Length: 320 pages
So far, I’ve been really enjoying Emma Newman’s Planetfall series, but I have to say this latest one was a bit of a miss for me. At least compared to the last two books, the premise and story of Atlas Alone did not feel quite as captivating to my imagination, which is a shame. After all, I am such a sucker for books with a video game angle, and I had been greatly looking forward to this one’s unique take on immersive gaming.
Like all the rest of the books in the series, Atlas Alone is a stand-alone story. This time, the focus shifts to follow Dee, one of the passengers aboard the colony ship headed to a new planet after a nuclear apocalypse decimated Earth. Six months have passed since the ship set off, but Dee is still struggling with the trauma of witnessing all the death and destruction. To cope, she and her friends Travis and Carl escape into “mersives”, or highly realistic virtual games that immerse the user completely into its environments, but lately, her addiction to these games has been having an adverse effect on her socially and mentally. Paranoid and jittery, she is also beginning to question the circumstances around the nuclear strike that destroyed Earth, and vows to make those responsible pay.
Utilizing the tools she knows best, Dee throws herself into mersives to try to understand the ship’s hierarchical structure. One of these games, however, is like nothing she has ever played before. While testing the mersive for its designer, she becomes rattled by the realism of the game’s environments and situations, and the fact that the in-game intelligence seems to know a lot more than it should. During one of these sessions, Dee’s character kills another, and when she emerges back into “meat space”, she is shocked to discover that a man, bearing a striking resemblance to the one she’d killed in-game, had in fact also died in real life. Knowing that it can’t be a coincidence, Dee continues to search for more information in her quest to figure out how everything is connected.
Unfortunately, this was probably my least favorite book in the series so far. Granted, I had pretty high expectations before I started, considering the high bar set by the other sequels like After Atlas and Before Mars, but objectively, I also felt that Atlas Alone was not as well written or put together. For one thing, the info dumps. Boy, did they get tiresome. If the narrative wasn’t expounding on the characteristics and technicalities of gaming, it was going on and on about the psychological profile of Dee’s personality and behavior. Like, please, I got it. Enough already.
Worse, once you subtract all that, what’s left of the story is decidedly thin. To its credit, I thought the mystery plot itself was overall compulsive and very intriguing, and it didn’t bother me that it was on the simplistic side. However, I did mind that it was made more complicated than it had to be. It felt intrusive and distracting, messing with the pacing as well as taking away from Newman’s usually smooth writing style. Even the gaming aspect of the story did not really help; in fact, it eventually grew exasperating for me every time Dee entered into yet another mersive, because it often meant we were in for a long stretch where not much really happens.
Then there was the matter of Dee. So far, all the books in the Planetfall series have featured main characters who fall outside social norms, with mental health being a recurring theme. Many of them have also experienced issues with trauma, or are dealing with symptoms of depression, guilt, or anxiety. Up until Atlas Alone, I’ve always been impressed with the author’s ability to make all the protagonists in this series feel genuine and relatable, thus making it possible to connect with their personal stories, though this time, I think she might have missed the mark. Simply put, Dee didn’t feel like a fully realized character to me, almost like Neman herself was unsure of where to go with her personality. For instance, some of Dee’s thought processes and behaviors didn’t mesh well at all with what we’re supposed to know about her, and many of her decisions in the second half of the book left me scratching my head and wondering if I had missed something.
In the end, I give this book a 3 out of 5—and just barely. I enjoyed it to an extent, though unlike a couple of the Planetfall books that came before which were full of meaning and emotion, Atlas Alone left me feeling ambivalent and cold. The ending also felt rushed and forced, which robbed it of a lot of its impact. Nevertheless, I’m chalking this installment up to a fluke, as the other books in the series have been so enjoyable. I’m still looking forward to more, and given the way this book ended, here’s hoping there will be at least another volume.