(2019) Emma Newman, Gollancz, £14.99, trdpbk, 309pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22392-9
Atlas Alone is the fourth book in the 'Planetfall' series and takes places after the events of Before Mars and the nuclear war which has destroyed much of Earth. Although the story does link to the earlier books and features some characters we have met before, Newman gives the reader enough to make this easily accessible as a standalone (although I would recommend reading the other books in the series if you havenít already). The Planetfall series is set in a recognisable near-future human society where space travel has become possible for those who can afford it. You wonít find aliens or epic space battles here, but the futuristic society in which the best of technology combines with the worst of humanity seems entirely plausible.
The story takes place entirely on board a spaceship which left Earth in order to escape the nuclear holocaust, and centres around a female character, Dee. She is living a limited and restricted life on board the ship, with nothing supplied but the basic necessities. This doesnít bother her too much, as she is by nature a loner. She knows very little about who else is on board the ship, though she has a couple of friends (Carl Moreno and Travis, who have appeared in earlier books). She spends most of her time playing an assortment of VR games which also allow her to escape real life. However the length of time that Dee is spending in the games is having an effect on her psychological well-being, and there is only so long that she can put off thinking about the reality of her situation, what happened back on Earth, and who is responsible.
The story is set up as a mystery very early on, as someone killed by Dee within a game is found dead on board the ship shortly afterwards, and the rest of the story explores the relationship between the two worlds as Dee tries to work out what happened. It explores how our behaviour in one world can affect our behaviour in another, and what our ability to carry out despicable acts (such as murder) in an artificial situation says about us as individuals Ė is what we do when there are no consequences the better measure of who we really are. Dee is also forced by the game to face up to events in her past, such as the death of her parents, something else which she has refused to face in the real world.
As well as the influence of mersive gaming and A.I., After Atlas also explores religion, sexuality and identity, themes which have been important throughout the series. The rise of extreme right-wing Christianity, affluent and politically influential, seems a terrifying possibility in our current social climate.
All in all, I didnít enjoy After Atlas as much as the earlier books in the series, perhaps because Iím not a gamer and that aspect of the story didnít hold any particular appeal for me, although it was handled very well and there was never any confusion as to which world Dee was in. There is still plenty of interesting stuff here to keep fans of the series happy and this is by no means a bad book Ė itís a very, very good one carrying the weight of some truly excellent work on itís shoulders.
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