Atlas Alone by Emma Newman

Ace, 2019, 312 p.

 Atlas Alone cover

This is the second of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel I have read. It is set on a starship called Atlas 2, heading out on a twenty-year voyage to join a colony on another planet (in the wake of someone called the Pathfinder who I assume appeared in an earlier novel in Newman’s Planetfall sequence.) Just as well; Earth has been devastated by a nuclear war.

Our narrator is named Deanna, on board Atlas 2 after her indentured debt had been paid off by her friend. Carl, who likes nothing better than to get his teeth into a real murder (or unexplained death) mystery. Or, I should say, because his indentureship trained/programmed him for that. Deanna – and I suppose everyone else in this scenario – has a link to an internal personal assistant. (This last is getting to be a fixture of SF novels these days.) There is also a system called MyPhys which monitors people’s health and bodily responses while the relaxation activity of choice is the use of mersives, highly detailed, virtual reality role-playing games.

Very early on Newman, through Deanna, puts the boot into fundamentalism of the self-styled Christian variety. In this story, what had been the USA has fractured and non-believers in Christianity kicked out. Deanna had had to fake belief in order to get onto the largely American funded ship, trading on relative ignorance of and assumptions about trans-Atlantic – here called Noropean – norms.

Up till now apparently footloose and fancy-free with all needs catered for Deanna is invited to do an analysis job on some data and discovers a previously hidden (at least to her and her acquaintances) hierarchy on the ship. Rich and with far from mean living spaces the elite also has access to a money economy Deanna had been unaware of.

Things ramp up when a mysterious person with incredible powers of access and concealment intrudes into the mersive area she calls her office space and entices her into a mersive which seems to have all sorts of information about her past life and homes. In it she finds clues to the nature of those running the show; leaders from the CSA (not the CSA I first thought of, but the Christian States of America) and that they were responsible for the destruction of all those sinners back on Earth. On meeting one of them in the mersive she takes the opportunity to kill him there, knowing he will experience the pain of it back in meatspace. On returning to real life she is startled to find that despite safeguards against crossover (not to mention MyPhys) that person has indeed died while immersed. Carl, a dog that won’t let a bone go, has been assigned to find out what happened to him. Thereafter she is forced to prevaricate with Carl while still plotting revenge on those in charge who are intent on preserving the indentured system she and all the less privileged on board thought they’d escaped from. In the course of this we come to realise that Deanna is indeed, in her own words, “A cold collection of responses, pretending to be a person.” When the identity of her mysterious helper is revealed she comes round to planning her act of retribution very quickly, almost without thought, but also without compunction.

That the major part of this novel is spent with Deanna in mersive environments is a bit off-putting. It’s too close to “it was all a dream.” Granted within them Deanna is revealed certain clues to help her unravel her circumstances but the overlap between mersive and meatspace is a step too far. The other characters in the book are little more than attributes rather than real people – unless Newman is making the point that spending too much time in game-playing is detrimental to human relationships, which the text does not really support. Then again we are seeing this from the viewpoint of a cold collection of responses pretending to be a person; perhaps not the best reader of people. Deanna is not an exemplary human (not that characters in books necessarily have to be) but Newman lets her off her actions lightly, leaving an unsavoury taste.

Newman’s invented expletive JeeMuh is still as irritating as in Before Mars, the previous book of hers I have read, but at least this time she gives it a provenance. Yet why use it at all when the ‘f’ word is liberally sprinkled across the text?

Pedant’s corner:- It was an ARC. Many of the following may have been corrected in the published edition: hangry (is this meant to be a portmanteau word – hungry/angry – or is it just a misprint for hungry? In context the misprint is far more likely.) “‘And it’s going kill you’” (‘going to kill you’,) n00b (x2, noob?) “the smell had alerted the neighbours, the body removed” (the body had been removed,) “a couple of specs on my throat” (neither speculations nor spectacles; it was blood, so, specks,) “‘you’ve got another thing coming,’” (another think,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “As long as I know what I want and know how to get, that’s all that matters” (how to get it,) hung (hanging,) “while I patched up her” (that reads very differently from ‘while I patched her up’,) “ a variety of ways … quickly float through my mind” (a variety …floats,) grills (USian? ‘grilles’,) “the same as what I can in meatspace” (the ‘what’ is superfluous,) “none of them live on deck five” (none of them lives on deck five.) None of the Circle are working” (None … is working,) “‘who were genuinely were’” (omit one ‘were’.)

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