Monday, June 5, 2017

After Atlas - Emma Newman

Emma Newman's After Atlas (2016) is set in the same universe as Planetfall (2015). That book turned out to be one of the top reads of 2016 (I got to it late) and so the sequel jumped right to the top of my to read list. A position it held for an unreasonable length of time. Once again I am late in reading this book. The novel is set in the same universe, but the connection with the first book is minimal. They can be read independently of each other just fine. Although the novel is quite different from Planetfall, it has the same attention the characterization and psychology as the previous book. If you liked that one, After Atlas is a must read.

Many years ago the Atlas project left Earth in search of a new home. Only a few people managed to secure a place on board, to escape the overcrowded, hyper-commercialized planet. Carlos' mother was one of them. His father, who did not manage to beat the last round of the selection procedure, is left a broken man. He seeks refuge with an American religious cult. Many years later Carlos has escaped the clutches of the cult and has become a detective with a European government/corporation. When the leader of the cult he fled those many years ago is found dead and butchered in a hotel room in England, Carlos is put on the case. The investigation will bring up a lot of old hurts, and take him far beyond catching a regular murderer.

The setting of Newman's second Atlas novel is a future Earth. It is something of a dystopia. The distinction between governments and corporations has faded, and just about everything is turned into a commercial transaction. Information technology is employed to achieve a staggering level of surveillance on the general population. The only thing that can get you away from that is money. Huge sums of it. Information technology is integrated into society in a way that makes living without it almost inconceivable. Every aspect of the story is drenched with the possibilities of big data, how to use and abuse it, and how to avoid it. Even labour contracts are enforced 24/7 by employers, creating what amounts to a new form of slavery in the eyes of Carlos. The depiction of how technology might develop is depressingly realistic considering how much data is already being collected over the Internet. Once it is integrated into our bodies, privacy will only become harder to come by.

Even in this Big Brother future, it is possible to be murdered without a camera observing it though. Carlos still employs techniques to research the murder that a detective from a hundred years ago would recognize. Interrogation and looking for a motive are still key to the investigation. Perhaps it is because of the huge quantity of data available to him, that Carlos first needs a lead, an idea of where to look for the needle in the haystack. To him, knowing which questions to ask is critical to a successful investigation. His intuition and reasoning guide him more than all the technology at his disposal. It is this intuition that will get him in trouble eventually. Carlos can't stand loose ends. He keeps digging, even when he is told to stop.

Carlos is a man with more than a few issues. His job has made him a minor celebrity and the media often portray him as abandoned by his mother, the ultimate sin for a woman if they are to be believed. His anger is directed at his father however. A man who couldn't handle his failure. He neglected Carlos for years before entering the sect. When confronted with people from his past, the anger and resentment threaten to boil over on several occasions. Newman carefully reveals bits of his past to gradually expose his psyche to the reader. Through his problematic relationship with his father, his issues with food, and his problems forming social ties, a picture emerges of a man badly scarred by life, but with a strong sense of justice and self-preservation. He is at times desperate, and at the point of giving up, but always manages to make himself ask the next question. Just like Ren in the previous novel, Carlos is a well developed character. One that can carry the story.

The plot, in my opinion, was not as strong as the one in the previous novel. The investigation keeps things moving along nicely, but Carlos is forced to wrap that up with quite a bit of the book still to go. There are unanswered questions of course, questions Carlos' boss would rather not ask. But with a case that is as personal as this one, Carlos can't let go even if he wanted to. The section of the novel that follows feels rushed. Where the investigation is methodical and well-paced, the climax of the novel stuffs in a highly emotional reunion and a worldwide conspiracy. Carlos has to make some cognitive leaps that seem at odds with the steady progress of checking and eliminating he does early on in the novel. Maybe the contrast is intentional. The novel moves from all business to strictly personal after all. I didn't think it was quite convincing though.

Despite the rushed ending, After Atlas is a very good read. Newman creates another marvelously developed character with this novel. At the end of it, she also creates some interesting options for further stories in this universe. I have no idea if she intends to write a third novel, but the potential is certainly there. After Atlas is perhaps not the most uplifting novel, but it is one that is intelligently written and on the character level deeply moving. Planetfall is probably my favourite by a minimal margin, but After Atlas is a worthy sequel.

Title: After Atlas
Author: Emma Newman
Publisher: Roc
Pages: 365
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-425-28240-3
First published: 2016

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