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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

After Atlas by Emma Newman

Roc, 384 pages, $15

I recently read a sci-fi novel that got under my skin, in a good way, “Planetfall.” That was in preparation for reading the just-released “After Atlas,” a detective story set in the same future that contains “Planetfall.” While the two share the same universe, the characters are not the same. Some of the characters from “Planetfall” are mentioned in “After Atlas,” but none are shared between the books.

A brief background from "Planetfall": Forty years ago, a spaceship, the Atlas, left Earth for a secret planet where God lives. Lee Suh-Mi, aka “The Pathfinder,” was the charismatic leader of the thousand people who journeyed with her, and it is her vision that determined the location of the God-planet. You can read my review of that book.

One of the chosen followers on that spaceship was a young woman who left her husband and baby behind. The baby, Carlos “Carl” Moreno, has lived a life of misery ever since. His father also tried to join the pilgrimage but did not make the cut. He had a nervous breakdown and Carl was left to fend for himself at an appallingly early age. After leaving an American cult group, The Circle, at the age of sixteen, Carl managed to find himself in indentured servitude (i.e., slavery) in England for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) as a police detective, a position he has held for twenty years as this book begins. The story of how Carl reached that point is something author Emma Newman gradually reveals throughout the book. That story, too, is appalling in what it signifies about the degradation of human rights in a corporate-led world.

Carl is sent by the MoJ to investigate the death of Alejandro Casales in an upscale hotel in Dartmoor. As one of the MoJ’s best detectives, his assignment makes sense, but there’s another reason. Casales was the leader of The Circle. He rehabilitated Carl’s father and was like a second father to Carl for many years, before he rebelled and ran away. What was Casales doing in England? Why was he hanged, drawn and quartered?

Casales’ appearance is suspiciously close to the scheduled opening of a capsule Lee Suh-Mi left behind forty years ago. That is the topic du jour and one that Carl is heartily sick of. Every year on the anniversary of the blast-off of the Atlas spaceship, newshounds seek an interview with the “baby left behind.” This anniversary, with the addition of the capsule brouhaha, has made Carl’s life ten times worse. He hates his mother, he hates his father, he hates Casales, and he hates that he is owned by the British government/corporation and will be until he is about eighty years old. He lives for the day when he is free of his contract and can grow his own vegetables in his own little patch of dirt, somewhere quiet and in some uneventful time. As the Casales investigation grows murkier and more complex, he fears that the day he has been longing for may never come.

I won’t risk doing anything less than the cleanest, deepest investigation I’m humanly capable of. I can’t risk anything less than that, as their property. I’m prepared to extend my contract in order to eat proper food and live in anything bigger than a broom cupboard but not for sloppy work.

Most food is synthesized from chemical glop in 3D printers. It is Carl’s pleasure to buy real food, not like the rich buy it in fancy stores, but from carts peddling cast-off veggies and other sullied foodstuffs. The catch is that even that food is ridiculously expensive. In order to buy them — and to rent his bigger apartment — he must pay for them with an extension of his slave’s contract.

Carl has been “trained,” i.e., brainwashed, to provide the most thorough and intelligent service possible. Obedience and doggedness are enhanced traits, but lurking within the manufactured detective beats the heart of a man who may be bent but not bowed.

Newman depicts a world in which the major governments we know today are corporations in the future. Slaves are legal. Carl is lucky that his contract is with the Ministry of Justice. Other fellow “trainees” were not so lucky. Almost everyone, slave or regular, has a chip installed on their person to receive the enhanced equivalent of today’s Internet, with a computerized APA (artificial personal assistant) and, more to the point, a way for the governments to track their citizens.

As with “Planetfall,” author Newman invigorates her story with compelling characters, realistic scientific detail, and a complex storyline. With the knowledge of how “Planetfall” turned out, and of what kind of person Carl’s mother is, it is easy to see the irony and hopelessness of what sent the Atlas into its journey forty years ago and what it left behind.

If you are interested in learning more about Emma Newman’s inspiration, Bart’s Bookshelf interviewed her last year, and you can read about it.

For a genuine futuristic thriller, here’s an MBTB star!

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