Review: “Fall From Earth,” Matthew Johnson

Pros: Interesting worldbuilding
Cons: The pacing plods; characters aren’t interesting
Rating: 2 out of 5

In the Borderless Empire of Matthew Johnson’s Fall From Earth, a ship full of 200 convicts has been sent to prepare a planet for colonization. The planet supposedly has no animal life on it, but the convicts find a large ant-like colony of creatures as well as a larger alien. The planet also has a lower level of oxygen than promised, as well as dangerously acidic rain. The very religious underpinnings of the Empire hinge upon the lack of sentient aliens. Convict Shi Jin, a traitor who tried to lead a rebellion, tries to figure out how best to incorporate this discovery into her ongoing chess game with the Empire.

The pacing in this book plods along in a ho-hum manner. There are events that should have been exciting that didn’t end up feeling that way at all. The author doesn’t seem to understand how to alter his language to build up adrenaline and suspense. Even combat boils down to just a few jabs and cuts delivered in a perfunctory manner.

I didn’t find the characters very interesting. I had no real emotional reactions to them and didn’t particularly care about what happened to any of them. They were all very single-minded, too, without a lot of nuance. Jin isn’t a great main character–she’s so obsessed with her virtual chess game that it’s hard to care about her. Everyone seems like a playing piece to her. I also didn’t get a very good feel for why this rebellion of hers mattered so much to her. Make us care! Despite one or two quick flashbacks that I guess tried to establish this, they had so little effect on the current actions and emotions that they just didn’t help much.

The worldbuilding is the only thing that kind of interested me. The Borderless Empire and its odd Church had some promise, although the author didn’t dig into them very far. The alien planet is fairly alien–I didn’t feel like it was just Earth by another name. It kind of felt like the Empire didn’t think through very carefully the whole idea of sending a bunch of convicts to the planet, and it wasn’t clear what exactly they were supposed to be doing there to prepare the planet for colonization (after all, agriculture is basically illegal and they don’t seem to have been sent with building supplies). I also never really understood why they sent an officer down alone to check out what was going on, nor why that officer’s first major action was to try to kidnap the alien he knew almost nothing about. Nor could I understand why he took certain other actions later on. His presence mostly seemed to be a plot convenience to spur certain conflicts.

I wish I could say better things about this book. I was really looking forward to reading some colonization SF. Unfortunately, this book didn’t make the grade.

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