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Review: GHOST PLANET by Sharon Lynn Fisher

October 22 2012

Published by Tor
Release Date: Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Available in Paperback and Kindle Editions

In Short: Coulda shoulda woulda.
Recommended: Do you want to read a romance? Then yes. Do you want to read sci-fi? Then no.

She was an alien. This was Murphy’s ghost.
Fresh from relocation training, I knew what I was supposed to do – the Ghost Protocol dictated I ignore her.        Forget her, if possible. But as I turned away I couldn’t help guessing at whom she might be – a sister? A friend? Wife, even?

Elizabeth Cole is not having a good day. No sooner has she arrived on remote, mysterious Ardagh 1, where she hopes to conduct the research that will allow her to complete her doctorate, than she learns that the facility at which she had been assigned has been shut down due to damage sustained in an earthquake. Because of this, her thesis advisor will be unavailable for the duration of her stay, meaning that she’ll be working for brilliant, irresistible Dr. Grayson Murphy, an eventuality for which she is entirely unprepared. Oh, and also the transport plane that was supposed to deliver her to Ardagh 1’s surface crashed en route, and technically Elizabeth is – very unfortunately – quite dead.

But wait – there’s more. Ardagh 1 is the Ghost Planet on which each human resident has his or her own “ghost,” a physical manifestation somehow produced by the planet itself of a friend or loved one who has died. Elizabeth has somehow been reincarnated as Murphy’s personal Ghost, and coincidentally Murphy is the architect of the uncompromising Ghost Protocol, under which humans are forbidden on pain of All Bad Things to interact with or even acknowledge their Ghosts. (This is ostensibly to preserve the humans’ sanity, the Ghosts being Ghosts and all.) The two met some years back and enjoyed a brief flirtation – nothing more – before going their separate ways. And although they’re initially both ready to pick up where they left off, as soon as Elizabeth’s state of extreme deadness is revealed, Murphy can’t have anything to do with her under the rules he himself devised.

Alas, there’s nothing like turning into a parasitic alien ghost to lay waste to a woman’s romantic prospects.

Will Murphy break his own rules and allow himself to draw closer to Elizabeth?…Duh. Of course he will. But then what? As he wrestles with his desires and Elizabeth begins to conduct the research that no one else (evidently) has, powerful people are watching, and they quickly find themselves at the heart of a struggle to shape the strange and powerful planet’s destiny.

Ghost Planet’s setup is, as you’ve probably noted, fascinating. If you think it sounds a bit like Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, well, it kind of does. It has a great premise, a fascinating mystery, and a compelling romance at its center. (Fisher is a three-time Romance Writers of America Golden Heart finalist, and it’s easy to see why.) For the first two-thirds or so of the book, it’s really quite good.

And yet.

The questions it raises! Oh, the questions. To enumerate only a few:

The planet conjures up a brand-new Elizabeth who has Elizabeth’s appearance, abilities, knowledge, intellect, and even memories. New Elizabeth also has no awareness that she’s a parasitic alien Ghost until someone tells her so; as far as she’s concerned, she’s always been Elizabeth. We know this because the story is told in the first person, in Elizabeth’s voice. But how is the planet able to pull this off? Even if we conjecture (based on a somewhat ambiguous scene in the novel) that her “awareness” or “soul” or what have you was harvested at the moment of her death…well, that only explains how she exists. Other ghosts, including Aunt Maeve – Murphy’s original Ghost – have been dead for a long time; some had never set foot on Ardagh 1 before their death. How does the planet know to choose these people?

Speaking of Aunt Maeve, what happens to her, anyway? After Elizabeth arrives on the scene, she just sort of fades away. Why does Murphy rate a replacement Ghost? Do other colonists get more than one, or is Murphy special? (Maybe the planet wanted him to fall in love so he would be motivated to rescind the Ghost Protocol. And maybe I’m overthinking this.)

And even if the humans aren’t allowed to talk to the Ghosts, why aren’t the ghosts at least talking to one another? Why isn’t there a whole Ghost Society going on, with the Ghosts pestering their humans until the humans give in and take them Ghost clubbing or something? — Because many if most of them seem not to be talking to anyone. In fact, Elizabeth makes a Ghost Buddy who pretty much tells her as much.

By the by, given its unique abilities, shouldn’t Ardagh 1 be a popular destination for the well-heeled and bereaved, “Ghost Protocol” be damned?

Spoiler-ish question: If the planet is making the Ghosts so that the Ghosts and humans can unite in telepathic symbiosis to heal the wounded land, how is it in anybody’s best interests, including the planet’s, not to make good and sure the Ghosts are well aware up front that they’re Ghosts with an important mission? If the planet is capable of creating the Ghosts, why can’t the Ghosts be given the knowledge and means to articulate their mission to the humans?

It’s hard not to dwell on things like this when so few answers are given and when such a promising premise goes largely unexplored. I can’t help wishing that instead of writing a romance novel in a science fiction context, Fisher had gone for it and written a sci-fi novel with a romantic subplot. As it is, she sacrifices a compelling premise on the altar of true love and sets the reader up with a number of interesting questions that she can’t or won’t or in any case just doesn’t answer. If she had taken the narrative a step further, Ghost Planet could have been a powerful meditation on what it means to be human, in addition to its charms as a romance/adventure. But she made a different choice, and as a result, instead of being great, the book settles for being merely pretty good.

– Kate Nagy 

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