Ghost Planet

Sharon Lynn Fisher
November 2012, Science Fiction Romance
Tor, $7.99, 352 pages, Amazon ASIN 0765368978

Grade: B+
Sensuality: Warm

What is life? What is death? Is the essence of who we are stored in our DNA or is there more to us than just the biological being? If our form is changed, does that change who we are? Ghost Planet looks at what it means to be reborn in another world, another form.

When psychologist Elizabeth Cole lands on Ardagh 1 at a deserted terminal, her main concern is who her first contact will be – human or alien. It turns out to be the very human Grayson Murphy, lead psychologist at the New Seattle Counseling Center and her boss. The two fall into an almost immediate easy rapport. They cross town discussing her position and forming the kind of tentative, hopeful bond that new acquaintances who are attracted to each other and interested in deepening the acquaintance form.

For Murphy’s part, he feels a strong sense of déjà vu while spending time with Elizabeth. He is pleasantly surprised to find out that the two had encountered each other previously, albeit briefly, while he was working as a tourist guide at Trinity College. Elizabeth had been one of the people he had invited to coffee after the tour, though she and her then boyfriend declined the offer. Both are delighted they had remembered each other from such a chance encounter and it adds a sense of warmth and familiarity to the budding friendship. The warmth lasts all the way through a shared lunch and a walk to the building their offices are in. That’s where both of them receive a nasty shock.

Ardagh 1 is a world where every colonist is tethered to an alien – an alien who looks like a deceased friend or relative. An alien whom they are forced to tolerate, since it can’t be destroyed or forced away. Much to her own surprise, Elizabeth is one of those aliens. Her shuttle had crash-landed, killing all aboard. Apparently, her fleeting affiliation with Murphy had allowed her to be reborn in alien form as his “ghost.” The man whom she was more interested in getting to know has just become a 24/7 companion for the rest of her life.Murphy is deeply affected by this news. Not only is the woman he was growing interested in demolished in a moment, but he has unknowingly spent the entire afternoon breaking the colony’s strictly enforced Ghost Protocol -- a protocol he himself had created, which restricts the colonist from ever interacting with their alien shadow. The policy has proven effective in getting the “ghosts” under control in the sense that it has made them downtrodden, nearly transparent shadows of the people they are meant to imitate. Once the ghost is properly trained into this protocol, the colonist can go back about their business, simply pretending the ghost isn’t there.

Murphy goes home to begin his deliberate denial of Elizabeth but she is having none of it. At every turn she reminds him of the vibrant, intelligent woman he had met – and fallen for – at the tarmac. She refuses to live off the tasteless nutrient bars the ghosts are meant to eat and helps herself to the food he cooks and the wine he drinks with his meals. When a visitor comes, bringing her own ghost, Elizabeth forms a quick friendship with her fellow outcast. She infects him with her zest for life and lures him into working with her on figuring out what they are. Since both have science degrees, there are quick to borrow their host’s computers and begin doing research in earnest.

Poor Murphy is at a loss regarding how to handle the situation. As the creator of the Ghost Protocol, he should have a well-trained, brow beaten shadow. Instead, he finds himself growing more enamored of this woman who refuses to be discouraged by her own death and searches for answers to questions the colonists have been reluctant to ask. All too quickly, he finds himself working with her rather than against her. And stealing kisses when he should be maintaining a large physical distance at all times.

Most of the colonists have lived in fear of the ghosts for far too long to have the status quo changed, though. As Murphy grows closer to Elizabeth he finds their friendship puts both their lives in jeopardy. Will they able to conclude their research and show that the two groups can live in harmony on Ardagh 1? Or will their enemies manage to separate them forever, destroying them both in the process?

This is an amazingly compelling read. I found myself utterly transfixed by what was unfolding on the page and caught up completely in the lives of the characters. I couldn’t wait to find out what Elizabeth was discovering in her research and I was equally anxious to see what developed in the relationship between her and Murphy. The opening pages really set the stage for their love story and did a beautiful job of capturing that essential spark that happens when two people encounter each other and want to move their relationship to the next level. I felt the chemistry that drew them together. I also saw the relationship deepen as the two are forced to share things with each other you normally don’t tell a stranger. Elizabeth learns of Murphy’s aunt (his original ghost) and the family whom he loves but has left behind on Earth. Murphy learns of the fragile mental health of Elizabeth’s mother and watches as alien Elizabeth feels everything that happens with her every bit as much as human Elizabeth would. Even while the two are at odds they are never unkind to each other; there may be silence between them but there is also courtesy and consideration.

All this means that as the book progresses we can see why Murphy and Elizabeth fight the odds to stay together. It also means that the HEA is a joy to reach. I was rooting for them to make it and show Ardagh 1 that “different” didn’t mean “enemy.”

I also just loved this look at a science fiction future that didn’t involve a dystopian earth. Things were bad on the planet environmentally but humanity hadn’t degenerated to arrow-wielding teens fighting a totalitarian government. Ardagh 1 was important – and hadn’t been abandoned in spite of the weird ghosts – because plants and other resources from that world were vital to the continued existence and regeneration of ours. This book took a very optimistic look at humans and showed that our ability to love and hope meant that we would find a way to have a future even when things looked scary and bleak.

The author did a really good job of not letting her world-building or science fiction action get in the way of the relationship. Murphy and Elizabeth are the primary focus of the book and stay that way even as the battle wages to see what the future holds for alien and human. This novel also just has the unique feel of a romance novel read complete with love triangles, women (and gentlemen) scorned and sex that takes precedence over world altering problems. Sometimes these things were a bit eye roll-inducing, but they also added to the general fun factor and didn’t detract from the story.

What ultimately kept the book from being a DIK for me, though, was the weirdness of the world building. A symbiotic planet that had aliens who sprang up in the form of dead relatives seemed to me something that would require very careful handling and a lot of research. There was also an ick factor involved in the relationships that occurred between human and ghosts. One prominent couple was a wife who had lost her husband and was now dealing with his return via alien. It didn’t seem romantic to me that they might reunite because he wasn’t really her husband. He was an alien! And it bothered me that the ghosts never seemed to have any sense of who they were as aliens; they were all re-creations of humans from Earth and acted only as that re-creation. There was no sense of their own “otherness.” The idea that the planet was supplying the humans with a relationship they needed might be interesting but it also made me ask the question why. Just what exactly was happening on Ardagh 1, why was it happening and why was I the only wondering if we shouldn’t get back on the ships and look for a place a bit less creepy?

Those thoughts came after though. During the read you are completely caught up in what is happening in the story and less worried with the questions which may plague you later. I think this works because the focus is so much on Elizabeth and Murphy, who are looking for answers that we can forgive how comfortable everyone else seems with the weirdness.

I would heartily recommend this story. It is the kind of smart, serious science fiction that we don’t often find in SF romance. The flaws might keep it from being a breathtakingly great read but they don’t change the fact that it is a darn good one.

-- Maggie Boyd

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