When a massive asteroid hurtles toward Earth, humanity braces for annihilation—but the end doesn’t come. In fact, it isn’t an asteroid but a three-mile-tall alien that drops down, seemingly dead, outside Little Springs, Nebraska. Dubbed “the giant,” its arrival transforms the red-state farm town into a top-secret government research site and major metropolitan area, flooded with soldiers, scientists, bureaucrats, spies, criminals, conspiracy theorists—and a murderer.

Godfall by Van Jensen
Credit: Published by Flyover Fiction


Peter Biello: Coming up in this episode. In this book, the earth is not destroyed, that the alien kind of just plops down.

Van Jensen: Life is hard. Like there are disagreements. But you can't do anything about that stuff unless you actually talk to each other.

Orlando Montoya: So in essence, it seems like Van Jensen is writing a story about America's rural-urban divide.

Peter Biello: Oh, yeah. That is exactly what's happening here.

Orlando Montoya: This podcast from Georgia Public Broadcasting highlights books with Georgia connections — hosted by two of your favorite public radio book nerds, who also happen to be your hosts of All Things Considered on GPB Radio. I'm Orlando Montoya.

Peter Biello: And I'm Peter Biello. Thanks for joining us as we introduce you to authors, their writings, and the insights behind the stories mixed with our own thoughts and ideas on just what gives these works the Narrative Edge.

Orlando Montoya: All right, Peter, it's great to be in the studio with you. What do you have today?

Peter Biello: We've got another novel. We had a novel last time after a few works of nonfiction. So nice to get back into the completely made up world this time around. This novel was called Godfall by Van Jensen, who lives in Atlanta, and he's really known for his comic books.

Orlando Montoya: And it's his first work of fiction?

Peter Biello: This is his first novel, and it's actually being made into a television show. So not bad for a first novel. It's slated to be directed by Ron Howard, too.

Orlando Montoya: So he's got this TV show coming from the novel, Godfall.

Peter Biello: Yeah. And this book, it's got a very strange premise. It's — and I say, "strange" in the best possible way, right?  This book is set in a small Nebraska town called Little Springs. And a 3-mile long dead alien body falls out of the sky and sets down softly in Little Springs.

Orlando Montoya: "Dead alien" like from outer space dead alien?

Peter Biello: From outer space, right. Just kind of falls. So for a brief period at the start of the book, before the alien falls, everyone can kind of see it coming. Everyone thinks this giant thing is about to collide with the Earth, and it's going to cause another mass extinction. Like that movie, Don't Look Up, right? I don't know if you know that movie. Essentially, a meteor is coming to Earth in like six months' time or something like that. I generally love those kinds of stories where the Earth is going to be destroyed. But this, in this book, the Earth is not destroyed, that the alien kind of just plops down.

Orlando Montoya: Plops down.

Peter Biello: Yeah. And propels most of the action of the book. So now it's there. It fell in the flattest landscape possible. And actually the image of the alien in the distance, creating a kind of creepy mountain range was a starting point for Jensen.

Van Jensen: What I saw in my mind's eye is like this unbroken horizon that all of a sudden has this very artificial, very unnatural, very frightening mountain range. And the, you know, the plot, the story of it is, is just really was me like thought experimenting like "What would happen? Where would this go?" And and really what I think gave me the passion to keep going is it's very much based on my hometown and where I grew up and the experience of this place. And so I hadn't written about that place before.

Orlando Montoya: And so this is a giant alien, is it? It's like the size of a mountain range?

Peter Biello: Yeah. It's a huge alien. It's got the spire sticking out of its chest. So that kind of gives you an indication that maybe it was killed by something? Though they really don't get into the details of how the alien was killed. It just kind of — there it is, all of a sudden. And the people in this town have to deal with it. Particularly the main character, a guy named David Blunt. He's the sheriff of Little Springs. And the action starts months and months after the alien lands — after that first sequence, of course, when we see the alien coming. Kind of jumps ahead a few months. The alien's there, the town is changed. Little Springs is transformed because the government shows up, creates something like an Area 51-esque lab around the alien. A cult comes to town and starts a kind of religious movement around the alien.

Orlando Montoya: All the freakazoids are showing up.

Peter Biello: The freakazoids show up. And I didn't mention, the alien is made of crystals. I didn't mention that, did I?

Orlando Montoya: You did not mention anything about crystals.

Peter Biello: Okay, alien is made of crystals. Which kind of makes you wonder, like, okay, that's how it landed, right? If it was made of soft tissue, it might have, like, exploded on contact. But it's made of crystals, and these crystals can send you on a trippy experience. Almost like taking mushrooms, it seems. The cult, they wear tiger masks, so they're called Tonys, like Tony the Tiger.

Orlando Montoya: Oh my goodness.

Peter Biello: Yeah, I know, it's great. Like, they like doing these crystals, right? They they reach a higher plane of existence with these things. And Little Springs is no longer small, and — and it's changing quite a bit.

Orlando Montoya: How is the town changing?

Peter Biello: And there are these graphic murders happening. That's a change.

Orlando Montoya: Okay, this is a lot happening because of the alien.

Peter Biello: Yeah, the murders are connected to the alien, for sure. But the way the town is changing really hits Sheriff David Blunt pretty hard. I mean, he grew up in this rural environment. The physical landscape is changing because of the alien, because of the people drawn to the alien, as well. And David begins to see the world as kind of an "us and them," the rural people who've been townies forever and the newcomers. And this way of viewing the world prevents him from admitting to himself that the killer could possibly be one of the townies that David identifies with.

Orlando Montoya: So they're just accepting this alien?

Peter Biello: Oh, yeah. The alien is just — it's there, it's too big to move. For the most part, it's — there's — there's no discussion about the alien actually, like, being removed or anything like that. It's a mountain range, essentially.

Orlando Montoya: Okay. So in essence, it seems like Van Jensen is writing a story about America's rural-urban divide.

Peter Biello: Oh, yeah. That is exactly what's happening here.

Van Jensen: I'm a product of a small town. I love rural America. At the same time, I've lived in cities for effectively all of my adult life. And I love cities. But we're at a time, I think, in this country where those two sides do not interact with each other, or if they do, it's just like insults hurled each way, like, and and I think there's a ton of misunderstanding, but mostly there's just no interaction. And so I just thought, wouldn't it be fascinating to write a book that's a murder mystery, but is also this like forced integration of urban and rural life, like these people having to figure out how to talk to each other, like how to — because, I mean, life is life is hard. Like, there are disagreements, but you can't do anything about that stuff unless you actually talk to each other.

Orlando Montoya: So he's writing about something that's just completely outlandish: A giant alien just falling out of the sky. Does he make it believable?

Peter Biello: I think he does. I mean, he's doing what authors do when they want to get readers to buy into a completely unbelievable premise: He introduces it early in the story. That way you, as reader, decide right away whether or not you're going to stick with this narrative — if you're going to, if you're willing to suspend disbelief. I mean, Kafka's Metamorphosis — you might remember that story from high school or college, right? It's it's the most obvious example. It starts with, as Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect. Like, that's sentence No. 1. And if you don't buy that, the rest of the story is just not going to work for you. And that's kind of what Jensen did here.

Orlando Montoya: It's like this alien is just sort of part of the ambiance of the whole scene.

Peter Biello: It's there now. You're going to have to deal with it, townspeople of Little Springs.

Orlando Montoya: I'm sure he appreciates the comparison to Kafka.

Peter Biello: You know, if I were him, I would take it as a compliment. But listen, the rest of this book seemed plausible to me as well. I mean, I think it's hard to write plausibly about law enforcement unless you know a lot about it. And Jensen does. He was a crime reporter in Arkansas for a time. And we talked about that experience, and he said he felt a bit conflicted about it.

Van Jensen: Like something horrific happens and you get this amazing front page story and you feel great about it. "Oh, I got on the front page" and you're like, "oh, yeah, but like, two people died." But with the police, you know, I definitely experienced like there are great police. There are people who really care, who really try hard, who are super invested in the community, who want to be good people. There — there are struggles against just, like, the system that they they work within. And there are also bad cops. And they do incredible amounts of damage. And so I got to see all of that.

Orlando Montoya: And in the novel is Sheriff David Blunt a good cop or a bad cop?

Peter Biello: He's definitely a good cop. He's on the right side of things, but he's not perfect. He was there to keep the peace. You could see that he was not above bending the rules to serve his community. That's his belief: serve his community. He's not bending the rules to serve some kind of narrow self-interest. And Van Jensen manages to humanize him, in part because Blunt was based more on Jensen's own father than any cop he'd met while serving as a reporter.

Van Jensen: My dad, he, you know, not a cop. He — he's a dentist. He retired as a dentist. From childhood, his dream — and he grew up in the same town — his dream was to be the dentist in this town. And then he grew up, and he did exactly that. And like, he loves this town. Like, he wants it — I mean, his family has been part of it forever — he just he wants it to continue to be the thing that is. And he does, you know, just all these incredible things all the time to enrich the community around him. And — and so that was really the seed of [David]. Like, any time I was like, "oh, what, like, how would David look at this?" It was like, "okay, here, here's here's what my dad would do."

Orlando Montoya: So the — a dentist served as a model for a sheriff.

Peter Biello: Uh, yeah. Probably a first time for that. But yeah. And I will say David, too, has his own trauma. You know, a tornado in his past, caused some damage to his family. And so he's — he's a wounded man. He's, he's a silent, strong type in some ways, which is, you know, characteristic of a sheriff, but also, he's got — he's got real feelings, too, and that that kind of helps you connect with him as a reader.

Orlando Montoya: And so let's talk about some of the good points of the book. What are the book's,characteristics that give it the narrative edge?

Peter Biello: I would say the primary one is that the story's really tight. It doesn't get bogged down in the sci-fi details about the alien. It could have, and it left me wanting more, which I think is a good thing. Like, I'm going to have questions. And if those questions aren't relevant to the themes of the book, then the answers, as far as I'm concerned, are none of my damn business. And I'm so glad Jensen kind of resisted the urge to explain things that are just obvious mysteries here.

Orlando Montoya: Fill in all—?  He, he's not filling in all the holes. Because I have, like, 10,000 questions, right? About the alien.

Peter Biello: Yeah.

Orlando Montoya: And you're saying if I asked you them right now, you would not know.

Peter Biello: There's a lot of them you don't know. I mean, you don't know why the alien was dead when it landed, but it's not relevant. It doesn't matter. What matters is that the dead alien lands in Little Springs, and that's it.

Orlando Montoya: Not even why it's set down so softly instead of just, slamming down.

Peter Biello: You know, that's such a convenient thing, right? If is slammed down, there would be no Earth. He had to slow it down for the sake of the story. But that's one of the unbelievable things that you just have to buy at the beginning of the book. It's Gregor Samsa waking up as a cockroach. The dead alien lands softly in Little Springs. Suspend disbelief right away.

Orlando Montoya: And so the narrative edge is...?

Peter Biello: So, yeah, the narrative edge, comes from the way, I think, the transformation of David Blunt is tied up into the action of the book, which is — the main action of the book is, of course, solving these murders, which [I] didn't even get into how like, grisly they are. It's all tied up to the theme, the ability to cope with a change in community, in a changing society. The world is changing. And it seems like the lesson we learned from Sheriff Blunt's experiences, were we'd be wise to adjust to the new reality rather than fight it.

Orlando Montoya: I mean, he could have chosen anything to put into a small community, you know, a Walmart or — 

Peter Biello: Right?

Orlando Montoya: — something. I mean, there's lots of things that change communities.

Peter Biello: Yeah, and you could use sort of the aliens magical crystal qualities or the sheer strangeness and the draw that that has to certain people as a — as a metaphor for the changes a Walmart could bring. You know, I think this is less sci-fi than we've made it out to be because it has a sci-fi premise, but there is some romance in it. There is some family dynamics in it, and there's the struggle, I think, in watching David Blunt get over his personal biases, and adjust to the reality he's now living in.

Orlando Montoya: All right. Well, we talked about talking statues last week and today it's aliens. So I'm looking forward to — to more. The book is Godfall by Van Jensen. And a reminder to our listeners that our conversations with the authors that you learn about on this podcast are available at gpb.org.

Peter Biello: And this one also has our conversation on camera in GPB Studios.

Orlando Montoya: Very cool. You can find Peter's full conversation with Van Jensen at gpb.org. Peter, thanks very much.

Peter Biello: Thank you Orlando.

Orlando Montoya: Thanks for listening to Narrative Edge. We'll be back in two weeks with a brand-new episode. This podcast is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Find us online at GPB.org/NarrativeEdge.

Peter Biello: You can also catch us on the daily GPB News podcast Georgia Today for a concise update on the latest news in Georgia. For more on that and all of our podcasts, go to GPB.org/Podcasts.