I have decided to write a brief book review for you today. The book is called the long way to a small angry planet. It is by Becky Chambers. And in my humble opinion, it is very good.
If I was forced at gunpoint to describe it through references to other pieces of science fiction then I’d say that it’s like a mixture between Firefly and Mass Effect, but that doesn’t really do it justice, and I’d much rather pitch it to you on it’s own two feet. The story revolves around a young human woman named Rosemary who has fled her former life to sign up with a tunnelling ship called the Wayfarer, crewed by a wonderfully diverse mix of nuanced characters who make their living by punching wormholes through the fabric of space. They live in a future where humans have abandoned Earth and spread out among the stars, in a vibrant galaxy where they aren’t major players on the galactic stage. Humans live in colony ships or cling to life on barren moons, and they have to take work where they can get it, which is where the book gets it’s cowboyish Firefly feel. Shortly after Rosemary arrives, the crew are offered a once-in-a-lifetime oppurtunity, creating a tunnel that will lead to a remote planet near the centre of the galaxy. The job is dangerous, but if they succeed, they’ll be rich, and they’ll be helping to put humanity on the map.
Nothing about that premise might seem particularly original or revolutionary, but the execution makes the long way to a small angry planet different from any other science fiction book that I’ve ever read, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Chambers has been long-listed for the Bailey’s Prize, and I think she’s entirely deserving of it.
I think it’s the focus on characters which makes the long way to a small angry planet so enjoyable. There aren’t any dramatic starship battles or space-western gunfights in Chambers’ book, because there don’t need to be. The galaxy that she describes is a precarious one full of wars and fragile alliances, but any violence occurs ‘off-screen’, as something that happens to other ships in other parts of the galaxy. We’re free to just observe the crew, learning about their daily lives, their eccentricities, their aspirations and their hidden pasts. I grew attached to them very quickly, and was perfectly content with just being a fly on the wall of their ship, allowing the narrative to progress at its own leisurely pace. They move from one job to the next, skirting danger, finding love and friendship on the planets where they stop along the way, and laying the groundwork for a heart-wrenching conclusion which had me up until three in the morning. The characters are well-rounded and entirely believable, and they come across as everyday heroes: working to overcome their flaws and banish their fears, showing extraordinary compassion for one another, and retaining their identities as ordinary people who enjoy doing ordinary things, like eating ice-cream, going to concerts, playing video games, visiting their parents, and enjoying recreational substances (especially in the case of the Wayfarer’s engineers, who are strong contenders for being my two favourite characters).
But the sense of compassion that I got from this book extends beyond the main cast of characters. Chambers has created a universe full of colourful alien species that manage to inhabit the ideal middle ground of being truly alien without alienating the reader. They are convincingly otherworldly, with deliciously weird anatomies and plenty of complicated cultural practices that must be navigated by the main characters, but they are still very ‘human’ in their behaviour. I’m sure that they themselves would be offended by that suggestion, but it is testament to Chambers’ writing ability, and the scope of her creative vision, that they can be so alien and so human at the same time. These aliens have their own flaws and virtues that are instantly recognisable to humans, despite having so many traits that require acclimatisation, both to human readers of Chambers’ book and to the human characters within the story. Watching different species struggling to navigate each other’s idiosyncrasies is actually one of the most interesting and endearing parts of the book. Chambers hasn’t created a callous dystopia or a utopian paradise, but rather a middle-ground with elements of both, where the majority of sapient lifeforms try their best to cooperate and overcome their cultural differences, without resorting to violence.
Tor has described the long way to a small angry planet as a story that‘will restore your faith in science fiction (specifically) and humanity (in general)’, and that’s exactly what it did for me. Chambers has written a refreshing new piece of science fiction, in a well-thought out and nuanced universe, which has the confidence to ask you to come along for a ride. It makes me encouraged about writing my own science fiction. Some people seem to think that ‘big universe’ science fiction can’t follow the same old formulae anymore without being tired and stale, but Chambers shows that you can absolutely write an engaging piece of science fiction which follows the same old format in a fun new way. The long way to a small angry planet has all of the traditional elements of a crew, a ship, a large interstellar political union, a diverse menagerie of fascinating alien races, and a healthy dose of convincing pseudoscience, but it is still a very palatable, enjoyable, and original story. Chambers serves it up like one the delicacies made by the Wayfarer’s enigmatic cook, gathering staple foodstuffs from the homeworlds of his crew and preparing them in a bold new way in which they have never been prepared before.