Another non-Andrew-Smith book! Shock … horror.
It is this bad boy:
Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is one of those rare books that you kinda feel is written specifically for you.
If I had to liken it to anything I’d say it’s got the plot intricacies and governmental story arcs of Star Wars mixed with the funny, cosy style of writing of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (one of my favourites, but weirdly I haven’t included it in this blog series), and it’s really down to a lovely bunch of backers on Kickstarter that the book exists: Becky Chambers wrote in her acknowledgements that if it weren’t for those generous souls, she would have had to have found another job, which would mean she wouldn’t have been able to write it.
So the basic plot line (no spoilers):
A few hundred years into the future (just a guess; I can’t recall seeing anywhere that mentions how far exactly) Ashby Santoso is the captain of the Wayfarer, a tunnelling spaceship that literally punches holes in the universe to make tunnels between galaxies and star systems. Ashby receives a job offer that he can’t refuse, and so he and his crew travel a stupidly long way, all expenses paid, to a colony of extremely dangerous, volatile creatures in order to make a tunnel. It’s space adventure mixed with a little bit of interspecies romance and a lot of language barriers.
There is an exceptional cast of characters:
- Ashby: Captain
- Rosemary: Newly appointed Administrative Clerk
- Kizzy and Jenks: Mechanical and Computer technicians
- Dr Chef: Literally what his name says.
- Corbin: Algaeist
- Sissix: Pilot
- Ohan: Navigator
- Lovey: AI
Kizzy was probably my favourite, and I’m guessing that it was Chambers’s intentions to create a character so likeable it’s almost sickening.
Jenks, Kizzy’s technician partner, has a very morally ambiguous relationship with Lovey, the ship’s AI (short for Lovelace, which I’m guessing is a generous nod to Ada Lovelace, who invented algorithms and is often cited as the world’s first computer programmer. A pretty fitting name!) Jenks is just as wonderful as Kizzy; his heart’s in the right place but his decisions aren’t always well thought out.
Sissix belongs to a species of polygamous, orgy-obsessed reptiles, the Aandrisks. Ohan, Sissix’s navigator, is probably the hardest to describe, given the fact that he is a single character referred to as “they”. It was a little difficult to get my head around at first, but once you find out more about Ohan, it’s actually really sweet that everyone aboard the Wayfarer is respectful enough to identify Ohan as a plural. Ohan is a “sianat pair”, basically an individual who has been infected with a virus that gives them a multi-dimensional view of the universe, hence why they are useful as navigators. It’s essentially one character being possessed by a secondary character and an aspect of the characterisation as a whole that I found particularly imaginative. Bravo, Becky!
For me, Ashby is a little too soft for a captain, but considering that Chambers’s aptitude for producing characters that go against the stereotypical grain (specifically with regards to gender, race/species, culture and hierarchical systems) I think that may have been a way of challenging what it means to be a leader. Ashby is very accepting of ideas other than his own; he is open to compromise, he is polite and respectful of other species, and he takes his female crew members seriously: a trait that a lot of our current leaders could do with adopting.
Dr Chef is the most adorable, caring, compassionate character ever! He’s a Grum: a species who (in my head) is like a mash-up of a slug, a caterpillar and a walrus but with six legs and an organ-like voice box that means he can make loads of different noises at once. I wonder if Becky Chambers was thinking of Heimlich from A Bug’s Life when she was writing Dr Chef.
Anywho, Dr Chef is aptly named; he’s a professionally trained Doctor who later retrained as a chef, so a very economical recruit on Ashby’s part.
Corbin isn’t so loveable but he is useful. He’s the ship’s Algaeist, spending his days making the fuel for the ship by cultivating algae. His character is kind of fitting, too. He’s a slimy, mean character who keeps himself to himself and cannot stand being wrong. Reading his scenes, I spent most of the time hoping someone would push him off the ship. Alas, that didn’t happen.
And last, but by no means least, is Rosemary, the newly hired Clerk. She’s practical, pragmatic and orderly, just as you’d like a clerk to be.
It’s hard to distinguish who the “main character” is as the novel is written from all of their perspectives, each getting their own share of pages in which to unravel their own story, and each is just as important as the other.
The physics of the universe is beautifully described and pretty easy to follow. The tech isn’t so futuristic that it can’t be imagined, but a lot of it is pretty neat. Chambers describes a world in which AI’s are commonplace and the tech to place them into living, functioning bodies exists, although illegally. Other tech like artificial gravity, in the form of nets that are laid into the flooring, is a pretty neat idea, and some of the weapons that Dr Chef describes when he recalls his past is horrific enough to make one’s skin crawl. Chambers’ ability to build a complex world and fill it with relatable, believable characters and all the added politics of intergalactic relationships and alliances is testament to her skills as a writer.
The story itself is brilliantly paced; although the novel is mainly character driven there are still moments of action, of comedy and of seriously upsetting tear-jerking emotional stuff. There is intergalactic political turmoil in which the Toremi Ka (the nasty dangerous species I wrote about above) ignore the conditions set out by the Galactic Commons for their alliance. There are blood-curdling stories of warfare and of sacrifice; stories of language barriers; stories of comradeship and camaraderie; stories of love and loss, of parenthood, of same-sex parenthood and equally moving stories of non-parenthood.
What struck me as probably the most poignant strand throughout the book was that of the plight of humans. Humans are no longer the dominant species: there are species that rule the galaxies who are bigger and stronger and less stupid than we are (those species don’t poison their own planets). The humans, once they had fought all their wars and fucked up their planet until it was no longer habitable, left Earth behind. The rich went to Mars and built weapons. Others, the Exodans, left later, and others still remain on a barren Earth and survive on what’s left of their mostly destroyed planet. I don’t really know why I love the fact that humans ballsed-up their own existence so much, but it felt really good to have acknowledgment in a fictional work of the direction we’re going in if we don’t pull our finger out and stop killing ourselves.
Another aspect of the novel that struck me as deft and beautiful are all the little character quirks that don’t force the idea of normativity (that is, heterosexuality, monogamy and gender binary) on the reader. The characters are allowed space to be themselves and the fact that the focus is on the actual human/alien/sapient species, rather than just their gender identity or sexuality, is really refreshing. Chambers isn’t making a statement about these things, they are just part of her characters’ everyday lives, just as they are aspects of everyone’s identity in real life. Same-sex, interspecies and polyamorous relationships are written about with grace and ease, gender-ambiguous characters are given the respectful pronouns of xe (rather than he/she) and xyr (rather than his/her). I’m a huge ambassador for everyone being able to live their own lives how they want to – whether cis or trans, binary or non-binary, gay or straight or somewhere in between – for me, personally, the acknowledgment of all the differences that make us who we are was one of the loveliest parts of the book.
Really, though, it was an excellent read, and one that will stay with me for a very long time. And thankfully, there’ll be a sequel in October this year!! Woooooo!