Some might say my interests are very narrow, in terms of reading, comics, films, music and TV. Throughout the majority of my life, I’ve not been able to share my interests with friends. Mostly because I don’t have many. I’ve always thought that it was because no-one relates to me and I don’t relate to anyone else. No-one gets my obsession with Buffy. How can I love Casablanca and Eraserhead and The Crow and Princess Mononoke. I’ve never read a Harry Potter book and I’ve no interest, but I’ve read all of Lev Grossman’s Magicians books. My favourite book is Brave New World. One day I’m listening to Consolidated and Ministry, the next it is DJ Shadow and Lamb, the day after Motley Crüe and Little Angels, the next Pearl Jam and Pixies. The people close to me in life don’t share my interests.
I am a middle-aged, middle-class, white straight male.
The plot of Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is fairly straight forward, in terms of far-future space opera. There’s a ship called the Wayfayer, crewed by aliens, who are, by most definitions, the good guys. A new recruit, Rosemary (how science fiction is that name!), joins the ship as it embarks on a mission to provide a new wormhole route to the titular planet; which might mean a new alliance.
Humans are in the minority within the galaxy.
After reading the first 50 pages of this book my thoughts were that a. this was far from the greatest story I’ve ever read and b. I was enjoying this far more than I thought I would. It was fun. I don’t do hype (and yet I’m a huge fan of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe). I tend to run away from hype as if it was poisonous and there to harm my sensibilities. Or my sense of self. Hence then not reading Harry Potter. I’m sure they’re brilliant books and I’m also sure I’d enjoy them, but I can’t bring myself to read them – mostly because when they were the Big Thing, everyone on the London Underground was reading them; the same everyone who would dismiss me for my tastes and interests. I remember going to see David Cronenberg’s Crash in the cinema. I overheard someone in the row behind me saying that they hated science fiction. FFS.
Outsiders tends to attract each other. Tribes form. Goths and punks. Cosplayers. Comic book fans. Sometimes, the tribe turns its back on its own.
I really like Chambers’ world-building in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I thought it was well handled and not too much was narrative exposition. It revealed itself naturally and sometimes there was no explanation. Aliens have handfeet. The crew use SoberUps after a heavy night. The kind of descriptions that you’d expect in a good way. A drink called mek is never explained in detail. The universe is populated by aliens not from Star Trek where most are humanoid, but from Farscape, when evolution plays out differently. The brilliant evolutionary palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould once said: “If you could rewind the tape of life, erasing what actually happened and let it run again, you’d get a different set of ten each time.” What he meant was that the way life is today is as unlikely as any other form, so theoretically, on other planets that support life, other body forms might become the dominant intelligence. He also said that “Nothing is more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview”.
Chambers’ book tackles diversity in many forms: class, sexuality, individuality, parasitic-relationships and just being plain different. It celebrates diversity and that is something so very important. Stand a middle class white man next to me and I struggle to relate to him. How can I relate to a transgender from Argentina? I can’t, but fiction reminds me that inside, we all bleed and hurt and laugh and love. Chambers rejoices in this.
The world would be better if everyone tried to be nicer. I try to be nice, although I often fail. People frustrate me.
All good science fiction has a warning and this book is no different. Judge not lest you be judged. Also, humanity is stupid and it messed with genetics and things went bad. Fair enough and a standard SF trope. But well handled. It takes confidence in your own writing to pull something like this off. It has elements of the old-fashioned romance of Star Wars, the mischievous adventure of Firefly, the normalcy of Alien; and the camaraderie and humanity of all of the above. I’ve not read a book where aliens buy soap, or revel in cooking.
I feel like an alien.
“Nobody should be alone”, Sissix – a dinosaur-like being – says. While not alone in life, some of us are always alone in our passions. “She’s just different.” The character continues. Different is good. Different is something to be proud of, but it can be lonely.
I loved the descriptions and imagination behind the alien species Chambers has in her book. I won’t spoil the enjoyment of discovery for future readers, but my favourite by far is Dr Chef. It is interesting that the main negative character is a human male, even though he has plenty of demons to blame. And it’s nice to see a space-ship crew which is not full of flawless hero types full of daring-do.
There are 2 reasons why this isn’t the perfect story. For whatever reason, I didn’t feel a great emotional empathy with the individual characters. Rosemary and Sissix, and Ashby and Pei have terrific relationships. The most gut-wrenching twist in a fictional relationship is when Lyra and Will realise their heart-breaking destiny in The Amber Spyglass. The closest The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet comes is Jenks and Lovey, which doesn’t quite hit the mark for me. The second reason is the slight episodic nature of the plot. It almost feels like it was written as short episodes of a TV show (Farscape for example), with mini-pickles and world-building diversions (which is a better way of doing it than narrative exposition). The narrative didn’t flow as one book.
There is a lot of fun and joy to be had in this book. The quality of the writing is great. All the characters are multi-dimensional. The pay-off is worth the read. It’s the relationships; the warmth and family the crew have for each that makes this story better than it otherwise could have been.
I’ve longed in the past to be part of Mal Reynolds crew. I’d happily join the Wayfarer too. I’d love to find that kind of acceptance. Tribe. Family.
This review is thanks to a ePub edition from NetGalley