The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

by Becky Chambers

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Publisher: CreateSpace
Copyright: 2014
ISBN: 1-5004-5330-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 503

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The Wayfarer is a tunneling ship: one of the small, unremarked construction ships that help build the wormhole network used for interstellar transport. It's a working ship with a crew of eight (although most people would count seven and not count the AI). They don't all like each other — particularly not the algaeist, who is remarkably unlikeable — but they're used to each other. It's not a bad life, although a more professional attention to paperwork and procedure might help them land higher-paying jobs.

That's where Rosemary Harper comes in. At the start of the book, she's joining the ship as their clerk: nervous, hopeful, uncertain, and not very experienced. But this is a way to get entirely away from her old life and, unbeknownst to the ship she's joining, her real name, identity, and anyone who would know her.

Given that introduction, I was expecting this book to be primarily about Rosemary. What is she fleeing? Why did she change her identity? How will that past come to haunt her and the crew that she joined? But that's just the first place that Chambers surprised me. This isn't that book at all. It's something much quieter, more human, more expansive, and more joyful.

For one, Chambers doesn't stick with Rosemary as a viewpoint character, either narratively or with the focus of the plot. The book may open with Rosemary and the captain, Ashby, as focal points, but that focus expands to include every member of the crew of the Wayfarer. We see each through others' eyes first, and then usually through their own, either in dialogue or directly. This is a true ensemble cast. Normally, for me, that's a drawback: large viewpoint casts tend to be either jarring or too sprawling, mixing people I want to read about with people I don't particularly care about. But Chambers avoids that almost entirely. I was occasionally a touch disappointed when the narrative focus shifted, but then I found myself engrossed in the backstory, hopes, and dreams of the next crew member, and the complex ways they interweave. Rosemary isn't the center of this story, but only because there's no single center.

It's very hard to capture in a review what makes this book so special. The closest that I can come is that I like these people. They're individual, quirky, human (even the aliens; this is from more the Star Trek tradition of alien worldbuilding), complicated, and interesting, and it's very easy to care about them. Even characters I never expected to like.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet does have a plot, but it's not a fast-moving or completely coherent one. The ship tends to wander, even when the mission that gives rise to the title turns up. And there are a lot of coincidences here, which may bother you if you're reading for plot. At multiple points, the ship ends up in exactly the right place to trigger some revelation about the backstory of one of the crew members, even if the coincidence strains credulity. Similar to the algae-driven fuel system, some things one just has to shrug about and move past.

On other fronts, though, I found The Long Way to be refreshingly willing to take a hard look at SF assumptions. This is not the typical space opera: humans are a relatively minor species in this galaxy, one that made rather a mess of their planet and are now refugees. They are treated with sympathy or pity; they're not somehow more flexible, adaptable, or interesting than the rest of the galaxy. More fascinatingly to me, humans are mostly pacifists, a cultural reaction to the dire path through history that brought them to their current exile. This is set against a backdrop of a vibrant variety of alien species, several of whom are present onboard the Wayfinder. The history and background of the other species are not, sadly, as well fleshed out as the humans, but each with at least a few twists that add interest to the story.

But the true magic of this book, the thing that it has in overwhelming abundance, is heart. Not everyone in this book is a good person, but most of them are trying. I've rarely read a book full of so much empathy and willingness to reach out to others with open hands. And, even better, they're all nice in different ways. They bring their own unique personalities and approaches to their relationships, particularly the complex web of relationships that connects the crew. When bad things happen, and, despite the overall light tone, a few very bad things happen, the crew rallies like friends, or like chosen family. I have to say it again: I like these people. Usually, that's not a good sign for a book, since wholly likeable people don't generate enough drama. But this is one of the better-executed "protagonist versus nature" plots I've read. It successfully casts the difficulties of making a living at a hard and lonely and political job as the "nature" that provides the conflict.

This is a rather unusual book. It's probably best classified as space opera, but it doesn't fit the normal pattern of space opera and it doesn't have enough drama. It's not a book about changing the universe; at the end of the book, the universe is in pretty much the same shape as we found it. It's not even about the character introduced in the first pages, or really that much about her dilemma. And it's certainly not a book about winning a cunning victory against your enemies.

What it is, rather, is a book about friendships, about chosen families and how they form, about being on someone else's side, about banding together while still being yourself. It's about people making a living in a hard universe, together. It's full of heart, and I loved it.

I'm unsurprised that The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet had to be self-published via a Kickstarter campaign to find its audience. I'm also unsurprised that, once it got out there, it proved very popular and has now been picked up by a regular publisher. It's that sort of book. I believe it's currently out of print, at least in the US, as its new publisher spins up that process, but it should be back in print by late 2015. When that happens, I recommend it to your attention. It was the most emotionally satisfying book I've read so far this year.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-04-17

Last modified and spun 2015-04-18