Posted on December 30, 2016
67. ‘The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet’ by Becky Chambers
Oh boy, I went on a bit of a rollercoaster with this book, and even though it’s a week since I read it, I still haven’t entirely decided what I think about it.
The first thing to mention is that I thought this book would be something else. I was expecting something literary and poetic, but it is more of a straight-up sci-fi adventure. Which is good. Actually, I read the first page and was convinced that I was going to love it because I got a strong Wool vibe.
So The Long Way wasn’t what I expected, but it turned out to be something just as enjoyable, in a different way. The story follows an eclectic group of travellers who live and work together on a spaceship called the Wayfarer, which can punch holes in the fabric of space to allow for fast transportation between planets. The crew consists of a human captain, Ashby, as well as four other humans (Rosemary, Jenks, Kizzy and Corbin) and a variety of aliens/robots (Sissix the reptilian Aandrisk, Dr. Chef the multi-handed Grum, Lovey the ship’s AI, and Ohan the navigator who identifies as a ‘pair’ because of the virus that lives inside him). Early on in the story the crew is tasked with travelling for a ‘standard’ (about a year) to a distant part of the galaxy, in order to punch a hole back to where they started so that a new civilisation (the warlike Toremi) can be connected to the Galactic Commons community. On the way they encounter all kinds of unexpected adventures and richly drawn alien civilisations, and learn to live together.
So far, so exciting, but one of the main problems I had with the book was that the overarching journey seemed to be, for the most part, forgotten. Of course, throughout the book the crew is travelling to the distant galaxy, but I didn’t get a real sense of the scale of the journey because they never seemed to leave familiar territory. They made stop-offs at planets populated by friends and family, they bumped into other people they knew flying around in space, they encountered places they’d at least heard off on their home planets … and then right at the end they arrived at the Toremi galaxy, all stir-crazy because they’ve been cooped up in their ship for so long. It was sudden and a little jarring. I didn’t feel that gradual decline into claustrophobia; it was more like a planet-hopping tour of the galaxy to visit loved ones and learn about each other’s cultures.
In fact, this was the my impression of the book as a whole. It presents itself as a grand adventure story, but it comes across more like a series of short stories in which the grand adventure is incidental and the real focus is discovering the universe and its inhabitants. That’s fine, of course – a really great idea for a book, even, because Chambers clearly has a lot of awesome ideas to show off – but the way it was done made it seem like it was trying to be something that it wasn’t. It was a fast-paced adventure told through a series of slow-paced character studies. It just didn’t quite work.
My other quibble with The Long Way is a little odd: this book is incredibly polite. In this vast, space-age future, everyone is very careful about not using derogatory terms against species, about not assuming gender or sexuality, and about using the correct pronouns for each other. Obviously as a real-world aim this is noble – I’m by no means arguing that we shouldn’t all be nice to each other – but at times it felt like everyone in the book was trying too hard to be polite and it got a little annoying. Perhaps in a world where we start mingling with alien species we also manage to overcome the stupidity of discriminating against each other based on arbitrary criteria like race, gender or sexuality – but won’t there always be a few dickheads? Would everyone, really, stop being mean to each other? Chambers has created a lovely, mostly harmonious universe in which every planet contains old friends, and pirate attacks can be stopped by emotional appeals to their parental instincts, but I have to say it seems pretty unrealistic.
However, Chambers does provide an explanation for the humans’ goodness, at least. In this book, humans are divided into Exodans and Solans. The Exodans were essentially refugees from Earth who fled from all the warfare in a ship bound for nowhere and were discovered by aliens; these Exodans are now spread throughout the universe. The Solans moved to other planets, such as Mars, and left their warring roots behind on Earth. A hangover of all this fleeing from warfare is that humans are now basically pacifists. They’ve seen enough war and don’t ever want to do it again. Once again, this is a lovely idea, but removing our darker instincts does somewhat take the teeth out of humanity. I’m very pleased that they’re all anti-gun and pro-live-and-let-live (in fact, I’d like to live in that world), but is that really the stuff of a fun, exciting adventure? Maybe I’m just an asshole, but for me, in this case, it wasn’t.
I don’t want to be all doom and gloom. There really is some ripping adventure in this story, a whole host of badass female characters in positions of power, and lots of detail about Chambers’ clearly very rich and thought-out world. It’s a very enjoyable read, especially if you like (the obvious comparison) Firefly. It just didn’t quite do it for me.
“Perhaps the ache of homesickness was a fair price to pay for having so many good people in her life.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
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