Monday, 30 March 2015

Book Review | The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Somewhere within our crowded sky, a crew of wormhole builders hops from planet to planet, on their way to the job of a lifetime. To the galaxy at large, humanity is a minor species, and one patched-up construction vessel is a mere speck on the starchart. This is an everyday sort of ship, just trying to get from here to there.

But all voyages leave their mark, and even the most ordinary of people have stories worth telling. A young Martian woman, hoping the vastness of space will put some distance between herself and the life she‘s left behind. An alien pilot, navigating life without her own kind. A pacifist captain, awaiting the return of a loved one at war.

Set against a backdrop of curious cultures and distant worlds, this episodic tale weaves together the adventures of nine eclectic characters, each on a journey of their own.


Self-published in the wake of a successful Kickstarter campaign before being picked up by a traditional genre fiction imprint, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet makes its move into the mainstream this month: a real rollercoaster of a path to market I urge you to ride when it arrives. 

Not for nothing did the Kitschies shortlist this progressive piece de resistance. Imagine smashing the groundbreaking, breathtaking science fiction of Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch saga against the salty space opera of The ExpanseThe Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet lacks the wall-to-wall action of that latter, and some of the former's finesse, yes—nevertheless, Becky Chambers' debut is a delight.

Rosemary Harper is on the run. Whether from someone or something, she won't say—not today—but whatever the shape this danger takes, she's taking it very seriously indeed. She's frittered away her life savings on Mars' black market, the better to lay claim to a new name, and gotten herself a job as good as guaranteed to see her light years from the only home Rosemary has ever known.
Never in her life had she worried about credits or having a place to go home to. But with the last of her savings running thin and her bridges burned behind her, there was no margin for error. The price of a fresh start was having no one to fall back on. 
No pressure, or anything. (p.14)
Hers is a scary situation, to be sure, but also an exhilarating one—though you wouldn't think it from the description of Rosemary's responsibilities, which revolve around wrangling a whole lot of formwork. But everyone does a little of everything aboard the Wayfarer, ie. "the ugliest ship" (p.15) she's ever seen:
It was blocky and angular, with the exception of a bulging dome that stuck out from the back like a warped spine. This was not a ship designed for fussy commercial passengers. There was nothing sleek or inspiring about it. It was bigger than a transport ship, smaller than a cargo carrier. The lack of wings indicated that this was a ship that had been built out in space, a ship that would never enter an atmosphere. The underside of the vessel held a massive, complex machine—metallic and sharp, with rows of tooth-like ridges angled toward a thing, protracted spire. She didn't know much about ships, but from the mismatched colours of the outer hull, it looked as though whole sections had been cobbled together, perhaps originating from other vessels. A patchwork ship. (p.15)
A patchwork ship crewed by a proper patchwork of people, even! Unfortunately Corbin, a creep by all accounts—mean, superior, and short-tempered too—is the first member of the team Rosemary meets. He doesn't make the best first impression on our impressionable young clerk, but Sissix saves the day when she takes over the ten-cent tour. She's an Aandrisk, a scale-skinned sapient with a crest of feathers in place of her hair, but that doesn't matter. Not to Rosemary—she's only slightly shell-shocked by Sissix because she's led such a sheltered life herself—nor to any of the other personalities the pilot introduces her to.

There's the navigator, Ohan, an ailing Sianat Pair and plural person; there are the tattooed techs, fizzy Kizzy and jovial Jenks; there's Lovelace, an aging AI and the object of Jenks' illicit affections; lest we forget Dr Chef, a Grum—one of the last of his species, and currently a he—who does the cooking and the caring. Last but not least, we have the Wayfarer's captain, Ashby:
After he'd first left home, all those years ago, he'd sometimes wondered if he'd go back to the Fleet to raise kids, or if he'd settle down on a colony somewhere. But he was a spacer through and through, and he had the itch for drifting. As the years went on, the thought of making a family had dwindled. The point of a family, he'd always thought, was to enjoy the experience of bringing something new into the universe, passing on your knowledge, and seeing part of yourself live on. He had come to realise that his life in the sky filled that need. He had a crew that relied on him, and a ship that continued to grow, and tunnels that would last for generations. To him, that was enough. (p.56)
Or so it was once, but when the Wayfarer is offered a mission that will make its every employee beaucoup bucks, Ashby realises he can't rightly refuse the future forever. To wit, he takes his team into uncharted territory; to "the bleeding edge of the [Galactic Commons]" (p.362) and beyond by way of "a cracking scab of a planet" (p.389) called Hedra Ka. "It was a young world, unwelcoming, resentful of its existence," (p.390) and Ashby is all too aware that danger awaits there. On the other hand, he has no idea that everything will change for the crew of the Wayfarer on the way.

What you'll notice about the story beats I've summarised so far is that the plot appears almost an afterthought, and it's true that there's precious little of it. The last act is relatively eventful, but in advance of that, aside an equipment failure here and a boarding by aliens there, Chambers favours small, character-focused moments over explosive set-pieces and such.

A balls-to-the-wall blockbuster this novel is not. By design, I dare say, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet feels more like a miniseries than a movie: a smart, Showtime sort of something led not by narrative but by a distinctive and refreshingly diverse cast of characters, each of whom plays a role in the whole in addition to having his or her—or indeed xyr—moment in the speculative spotlight. In these scenes, the author explores a tremendous spread of subjects such as sexuality, gender, identity, parenthood, personhood, race, tradition and religion, by dint of which ambition Chambers' episodic debut does have its slow moments.

Even during the aforementioned doldrums, though, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet proves practically impossible to put down. It may be more of a soap opera in space than a proper space opera, but the ensemble is sensitively incepted and deftly directed, and in the final summation, the fiction's sfnal elements, wrapped up as they are in character rather than narrative, feel far from superfluous. In the meantime, the milieu truly teems with life—both as we know it and as we don't.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet might be lacking in action, and its simplistic plot can't compete with either the depth and complexity of Chambers' cast of characters or the sense of wonder suggested by her stellar setting. But this delightful debut isn't really about the eponymous angry planet—it's about the long way there—so whilst I wish its destination had been better developed, the journey? A joy.


The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
by Becky Chambers

UK Publication: March 2015, Hodder

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