July 14, 2016
(+++) LOST, AND FOUND, IN SPACE
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. By Becky Chambers. Harper Voyager. $15.99.
It’s all about the journey. Becky Chambers has rung some changes on science-fiction standards, in which “getting there” generally matters a lot less than where one gets to – which is where the action is. There is precious little action in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which is about – well, the title really says it all. A young Mars-born woman named Rosemary boards a ship called the Wayfarer, a good SF sort of name, to get away from her own past and build herself a new life somewhere “out there.” This is a basic trope of science fiction, one of many that Chambers has absorbed – and one of many that she tweaks, sometimes decidedly and sometimes subtly, in telling the story of Rosemary and her shipmates.
Those fellow travelers come in all sorts – again, a trope of SF. Some are helpful, some less so, some downright prickly, but, and this is something out of the ordinary, most are basically nice. And even the less-than-nice ones are invariably interesting: these characters have real character, something that is not particularly unusual in this genre but that rarely becomes as central to the plot as it is here.
In truth, there is not much plot. The Wayfarer essentially builds roads – star roads, ways that allow other ships to get from Point A to Point B more quickly and more safely than Wayfarer itself can. There is nothing really special about Wayfarer or, by implication, its crew or job – and that makes this book all the more interesting. There is a fascinating mundanity to the otherworldly exploits here; indeed, calling them “exploits” is stretching things a bit, because for all the standard-for-SF vocabulary (bay doors, navigation hub, ambi cells, the pronouns “xe” and “xyr,” a course called “Intro to Harmagian Colonial History,” and so on), not very much happens in the course of the book. There is strangeness here, but Chambers makes it a point to show that if aliens are strange, so are humans – in this book, there is no unified human spacefaring culture but a series of different, competing or complementary ones, plus some class-and-origin-based prejudice.
Within 50 pages or so, readers of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet will understand exactly what they are getting: an exploration of the interactions of a group of characters confined for a long time in a small space and learning about each other and themselves as a result. That is exactly what readers get for the remaining 400 or so pages. Chambers bends over backwards to be inclusive, to the point that a certain level of PC-ness pervades the book (and becomes somewhat off-putting after a while). There is a lot of love in this novel, a lot of it, and that is a wonderful thing, but Chambers’ determination to offer total inclusiveness (all human gender relationships are just fine, all alien sexuality is taken at face value, all everything is caught up in a wave of sunny anti-prejudicial treatment) becomes, after a while, a touch on the insistent side. Still, in contrast to the usual SF approach, in which pretty much all the characters are white and straight, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet has much to recommend it.
The book, originally published in England last year and now available in the U.S. as a paperback, is not without conflict. There are bad people – bad beings, if you will – and some bad things happen, including thievery and even tragic (or at least pathos-laden) death. And the character variety can become a tad overwhelming: Captain Ashby, an Exodan human (his forebears left earth to find a better home), is in love with Pei, a fishlike Aeulon; the ship’s chef and doctor is a Grum with six appendages ending in “handfeet” – his species is almost extinct; the crew also includes an obnoxious algaeist (the ship is powered by algae), an Aandrisk (a feathered, lizard-like being), and more. The book is about trust, acceptance and the many forms that can be taken by caring, concern and cooperation (and love); it is only incidentally about a ship hired to bore a wormhole near the core of the galaxy and needing more than a year to travel there. There is a fair amount of laughter in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and it is a welcome antidote to the extreme seriousness of so much SF. There is also an overall sense that Chambers has created an extended group hug in which love, if it does not quite conquer all, comes doggone close with a little redefinition and extension of the term. Again, this is basically a nice book about nice people – however “people” may be defined. And if all the foundational pleasantness becomes a trifle treacly and cloying from time to time, at least the repetitive material here involves closeness and the gradual assembly of a strange, multifaceted family, rather than lots of technologically driven destructiveness and grand schemes of larger-than-life good and bad guys. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is, at its heart, not really science fiction: it is fantasy, and just the sort of fantasy that many readers will wish could become reality if and when humans do eventually travel toward the galactic center.