The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
This SF novel has been one of the great discoveries of recent years – a self-published kickstarter debut that was picked up by a big publisher and then longlisted for the Baileys Prize earlier this year. The book is now shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award. Although it is the only one on the ACC Award shortlist I’ve had time to read, I loved it so much I hope it wins. There, that’s my stall set out!
The Long Way, (as I’ll abbreviate it to), is space opera, but it’s space opera with a loving heart – you can’t say a human heart as the cliché goes – for it is full of alien species – ‘sapients’ mostly living in relative harmony with each other…
The Wayfarer is a tunneling ship, a patchwork vessel whose job is to create and stabilise wormholes in between space to make travel over great distances possible and safe. Captain and ship owner Ashby Santoso would like to take on more challenging jobs, but lacks the capital to upgrade his ship.
As the novel starts a new member of crew is arriving on board. Rosemary Harper has been engaged to get the ship’s admin into order. She’s a young woman from the Earth colonies on Mars, and has a secret that she’s trying to escape from. We won’t find out what it is until well into the novel. Rosemary’s first meetings with the crew are a great way to introduce us too.
The crew members are a wonderful mix of humans and aliens including second in command, Sissiz, the beautiful green-scaled Aandrisk, whose sensuous saurian body is topped with a multicoloured crest of feathers. It’s algaeist Corbin (these ships run on algae fuel which they grow on-board), who was given the job of showing Rosemary around after the ship’s AI, Lovey, brings her aboard and flashes any bugs away. Corbin is a boring, whiney pain, but so essential to the ship’s crew, who are grateful that he’s a bit of a loner most of the time. Soon Rosemary meets larger than life, bold and fun-loving mech tech Kizzy and the diminutive comp tech Jenks, (who is in love with Lovey), and Dr Chef the, well, doctor and chef. Dr Chef is a divine cook and gardener as well as medic – he is a Grum, ‘If you crossed an otter with a gecko, then made it walk like a six-legged caterpillar, you’d be getting somewhere.’
They all gather for a meal, but there’s one chair left empty:
‘Who sits here?’ she asked.
‘Ah,’ said Dr Chef. ‘A tricky question. No one, technically, but it’s meant for Ohan.’
Rosemary registered the name. ‘Right, Sissix said xe’s nocturnal,’ she said, choosing a neutral pronoun. It was the only polite thing to do when no gender signifiers had been given.
Ashby smiled and shook his head. ‘They. Ohan’s a Sianat Pair. Male, but we still say “they”.’
… Sianats were the stuff of urban legends back home – a reclusive race who could conceptualise multidimensional space as easily as a Human could do algebra. Their mental aptitude was not innate, however. Sianat culture was structured around a neurovirus they called the Whisperer… it altered the brain functions of the host.
Rosemary finds that she fits perfectly into the crew and is soon earning her keep. She experiences the weird sensations of going through the between space on a tunnel punch job, she goes shopping with Kizzy at a spaceport market, she meets the crews’ friends. Chambers gets us settled into the routine life of the ship going between jobs, space ports, markets, routine maintenance and stops for R&R. We get to know everyone in more detail, we learn some of their personal histories and through their different points of view; their secrets start to be revealed – but I won’t spoil any of that for you.
Having beguiled us into a cozy state, it’s time for the Wayfarer’s biggest adventure yet. They are offered a tunneling job that will put them into the premier league. They must travel the long way towards the galactic core where the Galactic Commons are trying to negotiate a treaty and trade-deal with the vicious and war-mongering tribal race, the Toremi, to punch a wormhole near one of their home-worlds – the small angry planet of the title. It’ll take months to get there, and no time at all in comparison to punch the hole and get back, but this will be dangerous work…
This novel was a joy to read from the very first page. You can’t help but like the crew – and as we’ll find out, even Corbin has a good side. Ashby is a superb captain to work for, capable of balancing friendship and leadership effectively, being a cool dude one moment, then decision-maker the next . Kizzy is just, well Kizzy! Totally madcap, but a girl that really does know her stuff. It’s not all fun and games though, in particular, the romance of Jenks and Lovey is beset by problems, and Ohan will have their own crisis apart from the dangers of their mission.
All of the crew have depth and well-rounded characters, and form an inclusive bunch in the best Star Trek tradition (additionally, the Galactic Commons are the equivalent of the Federation and the Toremi take the place of the Cardassians in this narrative). However, the story is told with Red Dwarf’s sense of humour which keeps things light-hearted and optimistic even in the darkest moments.
Perhaps the biggest success of all is that Chambers makes you want to be part of this band of space adventurers – I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do than be part of the Wayfarer’s crew. I loved this book! The good news is – the sequel, A Closed and Common Orbit, comes out in October – (and I’ve got a proof copy!) – I can’t wait! (10/10)
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Source: Own copy
Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015) Paperback, 432 pages.