Tuesday 29 December 2015

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

I've been seeing quite a few very enthusiastic book blogger reviews of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet lately, including this one by Books and Pieces, so I decided to give it a try even though I would not have picked it up based on its cover or plot description.

The book starts briskly. Rosemary is waking up just before the end of a journey in a single-person space cubicle, on approach to the Wayfarer, a big tunnelling ship where she is about to start a new life as a clerk. Meanwhile, on the tunnelling ship, the benevolently paternal captain deals with the hassle of inter-crew arguments, and gets a tip-off that a huge opportunity for his business might be just around the corner, now that he has an admin person (which indicates to the bureaucracy at the heart of the intergalactic alliance that he's taking his work seriously)...

The Wayfarer is a ship creating wormholes between star systems - basically, an interstellar road builder. Its crew is minimal: two techies, a pilot, a captain, an algae expert (the ship is fuelled by algae), a doctor who is also a cook, a navigator, and an A.I. (the ship's computer). Rosemary is about to be the ship's admin assistant / clerk / accountant.

It's a well-written book. The prose flows pleasantly, there is a sense of fun and joyfulness about it, and the story plods along from one feel-good scene to the next. Unfortunately, there isn't really much of an overarching plot. The story is episodic, with almost every chapter telling a different episode of their journey. It's a cheerful road (building) movie in space.

It is very obvious is that the story was inspired by Firefly and seemingly created from a wish list of themes and ideas that the people derogatorily called 'Social Justice Warriors' might have come up with. (Social Justice Warriors is a derogatory term for people who want a more equal world, with opportunities for all, and a more diverse, multicultural, multiracial, multisexual representation of life in fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy)

Kizzy Shao
The story creates its highly multi-faceted microcosm by making almost every character good-hearted and kind, missing out any real antagonists, and creating colourful backgrounds and interests for each. Kizzy, the mechanic, is a more cartoonish, hyper version of Firefly's Kailee, with two dads, a penchant for gaming, stimulants and junk food and a very extrovert, enthusiastic, child-like demeanour. Her best friend and colleague Jenks is a geek who is involved in a romantic relationship that is quite unconventional. Sissix is an alien reptile woman with a very different attitude towards love, physical affection, and family. Captain Ashby, too, is involved in a non-traditional relationship, and throughout the book I imagined him as a slightly less grouchy Mal from Firefly, which worked quite well. (He's also a pacifist, though, so none of the gun-slinging cowboy stuff applies).  Rosemary is fleeing from a secret in her past. Corbin, the grumpy algae expert, is racist, but not exactly evil, just very judgmental, stubborn, quick to lash out and not bothering with politeness. Doctor Chef is a six-legged alien who loves nothing more than cooking for people and healing them - he's a very mothering sort. Ohan, the navigator, is a devoutly religious alien bear who is worshipping the virus in his brain, which gives him special space seeing powers. And Lovey is the A.I. in the ship's computer, a very personable, tender personality caring for her crew.

It's a crew bursting at the seems with diversity and happy, kind coexistence (except for Corbin, who keeps himself to himself and growls at people a lot, and Ohan, who just keeps himself to himself).

Whenever the crew meet new aliens of indeterminate sex, they dutifully use gender-neutral pronouns and try hard not to be judgmental about cultural differences. Ohan is even always referred to in the plural because of his belief that he is two people due to his virus. Basically, it's the universe that feels most like a natural extrapolation of political correctness, only without any trolls.

At pit stops along the way, we get to meet more kind, goodhearted people who are not standard nuclear families. In fact, trying to think of any traditional relationships and couples, I can't think of any at all in this book. Maybe Rosemary's family background?

Ohan the Navigator
When it comes to the aliens, the book is quite refreshing in imagining aliens that are genuinely different from most modern human societies. Sissix' race has a very different attitude to childcare and families, Doctor Chef has a very different sexual genesis, and the aliens at the galactic core are perhaps the most different of all. Ohan is a bit of an Eeyore character - extremely introvert, constantly gazing outside windows, never really speaking much. The book takes great care not to judge any of the characters and their races, and to show them through the eyes of open-minded, kindhearted characters who constantly remind themselves not to judge, to respect, to live and let live.

The episodic nature of the plot reminds me of The Best of All Possible Worlds - another scifi novel with a heart of kindness. What made The Best of All Possible Worlds more satisfying to read is that there is a central character arc with a growing relationship at its heart. There is less of a sense of a larger plot arc in Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Neither book has much in the way of antagonists, but Karen Lord's novel shows us characters getting to know each other and adjusting to each other's foibles over time, whereas this one has the protagonist fit in within days on board, and everyone be a happy family for most of the journey. Long Way to a Small Angry Planet creates tension and excitement within its episodes, and even character growth and progression, but it does not have a strong through-line in its story.

I kept reading this book because I enjoyed it more than the other books I was reading at the time, but I did not find myself making time to read this. I was not so hooked that I would keep reading until the end of a chapter if I was slightly tired, for example. On the whole, it's a pleasant, but not spectacular novel, with a good heart and the best of intentions, but a little too fluffy for my taste.

Rating: 3.5/5


Nicky said...

Important browncoat note: it's spelt Kaylee! (Technically her name is Kaywinnet Lee Frye. You can see why she shortens it.)

I really need to get round to reading this -- it sounds like good fun, at least.

Federhirn said...

Mea Culpa re: the spelling of Kailee / Kaylee...

I have a notion that this book might gain more traction among female SF/F readers than male ones. It's very huggy.

Nicky said...

Huggy sounds good right now. You're selling me on it.