REVIEW: "The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet" -- A gritty-but-not-grim space opera

I.
 
I pretty much bought The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, the debut novel by Becky Chambers, on impulse because of a review on io9: "The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet Is This Year's Most Delightful Space Opera," it proclaimed, and damn if I wasn't rendered curious. Well, having torn through it, I can say that yes, it is quite delightful and I highly recommend it. I don't know if it's this year's best, but I rarely notice the exact year of publication for any given book anyway, so don't rely on me for that sort of judgment.

How could I describe The Long Way in a short, snappy sentence? I said on Goodreads (at about 25% of the way through) that it reminded me of Firefly and Titan A.E. (I'll explain why later), but less grim. Now having finished it, yeah; and I'll add Guardians of the Galaxy and Mass Effect in for good measure. There's also a noticeable British sensibility about the whole thing, as well as it being in the single-quotes-'our'-and-'re' mode of British English... strange, since the author is American-born. Oh well.

So what is The Long Way about, and why did I reference those sci-fi properties? I'll start with the abstract and work my way down. First, it reads very much like a fun serial television program: each chapter or two is a self-contained story nugget building towards the climatic (season?) finale. In particular, Chambers switches POV for each chapter, much like certain modern sci-fi television serials (or video game quests?) tend to focus on specific character arcs in a given episode. So that's why the first things to come to mind as references were visual media and not books.

Now for the setting and characters. The Long Way takes place sometime in our future: per Firefly and a long proud sf tradition, Earth has suffered ecological collapse and Humanity has fled outward to the rest of the Solar System and the stars. Interestingly, Chambers has the "Exodus Fleet" be primarily the global poor, while the rich stay behind and inherit Mars and the Solar System. Anyway, the Exodans discover (by accident!) that there's a much larger Galactic Commons out there, with plenty of established races. And so the situation once the book's story opens is that Humanity finds itself sort of in between the cases of Titan A.E. and Mass Effect: Earth isn't gone (it's currently undergoing revitalization efforts) but Humanity has only barely been accepted as a member of the GC. At least one non-Human in the story explicitly calls them (us) out on it, saying that we haven't yet grown past the stage of civilizational development where we can't stop trying to kill each other. Another character in the story hails from a race that did just that, and never grew out of it. His is a sad tale.

The story follows Rosemary Harper, a young emigré from the Martian colonies, who signs on as a ship's clerk to the Wayfarer, a hunk-of-junk ship in the grand Millennium Falcon tradition. The Wayfarer is a tunneling ship: using a piece of GC tech called an inter-spatial bore, it punches wormholes in real-space to make stable portals for fast-travel throughout the galaxy. Oh, and (hooray!) Chambers uses the sorely under-served "hyperspace is fucking weird" model, taken to the next level: When a ship is tunneling through the "sub-layer," physics and even time itself lose their definite meaning. Not even a ship's A.I. can handle the weirdness; it takes the guidance of a Navigator (see below) to avoid some serious potential fuckups.

For all that, tunneling is a gritty, blue-collar sort of business. And this is why The Long Way reminds me so much of Firefly and Guardians of the Galaxy: the characters in those stories are pretty much just above-average stiffs trying to live life and not get caught up in stuff. The difference is that the Wayfarer crew in The Long Way is very much not overtly political. They're not rebels. They just have a job to do.

II.

That doesn't mean they don't have diverse stories!

Rosemary, for example, from the beginning is seen fleeing her former life on Mars. Something to do with her family, something she gets a fake I.D. for.

The captain, a human from the Exodus Fleet named Ashby, is a pacifist (typical of Exodans) but is madly in love with an alien woman who delivers cargo for her species' military and is not necessarily against the use of weapons. Oh, and her species do not look kindly upon coupling with xenos.

There's Sissix, the pilot, from a reptilian species who are feather-headed, omnisexual, and extremely communal, yet she's on the ship alone of her species.

There's Corbin, the Dwight-Schrute-esque algaeist (they use algae for fuel), who, to put it lightly, has serious daddy issues.

There's Jenks, played by Peter Dinklage almost certainly, the ship's computer technician, who's in love with Lovelace "Lovey," the ship's A.I. But this is a working-class ship, so she's just a standard-model installation...

There's Kizzy, the other tech, who I read in Tara Strong's most squeaky voice and tried very hard not to picture as Kaylee from Firefly, and to Chambers' immense credit is way more endearing than annoying.

There's Dr. Chef, the ship's doctor and chef, who I couldn't help imagining (inaccurately) as a giant water bear and voiced by John Goodman (and a small backing chorus, his species has multiple throats).  His is the aforementioned sad backstory.

There's Ohan, the Navigator. They are a Sianat Pair, the Sianat being infected with a strange virus called the Whisperer which grants them crazy savant-level hyper-spatial reasoning, at the cost of like 80% of their life expectancy. Also their sense of individuality: Pairs are "they." And Ohan is at the end of their life when the book opens, so this job will almost surely be their last.

And others, not crew of the Wayfarer, who have their own quirks and interests. Chambers does a pretty masterful job, especially for a first effort, infusing her galaxy with color and variety. This is a universe that feels safe enough, within GC territory, no less than a typical wealthy nation in the heart of the industrialized world on Earth. Tunneling is dangerous but not apparently more so than, say, natural resource extraction, or heck, even actual tunneling through big mountains.

Yet even then there's enough going on for plenty of compelling interpersonal drama, and of course this story does feature a special time of extra danger for the crew. Traveling to the Galactic Core, to punch a tunnel back to GC space on behalf of a fledgling alliance with the Toremi, who heretofore have been inscrutably violent to any diplomatic missions into their volume of space? Sounds like a party. And it's the Wayfarer's big break; after this job, they can start getting some real credits.

III.

And now I will talk a bit of the recent kerfluffle regarding the politics and genre conventions of science fiction. Ahem.

The Long Way is a damn fine example of sfnal diversity writing. Chambers designed her alien races with a clear purpose, leveraging non-mammalian biology and non-normative behavior to excellent effect. Dr Chef's species, for example, are born female and transition to male after the birthing stage of their life is over. Ohan and Kizzy are non-neurotypical. Jenks has dwarfism. Sissix is like half of the non-hetero non-monogamous descriptors. Ashby is multiracial. All of this is noted somewhere, but in-story it just comes up when talking about it makes sense. Even with the—okay, I did smile and shrug a bit at this—use of 'xe/xyr' pronouns and interspecies lesbian romance, this is not the "message fic" bogeyman of "classic-sf" purists. This story posits a rationally knowable universe in the finest tradition while also leaving some things implicit, and encouraging some outside-the-box thinking about society and individuality. There's as much whizz-bang-wow cool scenes as you could want—a dusty colony world of Human tech-and-body-modification enthusiasts, and also giant ravenous alien locusts? an icy rogue planet as self-imposed exile for Sianat heretics? a tense, weaponless standoff against space pirates in the landing bay of the Wayfarer? etc.?—and also gender-neutral pronouns on a few pages.

And Chambers wrote for The Mary fuckin' Sue!

The funny thing, to me, is that reviewers (io9 and others) seem keen to point out that "this isn't like other science fiction stories" because the story isn't one of grand universe-shattering consequences. And yet that's, to me, so laughably wrong. This is like other science fiction stories, a proud tradition of small-but-meaningful storylines going back a very long time indeed.

The "hyperspace is weird" trope, for example, including the Navigator who can literally see the mathematical structure of the universe, is straight out of SFWA Grandmaster Frederik Pohl's "The Mapmakers," wherein the crew of a rocketship act competently and very much non-rebelliously in the face of a freak accident. Pohl wrote that story in 1955, right at the height of classic sf! (Oh, and it's really good, too, if what you might call very Fifties in its social sensibilities.)

It's true that more recent (say, since 1980) science fiction has leaned hard on the 'hypercompetent rebel against incompetent stultifying authority' stories, and often in service to dystopian tales of grim woe. We do need more stories that fight both features of that played-out cliche: not just dystopia, but also the "authority is stupid, and only Great Men are worth reading and writing about" part. It's a deeper-rooted notion, not just in the American mythmaking machine but also in narrative structures going back a very long time. Family stories, I think, don't get enough play.

IV.

All that said, this is a damn fine story. Go read it.