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

Most of science fiction I’ve read in the recent years tended to gravitate towards the gritty, dark or depressing.  The stories were either cautionary tales about the dangers of technology, or about using technology for all kinds of unpleasant tasks, which often involved violence.  The Long Way is nothing like that.  It is a delightfully cozy adventure with superb worldbuilding and character development, where action is minimal, but the universe so interesting that I couldn’t stop reading.  It’s been a true pleasure to escape the science fiction I usually read and engage with a group of truly charming protagonists and their ship.

This book takes place in a universe teeming with alien races, governed by the Galactic Commons.  They brought peace to the galaxy, but prosperity is a long way off.  Our protagonists are the crew of the spaceship Wayfarer, which works as a tunneling ship, opening new wormholes between systems.  The crew consists of a number of alien species, beginning with the somewhat familiar humans (from two different branches of humanity), through the lizard-like pilot, to a truly exotic navigator who is a symbiote of an alien and a virus that is giving him special powers.  The crew is introduced as the reader follows the ship’s new clerk, Rosemary, who arrives at the beginning of the novel.  Soon, however, she is pushed a little to the background as the rich and intertwined histories of the other members are featured.

The Long Way is the literal synopsis of the book.  The story is more about a journey than the actual destination, which indeed happens to be a small planet, full of angry beings.  The Wayfarer was awarded the contract to create a wormhole from a planet outside the Galactic Commons, close to the galactic core, back to the civilized portion of the universe.  They take about a year to get to that planet, and along the way stop at various planets and stations, meet numerous alien species and learn of their customs, and occasionally stumble into a crisis that sends their character development into overdrive.  These crises are relatively minor and dispatched of in a few pages.  Nothing overly exciting happens in the story until the very end, where all hell breaks loose, and where the crew members come together as one coherent team to survive.

The book is not structured as a hero’s journey.  Instead, it consists of a series of environmental descriptions, which help the crew’s characters to either develop, or to explain the crew’s background.  The worldbuilding is truly exceptional.  The alien races are very inventive, and their relationships complex.  The universe has some old-fashioned tropes, like the lizard people, but then Chambers throws the reader into a spin by portraying them as an extremely affectionate, communal species instead of the cold-blooded warmongers we see elsewhere.  Other aliens may look very exotic, with their multiple limbs, but they behave more like humans.  Overall, however, there’s almost no racial (or specieist) conflict between these fully integrated members of the Galactic Commons.  The few crises the crew encounters can be chalked up to cultural differences or wildlife.

Chambers, however, goes even farther with the characterization of the alien races and dives head-first into their sexual life and interspecies relationships.  This, just like the rest of the book, is done very gently and in good taste.  To take matters further, one of the main arcs of the story concerns the relationship between one of the ship’s techs and the ship’s artificial intelligence.  As weird as all these relationships sound, they are portrayed in a plausible way, as much as anything in this book can be considered plausible.

The author also tackles different planets and spaceports.  While also very descriptive, here she can’t help herself but fall back onto some existing tropes.  There is the marshy and wet planet of the lizards.  A dry and arid planet, plagued by crickets living in deep canyons, is the home to independent homesteaders.  This is very evocative of the Wild West.  The planet of the techies and tinkerers tends to be full of narrow crowded streets, street vendors with their little carts, and dark corners where a person would get stabbed for their implants.  And then there is the titular angry planet, which is still very tectonically active, home to just as angry and unpredictable race.  Chambers fares a little better with other environmental elements, especially the food of the future.  I’m not yet ready to try fried insects, but she makes them sound somewhat appealing…

The book also excels in character development.  Some of it is subtle, dependent on the interaction between characters than the actual change in a single person.  One notable exception is my favorite character, Corbin.  He is a human male, responsible for growing and maintaining the ship’s fuel source, algae.  He clearly has a mental condition, be it obsessive compulsive syndrome or Asperger’s.  He is focused purely on his work, to the point where he can get aggressive towards anyone he perceives as a threat to his algae.  When his personal crisis hits him, his psyche is shredded and rebuilt.  The transformation is rather radical, but also very believable: he doesn’t become a new person; instead, he becomes at peace with who he is, and uses it as a source of strength to make some unpopular decisions.  Other characters get their own development arcs, not as radical as Corbin’s, but just as intriguing.

I have nothing to criticize in this book.  The Long Way is unique, well written, and does exactly what it sets out to be: a worldbuilding tour de force, focusing on characters instead of conflict.  Its pleasantly flowing narrative stands in stark contrast with the prevailing trend of action-oriented or concept-driven science fiction, and in this regard, I find the novel essential within its genre.  I can highly recommend the book to anyone willing to try something slower and cozy.  The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is definitely on my list of modern science fiction classics.

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