Friday, July 28, 2017

Becky Chambers - The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

Various reviewers have described The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet as a "joy" or "delightful". It is certainly entertaining and inoffensive, but I was disappointed that the author didn't use her material to produce a more challenging story. Set on a dilapidated spacecraft called the Wayfarer the crew of which are tunnelers that drill the interplanetary routes that allow faster than light travel. At the start of the novel Rosemary Harper joins the crew as a lowly administrator. She has a past that she is trying to hide, something that is shared by most of the crew, like almost all science fiction set on dilapidated spacecraft.  Through Rosemary's eyes we are introduced to the various species that inhabit the galaxy and the bureaucratic system that manages their societies.

Becky Chambers uses the various aliens that crew the Wayfarer and the planets they visit to explore questions of gender, family and sexuality. These are fairly benign to be honest. Most of the individuals/groups they meet are relatively inoffensive and its only when the ship embarks on their real mission that the crew encounter real danger. Wider conflict and danger is hinted at, mostly through the interaction between the Wayfarers captain and his lover Pei, an alien who crews a ship that takes on more military engagements.

At times the novel feels like Star Trek as each chapter gives the crew a minor problem to solve and allows one of the individuals stories to be told. It is all entertaining, well written and, as I said, inoffensive.

Disappointingly, the encounters that the crew and its individuals have, both with the aliens they meet and among themselves, aren't used as deeply as they might have been. Rather than challenging contemporary ideas of family, sexuality and relationships, they end up with a rather tired trope that "family is those who we live and love". Its all a little disappointing given the potential to do something radical with the very alien groups that the author describes.

The novel only really picks up speed in the very last section, and the final "twist" again allows Chambers to approach some deeper questions about what it is to be "intelligent" and "conscious". But again this is done relatively lightly and left me feeling a little disappointed.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet has been very successful, making the difficult transition from self-publishing to mainstream press and the sequel is already out. I expect that it will do similarly well. If you like straightforward science fiction it is worth a read, but there are other places to go if you want something more meaty.

Related Reviews

Mitchison - Memoirs of a Spacewoman
Leckie - Ancillary Justice

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