Thursday, September 22, 2016

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

On recommendation from some friends, I picked up The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet from the local library recently.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a far-future space opera, focused on a small independent ship and its crew. Sound familiar? That formula has been used to good effect before - I thought of Firefly almost immediately upon getting a grasp of the setting and characters, and there have been others. The galaxy at large is populated by many different sapient races, of which humanity is by no means the most powerful or important. Again, not an uncommon idea. I don't bring up this use of familiar themes and settings as a negative - used properly, the oldest story ideas can still be great - but I'd be remiss not to mention it, since it's very noticeable as you read through the opening chapters.

Most of the story takes place on the Wayfarer, a ship that builds stable wormholes which are used as a sort of galactic highway system. That's an interesting way to represent interstellar travel - not unique by any means, but not nearly as common as something like a Star Trek warp drive. Making the builders a small group of independents is different, too. I think of big transportation projects - and there's not much bigger than bridging star systems - as the domain of huge corporations and governments. It's a bit of a shift to think of it as something you can hire a small businessman to build - more like getting your driveway paved than building a super-highway.

Chambers puts a good amount of effort into building up the reader's knowledge of the current state of galactic affairs, and a good chunk of history. Mostly this is made integral to the story by using the newest Wayfarer crew member, a human woman from Mars named Rosemary. The society on Mars is fairly close to present-day Earth, and insular enough that she doesn't have a lot of first-hand experience with other intelligent species. So when Rosemary encounters some aspect of culture shock or meets a new race, the reader has much the same reaction. It's an elegant way to handle explaining how the book's society works without simply dumping information onto the reader.

The viewpoint in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet shifts among the Wayfarer crew, several of which are non-human. I felt like each was fairly well developed, at least within the constraints of the character. Ohan, for instance, doesn't get much time...but that's because the character is very isolated by choice. Other than Rosemary, everyone in the crew is a larger-than-life personality in some way. That's common in space operas, so I was expecting it, but every once in a while I still had to chuckle a bit when someone (usually Kizzy) did something so over-the-top that it felt like it belonged in a cartoon, not a novel.

In terms of story flow, I thought The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet felt a bit disjointed. There are sections that read more like several short stories strung together rather than a coherent whole. Almost felt like reading an adaptation of one season of a TV show: some introductions early, the reveal of the season's big plot device, a bunch of small independent stories with occasional reference to the big thing, then the big wrap-up finale. Worked out all right, I think, but it does feel a little odd for a novel.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet packs a whole lot of concepts into a single book. Rights and privileges for artificial beings, wars of genocide, racism (or species-ism, I guess), the aftermath of unchecked colonialism and exploitation, inter-species relationships (sexual and otherwise), environmental catastrophe and recovery, genetic and physical body modification, different handling of children and the elderly across species...all sorts of ideas crop up. With so many different concepts to deal with, it's not really possible to address them in depth, so most are just touched on briefly, as a part of galactic history. Others, though, are important to the story of one or more of the crew. It all enriches the story, but at times I did feel that Chambers was trying to cram too much into a single book. That's a better problem than being boring, though!

As a fan of the space opera genre, I found very little to dislike about The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Well worth the read, and even if you're not fond of space opera, it might surprise you.

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