Niceness is undervalued. In an age of cynicism, we believe very little is done altruistically: this politician is facilitating an international adoption for campaign-fodder; that site is offering $1.99 books to boost web traffic; that church is holding a Sunday neighborhood BBQ to evangelize. Our stories show similar cynicism. We’ve embraced tortured dark heroes, we give five stars to stories sympathizing with killers and rapists, and although we believe a good guy can still win, the only way he can is by embracing his dark side.
One reason The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet proved so enjoyable is that it believes in the better side of human and alien nature. It begins with Rosemary, a naif running from her family’s past to take a position on a tunneling ship, a specialized kind of spaceship that creates ‘shipping lane’ wormholes to connect distant points. The story is set in galaxy of aliens, with the human race supported by the Harmagians, an intelligent oyster-like creature, and Aeluons, in attempting to recover the ruined Earth. The captain of the Wayfarer hired Rosemary hoping that a licensed clerk would give access to bigger jobs, and it’s a gamble that pays off when they are offered a contract to create a tunnel near the galaxy core and the warlike Toremi, new members of the Galactic Confederation.
Much like any ship-enclosed story, it largely becomes about the characters and how they interact. Characterization is one of the story strengths; through small, focused interactions, almost each crew member is fleshed out. Rosemary, Sissex and Dr. Chef feel the most well-rounded. Ashby, the captain, is mostly concerned about his crew, getting the contract and his not-so-secret paramour. Kizzy and Jenks are the mechanical engineers who keep the ship running. Kizzy is often comic relief. Jenks is having a secret relationship with the ship A.I., Lovelace. Corbin is the algae biologist who keeps the fuel running, Dr. Chef is combination cook and medic, Sissix is the reptilian pilot and Ohan is the virus-merged Sianat pair who can calculate the complex physics required to tunnel through space. At times, Kizzy bordered on the absurd, but her personality stayed solidly genuine and she did provide a few laugh-out-loud moments, particularly her (mis-heard) song about “My Socks Match My Hat.”
Plotting was unsteady. A number of readers relate this book to the Firefly tv series, and it’s easy to see why; a loveable, ragtag crew copes with various adversities in weekly adventures. However, the pacing of the smaller on-the-way elements to the overarching story of the big tunneling job is uneven. The trip is supposed to take a standard year, but with a couple of stopovers, it seems no different than any other time period of the book. More significantly, the ending felt incredibly rushed, again incongruous with the lengthy and significant trip. When I learned from one of my co-readers that Chambers had lost her job and created a Kickstarter to fund finishing the book, it made more sense. I can’t wait to see what she does with time and resources.
My last quibble is with narrative style. It’s often a third-person omniscient, unevenly taking turns between various characters. Interspersed are missives, whether personal letters, information requests or news bulletins. I think they are meant to serve as information, but they distract from the friendly tone of the crew and further interrupt story pacing. I initially ignored them, until I learned one near the end of the book drops a significant story point. Conversation is often didactic style, with a character asking a question or seeking explanation and another answering. Although it doesn’t quite have the dreaded, “as you know, Bob…” feel, in a few spots it feels clunky. In others, it just feels borderline lecturing about ethical principles. Well, what can I say: she’s preaching to the choir. I appreciate the hope that we can find enough common ground or space to live with each other.
Thematically, there’s some interesting exploration of some very topical and complicated topics such as safety and defense, individual right-to-die, identity, violence, sexuality and what makes a community. Chambers is also very inclusive in her visions of alien-ness as well as human beings, which is frankly a delight to find in science fiction. It isn’t going to work for everyone; I’d recommend it for people who enjoy character-driven stories and envisioning alien cultures. Overall, it was a quick read, despite the size, and easy to spend time with the crew. I’m looking forward to finding out what they do next.
Many, many thanks to those at Goodreads who participated in a flash read and shared their insights. I enjoyed sharing perspectives and bouncing off ideas. Find them at https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/197823-the-long-way-to-a-small-angry-planet-flash-group