Book Review: The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Time to hit the ground running with the first book review of 2017!

I am cheating a little bit, as I started reading The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet in December, but I finished it yesterday, so that still counts, right?

I remember hearing a little bit of buzz about Chambers’ debut novel. Apparently, she actually kickstarted the book to self-publish it, which got her enough attention and popularity for it to get picked up by HarperCollins. Good on her.

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The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet centers on a young woman named Rosemary Harper as she signs on aboard a the Wayfarer, a wormhole-tunnelling ship (basically intergalactic road crew), in order to escape her tragic past. And, of course, The Wayfarer is crewed by a quirky crew of misfits. In general terms, it’s the kind of setup that’s the foundation of all kinds of space opera sci-fi. The ragtag crew and their banter reminded me of Firefly, while the multitude of strange alien species is a lot like Mass Effect or Star Wars.

The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet is a lot different from those classics of space opera. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call it pacifist space opera like James Alan Gardner’s League of Peoples series, but the crew of the Wayfarer are non-combatants, full stop. They’re not even the shady, Han Solo kind of spacers– everything they do is above board. In turn, Rosemary’s not a hotshot pilot or mercenary or anything– she’s a clerk. And while there are occasional bits of danger (space pirates!), Rosemary saves the day time and time again through negotiation and bureaucracy. It’s kind of an interesting response to the typical super-blasty space opera, and a definite change from that ultra violent Deathstalker book I reviewed last time.

You could almost label Chambers’ relationship & character focused sci-fi as “space soap opera” rather than space opera, but … even that label doesn’t quite fit, as The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet doesn’t have the ridiculously convoluted plotlines and high melodrama of, say, The Young and the Restless. No evil twins, no secret heirs, no kidnappings.

The funny thing is, this doesn’t mean the galaxy of The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet is a peaceful one, as there are all kinds of sweeping space opera conflicts that are referred to in passing. Heck, the captain’s hot alien girlfriend is the kind of gun-toting space opera heroine we’re used to– it’s just that she’s got her own ship to captain, so she spends most of her time off doing her own thing.

Instead of going on about blasting space aliens or having laser swordfights, Chambers focuses on character, almost to a ridiculous degree. The plot is rather … loose, as the Wayfarer takes on a job that will take them nearly a year to complete. And so, they chug their way across the galaxy, stopping at various planets along the way so each member of the crew can have a little moment in the spotlight as we learn more about them.

How much you’ll like this gimmick will determine how much you like the novel. Chambers is a solid writer, and she’s built herself a really interesting sandbox to play in. Puzzling out just what various terms mean and what various alien species are is part of the fun. This said, there were times over the course of the book where even I began to find things a little grating– some of the societies Chambers includes in the novel are just shy of becoming gratingly “this is what’s wrong with modern society!” utopian.

I almost want to label this book as “tumblr sci-fi,” based on the characters. The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet is an unabashedly queer book, using sci-fi to explore various themes about sexuality and culture and stuff. And if that’s not enough, the whole crew of the Wayfarer has … issues. The obligatory quirky engineer is borderline manic depressive, the other engineer is in love with the ship’s AI, the captain’s in a taboo relationship with an alien space babe (heck of an ‘in the closet’ metaphor), the alien navigator reads as kinda-sorta having Asperger’s, and the polyamorous reptilian alien pilot (who Rosemary falls for, natch) keeps on getting frustrated with how screwed up human society is.

The thing is, with is episodic nature (and almost tacked-on plot resolution at the end), The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet never really delves too deep into one idea or another. Some of the stories have the seeds of a plot that could support a whole novel, while others … don’t. It’s a bit ramshackle, to be honest, but it’s the sort of thing that could work really well if someone wanted to option the book to make a TV show.

“Firefly, just without the guns and cowboy boots” might be a bit of a hard sell, though.

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2 Comments

  1. Greg Morrow

    I started it a while back, didn’t finish it.

  2. Nice review. Based on your take, I should probably scoot this below Remnants of Trust in my character-centric space operas from Harper Voyager TBR stack.

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