Review: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

How are you holding out in the lockdown? Hopefully keeping safe and well. Here in the Space Cat module, long stretches of time confined to quarters are not unknown. Between work rosters, we’re filling any downtime with books, boogying and binge watching. Lately it’s been reruns of the much-lamented Firefly series from 2002. Its rollicking western-meets-space-opera vibe reminded me of a book review that’s been languishing in my Xmas notebook. This was for Becky Chambers’ break-out novel, the long way to a small angry planet . Said note book went missing somewhere in the hold but I finally tracked it down just for you. So here’s a recommendation for a fun and mostly feel-good read for the apocalypse that will leave you plenty to muse on.

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The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is an exuberant space adventure in which the journey and the crew really are the point of the tale. It strongly reminded me of the ensemble casts of TV shows like ‘Firefly’ or ‘The Expanse’ with a dash of ‘Star Wars’ movie wackiness thrown in. The way the ship’s crew spark off each other fuels the narrative’s warp drive for the whole voyage. What’s fresh and engaging is how diverse Chamber’s vision of humanity is. Chambers looks around her and sees people of all colours and sizes, the full spectrum of neurodiversity, sexuality and bodily forms. ‘With as much of a hotchpotch as Human genetics were, lighter shades were known to pop up here and there.’ Chambers revels in that ‘hotch-potch’ but amongst the crew, the white guy is the exception: ‘a pink man bred for tedious labwork and a sunless sky’. One of the Comp tecs. is a small person called Jenks who sports tattoos and a Mohican haircut. He’s fiercely proud of his identity as his mother refused to let him be either euthanised or ‘modified’. Meanwhile his best mate Kizzy grew up with two dads. The crew also takes in a reptile, an Aandrish female with green scales and mane of coloured feathers, and a doctor/chef who’s best described as a fleshy grey caterpillar the size of an otter. Their Navigator is an ice-blue monkey who goes by the pronoun ‘they’ since this being has been infected with the ‘Whisperer’ neuro-virus in childhood so lives as a pair of personae in one body. And then there’s the ship’s computer, an AI known as Lovey (from the Lovelace model). Lovey is as nurturing as her name. But her illicit relationship with Jenks is throwing up all sorts of dilemmas about whether or not to transition into a human bodily form. Are you keeping up?

Despite this expansive concept of humanity, the far-flung tribes of Humans are considered to be a fairly inferior species by many in the Galactic Commons. ‘Harmigaians had money, Aeluons had firepower, Aandrisks had diplomacy. Humans had arguments.’ Yeah, plus ça change. Earth itself has long since been abandoned and Chambers’ back-history of the species is sobering to read right now. First off, the ‘wealthy meat-eaters’ bought their ticket to Mars: ‘cowards who shipped livestock through space while nations starved back on Earth.’ Later Earthen refugees swelled an Exodan fleet of ‘homesteader ships’. Later still Solans built research ships orbiting the moons of Saturn and outer planets. And so on, as the Humans reached out into a galaxy teeming with sentient life. Or Sapients, in the local lingo.

In the present narrative, the Wayfarer is a patched-up ship in the mould of Firefly or Millennium Falcon. It secures a job to construct a hyperspace tunnel to a distant planet at the fringes of the Galactic Common. Cue some cool special FX. As the mission gets underway, the crew banter, argue and build enduring friendships on their longest haul yet. Each member has their own secrets and predicaments which are teased out in a highly episodic structure. Every stop-off at a planet or incursion by another ship, friendly or hostile, produces a crisis-point for one of the crew. It reminded me of a TV series and The Long Way likewise has its overarching series-narrative of the journey to meet an alien species with a bad rep. The Toremi are engaged in a vicious civil war around Hedra Ka, ‘a crackling scab of a planet choked with storms’ (the small angry planet of the book’s title.) Despite the fun and games along the way, this wider narrative is rather under-powered. Although the crew pick up dark hints and warnings about the Toremi, the quest never builds up any speed or momentum. It’s more like ‘Star Trek Voyager’ where the ship drifts through a distant quadrant while the weekly episode sucks up all of the story oxygen.

Nonetheless, those episodes are full of energy and wit. And to be fair, the Wayfarer’s final encounter does test the cohesion and skills of the crew to the limit. Whilst the catharsis of that climax could have packed greater punch, there are real losses to be faced. Meanwhile, every chapter is stuffed with vibrant characterisation, wonderful dialogue and really cool ideas. So I can see why this novel, originally funded by a Kickstarter campaign for indie publishing, garnered such word-of-mouth adulation. It is overall a hugely enjoyable read and its vision of human space exploration and ‘work-families’ stayed with me a long time. The bonus is that having crafted some wonderful characters and a fascinating world, Chambers takes a few of them into two further novels set in the same universe ( which won 2019 Hugo Award Best Series Winner). So why not order the Wayfarer trilogy from your favourite indie bookshop and settle into your bunk for a big read? You’ll get a helluva view of hyperspace from the porthole.

THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL ANGRY PLANET, Becky Chambers, Hodder Books, 2015