The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Hodder, 2015, 416 p plus 10 p extract from a sequel, a 2 p reading group guide and a 2 p special note from the author.

 The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet cover

Rosemary Harper is fleeing from her past life, having paid more than handsomely for the privilege, not to mention for a new identity. She is taking up an administrative job on the Wayfarer, a spaceship whose function is to punch holes through space to create pathways for other ships to travel by. Despite Rosemary’s doubts about her abilities she is accepted readily by the multi-species crew – barring only one member (there always has to be one) – the algaeist (ship’s engineer basically) who is something of a loner and not too friendly with anyone.

The tonal qualities of the narration are a little odd. Terms like grounders for planet dwellers and spacers for those who travel between solar systems are somewhat unimaginative (and utterly retro,) while artigrav is a horrible coinage. Give it a specific name and thus derivation instead of a generic description. Other aspects of the narrative, too, are irritating. There are frequent discussions amongst the crew about food which seem interminable. Their swear word of choice is “Oh, stars.” Even in moments of crisis there are very few instances of stronger expletives – and two of these were by a non-crew member. Without exception information dumping immediately follows on the mention of something we haven’t encountered before. Rosemary’s supposedly carefully hidden secret she blurts out at the first hint of its possible revelation. The only thing resembling a plot is a commission for the Wayfarer to travel to the galactic core to forge a tunnel back to local space. I suppose it is this that constitutes the titular long way for the Wayfarer makes numerous stops on the journey to the core, is once invaded, and boarded by friendly aliens on another occasion. Throughout there is no sense of urgency about the impending mission, no keenness apparent to get to the job, nor any hint of penalty for delay. On the planet Cricket (sadly not named after the sport but the insect) some of the crew are forced by a swarm to utilise the shelters against such an occurrence but the chapter just ends and the next one starts back on board the ship with nothing more said about it.

The universe of Chambers’s novel has a variety of alien species and both strands of humanity are relative newcomers to, and very minor players in, galactic society. Exodans fled Earth some time back but those who remained also now have access to the galaxy. The Toremi at the core are the most interesting aspect of the book but disappear from the narrative within a few pages, merely providing the impetus for the crisis of yet another crew member.

This isn’t a novel. It’s a series of barely connected episodes. It’s difficult to resist the conclusion that Chambers is so much in love with her universe she wants to show us every bit of it, regardless of whether her stops along the way follow any sort of logic rather than existing merely for the sake of themselves and to be shown off. Things happen merely to illustrate facets of Chambers’s vision. Sure, we get interspecies sex (two instances, two different couples) but I note in both cases there is no delving into the nitty gritty. We aren’t even invited to speculate on the mechanics. It is as if there is an assumption that these are universal; but they won’t be. Can’t be. (And where do pheromones fit in in this context?) There is no economy, no standing back, little evidence of the sacrifice of authorial darlings.

Yes, the title is The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but it is a very long way indeed. (And a very short stay there.) Perhaps if Chambers had stuck to the back story of one or two of the Wayfarer’s crew this might have been less noticeable but she gives us them all. And, yes, the members of the crew all look out for each other – even in extremis, for the algaeist – but this isn’t enough to sustain interest. It only highlights the lack of story. Had there been an underlying theme, a point to the meanderings, a grappling with an issue or two, then there might have been positives to be taken. As it is, this is a very light read indeed.

There is one of those naff “extract from” passages after the book’s conclusion, from its sequel A Close and Common Orbit, but I really can’t see where Chambers can go with this. She’s already told us the background to every single one of her ship’s characters. Look on the bright side though. A Close and Common Orbit might actually have a plot.

Pedant’s corner:- On the back cover blurb; reptillian (reptilian.)
Otherwise:- ambiance (ambience,) acclimate (acclimatise,) liasing (liaising,) “we’re not kit out for it” (kitted,) unfased (unfazed,) “every shop had different lighting mechanisms to help distinguish themselves from the others” (to distinguish it from the others,) kaleidescope (kaleidoscope – the correct spelling also appeared later on,) “hands were shook” (shaken,) maw (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth,) “curling inward at rigored angles” (? ) “’Our ship is less than an hour out from yours, but we could half it if you meet us in the middle,’” (halve; and spaceship trajectories just DO NOT WORK IN THIS WAY. They are not like cars; you cannot just change a spaceship’s course on a whim,) Jenks’ (Jenks’s, which did appear later,) theirself (themself surely?) automatons (automata,) Encaledus (Enceladus?) “The length of the elevator cables were …” (The length was.) “Her feathers were beginning to lay flat,” (to lie flat.) “She was on her feet before she knew it.” (That’s just impossible.)

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