Friday, December 11, 2015

The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet - Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is Becky Chambers’ debut novel. It’s an emotionally strong, cleverly plotted sci-fi piece, about a crew of wormhole tunnelers, trying to make it by as best they can.

Chambers’ world is one with a degree of cohesiveness. Humanity is part of a galaxy spanning alliance, filled with many different species on many different worlds. There’s the cold blooded, feathered lizards, with the elaborate, non-atomic family structures and need for social closeness. The creatures uplifted by a parasitic virus, which are able to use their bond to navigate in the sublayer of space where wormhole construction takes place. The sentient AI. The brutally direct crab-men. There’s a sense here of the cosmopolitan, of a space far larger than the hull of a ship. Whilst the tunnelling craft Wayfarer is the centre of the narrative, it never feels like the centre of the universe. It’s interesting to see that humanity is also not thought to be the centre of the universe either – rather than exceptionalism, humanity is seemingly something of a junior partner in actions on the galactic stage.

Within this broader spectrum – which is typically introduced by conversation or as part of the journey of the Wayfarer’s crew – there’s the tunnelling ship wayfarer. Built to construct wormholes between points in space, the ship serves as a home for a diverse crew, from multiple species. It feels more claustrophobic than the expansive galaxy outside, but the confines of the craft also serve to create empathy and conflict between the crew; there’s a sense of burgeoning understanding and family here – of a dynamic shifting around, as the characters interplay with each other. There are established relationships – friendships and antagonisms – and the Wayfarer holds them all, a sort of extended home for the crew. Chambers has built a vivid, believable world here, one where the beautifully prosaic is placed alongside the wonderfully strange.

The characters – well, really, this is an ensemble piece. The reader comes along with Rosemary Harper, a new member of the Wayfarer crew. As she learns about the crew, and becomes involved in their lives, so do we. It’s to the author’s credit that each of the crew feels like a real person. There’s a serious range, between the empathetic but fierce reptilian pilot, to the acerbic and misanthropic fuel engineer. But each of them feels like a real person. Critically however, the aliens do also actually feel alien. The cold-blooded pilot squabbles with the algae specialist over room temperatures. The AI discusses with one of the techs the nature of existence, and the pro and con arguments for embodiment. The humans, split into their own sub-factions, deal with their embracing pacifism, and the consequences of that. There’s some truly fantastic moments here, as the characters open themselves up to each other, and get to know each other better. As the Wayfarer cruises through the galaxy to knock a hole in it, these individuals feel like a family; dysfunctional, at times conflicted, but still, a family – and one portrayed with a startling degree of skill.

As the narrative journey progresses, our understanding of the characters grows; and each is dealing with their own conflicts, their own demons. At the same time, they feel normal – not heroes or villains, but a crew of contractors, with their own lives, hopes and dreams, living in the shadow of larger events. It’s a small scale narrative, which is sued to explore larger themes – love, pain, acceptance, family – against a cosmic backdrop.

The plot, sans spoilers, is centred around the Wayfarer’s journey to the point required to start a new wormhole tunnel. It’s a gentle pace, but one which never lets go fo the reader. There are incidents – spikes of violence, character-defining choices – and these have the ability to knock the breath out of the reader. 

The journey is fascinating, the locales visited, the supporting characters interacted with, intriguing. There’s a hefty emotional rice, and an even greater payoff from the reader, but the plot, as a vehicle for the characters, and for those larger themes, is absolutely spot on.

Is it worth reading? Absolutely. It’s enjoyable sci-fi, which also explores greater ideas inside its narrative structure, whilst peopling an alien-feeling universe with utterly brilliant characters. Go pick up a copy right now – you won’t be sorry.

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