Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

I'm going to start off by saying how surprised, refreshed and downright overjoyed to see legit, air-lock requiring, deep-space wandering science fiction on the longlist for a major literary prize. Reason number 49 to love the Bailey's Prize. *heart eyes*

Anyway. The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet starts with the Mars-born-and-Raised clerk Rosemary embarking upon a new chapter in her life. It's evident that she's escaping something, with an illegally doctored ID file and a head full of secrets, she's taken a job on the Wayfarer, a long-haul tunnelling ship. It's what it sounds like- a ship that drives manually from A to B and punches a wormhole through space. Galactic road builders if you like.

The characters in this novel are its true strength. The multi species crew on board the Wayfarer is an eclectic bag of sapients, a glorious mix of oddballs rattling around in space. The motley crew is strange, flawed, and extremely likeable (with one obvious exception who even so proves his worth by the end). These are all complex, developed characters belonging to various species with long and complicated histories. The author did a really good job of capturing the communal spirit of the ship- to live and work at close quarters with a small bunch of people has its pros and cons and it worked wonderfully. The dynamics of the ship's crew was balanced and despite it all quite realistic. I especially loved Sissix the navigator, member of the lizard-esque Aandrisk race.

The majority of the plot is the Wayfarer's long haul journey to a big, life changing job that could provide the capital for upgrades and a better class of job, jobs not usually done by lowly humans. The contract involves punching a tunnel from Hedra Ka, home to a volatile and inherently violent species that have recently and controversially joined the GC, linking them to central space. As the mission progresses, certain secrets and truths about the crew come to light.

I loved how diverse the universe of this book is. To begin with, we have the multi-species crew aboard the Wayfarer. There's a lot of being observant and sensitive to other cultures, habits and opinions that seem pretty alien to members of other species. It's a harmonious crew though, with lots of mutual love and understanding, very little persecution and effort is made to bridge those cultural gaps among friends. I liked the inclusion of some wider political context too- the reader learns quite a lot about the GC, the Galactic Commons, how its organised, who joined when, the unofficial hierarchy of species. It's refreshing to see a narrative that doesn't hold the human race up on a pedestal as the conquerors of space. In this novel, humans, an immature, squishy species that stupidly populated their home planet to death are begrudgingly admitted as to the GC by its founding species (the Aandrisk, Aeluon and the one with the tentacles) after first being taken on as refugees, fished out of space on the life-boat ships. The Exodans, they became known as. Either way, they're a minor species in a Universe and that was quite refreshing.

My one criticism of the book would be a slight underdevelopment in the character of Rosemary. She serves as the reader's introduction to this new world, describing the patchwork hotch-potch of the ship, the appearances of the species, the sights and smells of these new planets...Yes, she is more familiar with the future than the reader, but being born on privileged Mars, she has never been to multicultural Central Space. She has studied languages and cultures but never been exposed to them directly. Though Rosemary is the rookie, sharing all these first encounters with the reader, her character remains quite flat in comparison with the others. There is such vibrancy in the Grungy human Kizzy, the reptilian sass of Sissix, the homely compassion of 6 legged Dr Chef. Even Captain Ashby, the liberal, ambitious and incredibly empathetic captain seems more three dimensional than Rosemary. She is our eyes, but has much less to hold on to than her shipmates. I hope she can be fleshed out in the upcoming (and much anticipated) sequel.

Some elements such as the claustrophobic confinement and parts where characters attempt to describe physics (I mean ??) reminded me a little of Interstellar. The Universe itself is quite reminiscent in a good way of Futurama- all these different races and species going about their daily lives, space travel being the norm, a multi planetary, bureaucratic universe of commerce and rogue technology. The technology angle was really interesting also- there's a species-wide ethical debate about what does and does not cross the technological line of danger and decency and all kinds of interesting bio-metric questions there...

In conclusion, I really, really enjoyed reading this. I haven't enjoyed a Space Sci-Fi this much since I read Stanislaw Lem's Solaris. Obviously they are vastly different books, but both hugely enjoyable. TLWTASAP is funny, humane and heart-warming book about prejudice, friendship and the world beyond our sky. The book manages at once to be an action packed space adventure and an emotional story of identity and belonging. It also raises questions about colonial histories, racial discrimination and the pointlessness of racism, the politics of unions in which there are several clashing cultures and the value of the individual. Despite its population of alien races, it's an incredibly human book.

Brilliant. I hope it makes the Shortlist. I hope it wins. I hope everybody reads it.

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