A place where everyone knows your name
This was one book I approached knowing I’d probably enjoy it. Even from the book’s description I could see that The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet was a tick list of some of my favourite things. Good old space faring sf, a journey story, alien aliens, and a heavy emphasis on very ordinary characters in an extraordinary situation. I also was intrigued to see what a modern author would do with an old school sf concept, especially considering how much of recent sf (likely due to the world’s current state), has been apocalyptic or dystopic in tone.
So, when my lady and I were holed up with a cold, trying out Becky Chambers seemed like a good idea. Well at least I can say I know myself, since I didn’t just like the book; I loved it.
The story begins with Rosemary Harper joining the crew of the tunnelling ship Wayfarer as their resident Clerk. Rosemary has left her home on Mars, and despite a sheltered upbringing has gone out into the open to make a fresh start leaving her past behind her. Being a tunnelling ship, the Wayfarer’s job is to punch wormholes from place to place for interstellar travel.
With a Clarke on board, Captain Ashby is offered a highly lucrative new commission, to fly to the distant world of Hedra Ka, the home world of an unpredictable new species who are negotiating a trade deal with the galactic commons, and create a wormhole back to GC space.
One of the first things that will become obvious about the book is that its characters are truly three dimensional. Though the sheltered Rosemary is our first point of view character and the one we learn most lessons about the universe from, from the mechanics of space travel to the cultures of different alien races, as she gets to know the Wayfarer’s crew so do we. Indeed, though we spend more time with some characters than others, we do get viewpoints from all eight crewmembers throughout the book, and since these are eight people stuck on a small ship who all interact with each other, this means we get not just an individual perspective for each of the crew members, but a direct view of what they think of each other, views which can often contrast and spark in amusing ways.
The crew is a diverse and colourful bunch including a number of human and none human characters which range from the hyperactive tech Kizzy, to the dour algaeist Corbin, yet each has slightly more to them than initially meets the eye as well as enough quirks and colourful personality traits to be very quickly endearing.
Despite being way out in space in the distant future, There is a shear realism and just plain honesty in the crew’s emotional reactions, something which made them feel very much like genuine people (I would say far more human accept some of them manifestly aren’t), for example when the otherwise kind natured Aandrisk pilot Sissix, feeling out of sorts since her reptilian race is one that occasionally goes through itchy skin malting, has what can only be described as a right good whinge about how irritating living with humans can be, or the way that though the grouchy Corbin does welcome Rosemary aboard the Wayfarer with a tour of the escape pods and fire extinguishers, he still doesn’t forget her immediate physical needs after spending hours in a cramped transport pod.
One unique thing about Angry Planet is its emphasis. Though we visit a number of worlds throughout the book from the Aandrisk home-world to the dangerous planet Cricket (likely a nod to Douglas Adams), and though the tunnelling job does mean there is an overarching destination, it is unquestionably the dialogue and crew interactions that are the main focus of the action. Indeed, in many ways the book’s structure feels more like that of a TV miniseries than a novel, with different crises or conflicts arising from time to time like short episode arcs, each of which highlights one or other members of the crew, changes relationships or gives us character moments. Indeed, this is one respect in which Chambers insures that even the quieter and less extant crew members, such as the navigator Ohan get their moments of exploration.
What is odd is that while this formula of plot construction feels a little contrived at times, it really doesn’t matter since the crew are just such a lot of fun to be around, with comic banter, exasperating moments, and occasional touches of pathos. Indeed, it’s almost surprising just how entertaining reading about the usually bubbly Kizzy having a bad day, or the kindly Doctor Chef’s quest to find herbs named for rosemary can be.
Speaking of exploration, though character and character interactions are definitely the primary focus here, at the same time chambers still doesn’t neglect giving us a lot of incidental history and information about the world, from space drives to human history. I particularly liked the way that humans were split into two factions, the Exodans, who took a fleet too leave the polluted earth some centuries before and have a pacifistic, accepting culture, and the Solerss, who remained behind colonizing Mars and other planets in the star system. Even in the book’s background and history though, Chambers is for the most part very careful to give us nuanced perspectives, for example the Gayists, a slightly loopy semi-religious faction who want to recolonize Earth range from xenophobic zealots to pleasant natured ecologists.
It is also in investigating the world’s history that we run into some major themes, including sexuality, identity and freedom. In many cases chambers plays with these incredibly delicately, indeed I much applaud the way she simply has homosexual characters as a casual background part of the world rather than making a huge song and dance about their inclusion, for example in the way that one character casually speaks about their “dads”, or the way another character’s sexual preference is simply shown by the relationship they start with someone who happens to be the same gender as they are. I also appreciated Chambers casual use of different gender or pleural pronouns; something which reminded me pleasantly of David Brin.
On the other hand, there were a few occasions I felt the book becoming a little overly pedagogical, for example in the frequently repeated level of acceptance among “modders”, hobbyist techs who are free with body modifications since (as we’re told), a person’s body is their own. Or again in a visit to the Aandrisk home-world in which the complex family relations of the Aandrisk are explained, including a far higher level of physical affection than humans are used to, freely available coupling and complex, choice based family structure. In terms of the Aandrisk particularly, I was waiting for some part of their culture to be a little more alien and uncomfortably strange and a trifle disappointed when it didn’t arrive, since even their belief that children were not considered being people didn’t come with anything hard to swallow.
That being said, for all that several communities felt a little too much like conscious examples of acceptance, Chambers careful level of nuance always made sure to note that however nice the initial community might feel, there was still an arsehole or two out there, plus she makes it clear that not all aliens are quite as pleasant or accepting as the Aandrisk, albeit her examples of unpleasant alien cultures tended to also be examples of unpleasant moral traits, such as dogmatic authoritarianism or extreme factionalism, rather than being more quintessentially alien. It is also true that it’s an incredibly nice change (even for a cynic like me), to encounter a book which represents future humans as generally nicer and less scummy than we currently are, on both a societal, and individual level without indulging in any sort of star trek style aggrandisement.
Then again for all some parts of the book did feel a trifle prescriptive, I definitely appreciated the occasions that Chambers chose to raise issues with alternative perspectives and had her complex, three dimensional characters debate those perspectives. The sensitive way which Chambers handled issues such as gun control and the interference with other cultures identity was definitely appreciated. Indeed, my lady and I had quite lively debates at points through the novel, and on one occasion even found ourselves on opposite sides of one.
Stylistically, I was extremely pleased that though dialogue and character interaction are definitely the focus of Chambers’ writing, at the same time she does not entirely neglect description, indeed in many ways the wayfarer and the worlds it visits are as recognizable as the characters who make up its crew. I also appreciated that though her style is fairly quick, she does have a few more poetic moments, usually used to underscore emotional highs or moments of pathos.
The book’s climax was nicely delivered, and extremely tense, indeed even though the plot was mostly episodic, Chambers still threw out a hook or two which were picked up towards the book’s ending. My only minor issue is that I do wish we’d seen a little more of the angry planet of the book’s title and its inhabitants, indeed, while Chambers social commentary both about other cultures and about some of the economic and political expedients in dealing with savages were nicely on point, at the same time the Wayfarer’s crew did feel slightly peripheral to events.
Then again, as always it was not the galactic politics that took centre stage, but the interactions among the Wayfarer’s crew, the challenges they needed to go through and the sacrifices (some of them quite shocking), made along the way. Though there are no permanent story endings here, at the same time chambers was very careful to indicate that some crew members had turned a corner, and though the ending was more a close to the current journey than the wayfarer’s saga over all, given the book’s day in the life atmosphere and rather episodic structure it still felt highly satisfying.
In general, Angry Planet was every bit as good as I was expecting. I completely agree with Michelle Herbert’s assessment, the ultimate affect of angry planet is that of a warm hug from a close friend, which is exactly what the characters in this book become.
If you’re only interested in sf that explores the grimmer side of humanity, dangerous conflict or events on a grand galactic scale, then Angry Planet is probably not the right book for you. But if you like the idea of rattling around the galaxy with a bunch of lovable, occasionally irritating but always entertaining characters then the Wayfarer’s doors are always open.
As the title suggests this book is about a long journey to a small angry planet, following the lives of the crew of the ship The Wayfarer. The book is about much more than this journey, which has many layers to it. The journey to Hedra Ka (small angry planet) allows for the growth of the characters and is also a good starting point to this well realised universe.
The science of this novel is truly compelling and when mixed with the politics of the Galactic Commons (GC), it makes for a very interesting novel and transcends the usual sci-fi genre. It has a lot of really innovative ideas such as the fact that travelling faster than the speed of light has been banned due to its similarities to time travel. Even from the beginning of the novel we are able to see through the group’s dynamic that there are still problems of racism between different strands of humanity and other races throughout the GC.
The book starts with a new crew member about to arrive on The Wayfarer. Rosemary seems quite enigmatic when we first meet her, as she is running away from her past, and compared to the other crew members has lived a very sheltered life, never having been on a ship before and not knowing what to expect from the experience. The book changes between different character perspectives and by the end of the first few chapters we have met the rest of the crew of The Wayfarer.
The crew of The Wayfarer consists of the following: Ashby, the Captain of The Wayfarer, a human Exodan, he is the friendly head of the crew that knows when his ship needs their captain and when they need a friend. Sissex is the pilot; she is an Aandrisk which is a reptilian like species who have scales and feathers. The Aandrisks have a very interesting culture, whose family structure is very different from that of humanity. Kizzy is one of the ships technicians; she is impetuous and very animated in everything she does. Jenks is the other tech, he is more considerate than Kizzy but they make a great team. Dr. Chef (his real name is too long to pronounce) is the ships healer as well as cook, hence the name. Dr. Chef is a Grum, a non GC species that when Rosemary joins The Wayfarer she has never heard of. Lovey is the ships A.I. but for most of the crew she is just another member of the team. Corbin is the ship’s algaeist, whose job involves maintaining algae as this is what powers The Wayfarer. The last member of The Wayfarer is Ohan, who is the ship’s navigator and is essential to The Wayfarer’s job of punching holes in space through the sub layer to create wormholes.
There is no main character per se, although some characters perspectives are given more time and consideration, but everyone gets their time to shine. The characters, even secondary characters, have well thought out back stories. The crew of The Wayfarer feel like a family you want to be part of, and through Rosemary’s perspective we get to see how the crew’s dynamics work and whether they will accept her into their home. Each character is so well written that even if Becky Chambers never revisits them you feel like their lives would continue after the end of the book.
Humanity is one of the newer members of the GC having been found by accident after some of humanity known as Exodans had left the solar system. The other half of humanity; those who made their home on Mars are known as Solans. The GC are made up of a number of different sentient beings of all shapes and sizes, in some ways it reminds me of the United Nations, over a much larger space and a much longer history. The GC is also the cause of The Wayfarer’s journey to the small angry planet of the title, which appears as the GC is in talks of an alliance with one of the clans of the Toremi, a warlike species who settle all ideological disagreements by killing the weaker idea.
Becky Chambers manages to cram a lot of information into the story without the reader ever being overwhelmed or impatient to find out more. The book deals with a lot of issues that are relevant now such as cloning, sexuality across gender (and species in this context), artificial intelligence, guerrilla warfare, euthanasia and the right to choose how you live.
From the moment I picked up this novel, I didn’t want to stop reading it, which gave me a small dilemma as I also didn’t want it to end. It is a very rare feeling when reading a book that you are being given a hug, this is due to the characters with their trials and tribulations really making me feel like I wanted to be there with them. There are so many amazing things about this book which I have tried to cover in my review, but to sum it up in one word I found this book to be: Perfect!
Michelle Herbert, 10/10
1 positive reader review(s) for The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet
Anon from UK
Kizzy is the most obnoxious character I've ever come across in a book. That girl needs Zanex. If the author can evoke a feeling of annoyance from me then the book must be good.
9.9/10 from 2 reviews