Every now and then a novel comes along that changes what you think stories can do. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is just such a book. On one level its very ho-hum ordinary. It’s about a group of spacefarers travelling in a spaceship to their destination. Stuff happens, perhaps people die, perhaps they don’t. There’s aliens, technology and new planets. It’s a small scale Star Trek with less clunky scenery. But that’s just one level. Not since reading Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, have I read a book that made me think so deeply about humanity, prejudice and the nature of acceptance.
…Small Angry Planet is about a ‘tunnelling’ vessel and its crew. Tunnelling, in Becky Chambers’ universe, is punching through the fabric of reality in order to build wormholes that facilitate travel across vast distances of Space. The crew of the Wayfarer are damn good at what they do, but as a small outfit, they’re restricted to minor jobs. The authorities who hand out the boring contracts (actually very exciting, ripping through time and space, and all that), have let it be known that if Captain Ashby Santoso had a more professional outlook, larger, more lucrative jobs could be sent in the Wayfarer’s direction.
This is how Rosemary Harper comes on board. She has been hired as a clerk. Somebody to ensure that all the paperwork is up to date and filed on time. So…the basis of the story is, a young woman takes a job in the back office of a small company that has ambitions to expand. Exciting hey? Well not so much, but the story Chambers delivers is mind-blowingly excellent.
From the off Rosemary has a secret, but what is it? The Wayfarer’s new mission is to a far flung sector of the known universe where an up-until-now hostile race of aliens have sued for peace and been invited to join the Galactic Commons. The GC is a federation of aliens and races that all pull in roughly the same direction to ensure harmony across space. The UN writ large. Humans, we learn a fairly new members of the GC; primitive and rather stupid ones at that. Our propensity to settle problems using violence has not gone unnoticed. Humans themselves are spilt into broad categories, including Martian’s, those who escaped the Apocalypse on earth by going to Mars, and Exodan’s, those who travelled into space hoping to find salvation amongst the stars.
The rest of the universe is made up with just about every other type of life form Becky Chambers was able to imagine. Which she does brilliantly. The races felt real, not just their physical appearance but their social structures, their habits, their interactions, their desires. They are wonderfully rendered sentient creatures, alien yet touchingly, for want a better word, human. There are several different species on board the Wayfarer, as well as three humans and a sentient (also incredibly important) AI.
The relationships between the crew are what makes this novel so special. To be honest, they could have just been taking a camper van trip somewhere remote, before spending a few days on the beach and coming home again. I could read Chambers’ dialogue and character relationships all day long. It’s impossible to pick a favourite character, they are all so good; so real.
Chambers uses her wide and varied cast of characters to poke at what exactly it is that constitutes humanity. How does compassion work? What is prejudice? I think I’m a pretty accepting guy, but reading Chambers novel, I realised I had prejudices that were so deeply hidden, I wasn’t really aware they existed. …Small Angry Planet explores the idea that we’re all different in any number of ways, but there is nearly always some common ground on which to build.
The novel builds slowly to a gripping finale, about which I shall say little, lest I ruin its emotional impact. Whilst the book is beautiful and complete, I finished it desperate for more. Closing the covers felt like I was shutting the door on old friends. With its ensemble cast and lens-on-life motif The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet would make a wonderful television series. I light-heartedly compared it to Star Trek, but a series based on this wonderful novel would be a more than worthy successor. This is storytelling of the highest order and without a shadow of doubt my best read of 2015 so far.
Ok, I’ll stop gushing now.
Except to say the cover is absolutely beautiful too.
Many Thanks for the team at Bookbridgr and Hodderscape for sending me a copy of this book.