Fiction Reviews

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

(2014/5) Becky Chambers, Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99, hrdbk, 404pp, ISBN 978-1-473-61979-1


Rosemary Harper arrives, after a time in suspended animation, in a small pod at the hyperspace tunneller The Wayfarer. A clerk, she is the latest to join the crew whose job it is to create stable wormholes between points to enable long-distance travel. The crew itself, while mainly human, includes a few aliens. The Wayfarer itself has seen much service and has many modifications made to it over the years.

Humanity, it transpires, has itself largely undergone a diaspora following the environmental degradation of the Earth, with Mars largely being the focus of human activity in the Solar System: a planetary system a long way away from The Wayfarer.

And then The Wayfarer's captain gets the chance of a lucrative job to tunnel to near the Galactic core where an insistently reclusive and potentially hostile race lives. It is a job they cannot really afford to pass up…

A Long Way to an Angry Small Planet is a delightfully quirky space opera. The algae power system is odd (and not explained in any meaningfully scientific or even pseudo scientific way) and the alien species odd in the way that alien species are (or might well be). Above all this novel is about the camaraderie of a small crew trying to earn a living doing an industrial job amidst a galaxy that is not always friendly. This focus is really at the heart of the book as the mission they accept is largely a McGuffin.

A Long Way to an Angry Small Planet starts of reading like an Alistair Reynolds or Paul McAuley wide-screen space opera, but it soon becomes apparent that while there is clearly a back story to the history of the universe Chambers gives us (and it is an interesting back-story), and while there are clearly galactic-scale political developments currently taking place at the time this novel's protagonists are doing their thing, it is the way the crew hangs together and interacts that makes this novel work. And, yes, this novel does engage the reader who is absorbed into the narrative in a touchy-feely, lovey-dovey kind of way. Now, there is nothing wrong with this and the story does deliver. Consider it a bit like the way the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode 'Lower Decks' (1994, by Ron Wilkerson & Jean Louise Matthias) or the Babylon 5 episode 'A View from the Gallery' (1998, by Harlan Ellison), work: they both focus on characters that would usually be considered as 'extras' in the real story. True, The Wayfarer does, toward the book's end, gets to where the big-Galactic pivotal points turn, but even here, pages before the end, the protagonists are just pawns having virtually no say on the way things pan out. And while the set up to the big galactic backdrop is genuinely interesting, only some aspects of this are explained and here some not particularly satisfactorily; though that does leave room for a proper explanation/resolution in some future novel. In short, while it starts as a Reynolds or McAuley space opera might, it never gets into a widescreen stride but maintains firmly centred on The Wayfarer's crew's views and concerns: this is not widescreen space opera but small-screen space opera albeit one with much charm as a quiet rural village has that is full of much loved characters who occasionally get their routines disrupted by encounters with those of a tougher wider world.

Personally, I not only like a good back-history (which this has), and set up (which this also has), and characters with which you can thoroughly engage (Becky Chambers has a talent here), but I myself do need a good overall story and a bit of a genuine SFnal mystery, or puzzle, that eventually brings the afore threads together and gets properly resolved. Alas for me the author left these last out. Call me old fashioned, but I like plot with my fiction. Here the author gave us gave us characters who each carry their own secrets, which get revealed as the book progresses, but these revelations do not really mesh or integrate into a plot. (And I never bought into this flying in circles thing.)

But if characters, back-story and set up are all that you need to sustain you, then this is a delightfully charming romp: positively cosy, touchy-feely space opera. Here I am sure the author – should she continue with her writing career – will attract her own, quite possibly substantive, following.

Jonathan Cowie

See also Mark's take on The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.

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