Fiction Reviews

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

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


I was looking forward to this one Ė quirky title, good looking cover, interesting setup. Ann Leckie meets The Expanse, apparently. Riiiight. I must learn to take less notice of dust jackets.

The book had an odd genesis. Itís a debut novel, with the writing funded via a Kickstarter campaign (must try that one), published in the US in 2014 and then picked up by Hodder and Stoughton in Britain in 2015. The phrase Ďspace operaí appears too frequently in reviews for my liking, though, and although this is undoubtedly a nicely crafted book, it wonít appeal to everyone.

The problem for me is the pace. After 100 pages, which is a quarter of this not over-long book, we have been introduced to the characters. Nothing more, just the introductions. We know a lot about their backgrounds, because Chambers tells  us a lot about them. Rosemary, our early eyes and ears, joins the deep-space wormhole-building ship the Wayfarer  as it trawls for work somewhere in the galaxy. We are far-ish into the future to have aliens hanging around, and most of the crew are just that. This is a book for exploring, in some depth, the inner workings and psyches of various alien species and Chambers has certainly done her world-building. For the next 50 pages the crew goes shopping. And then I died of boredom.

Do not expect much of a plot. Half way through this book one begins to emerge (taking a job to construct a hyperspace tunnel through a war torn area of space), but itís slight and plays a distant second to the real purpose of the novel, which is to set up a dynamic between all the aliens and weird humans on the Wayfarer. So youíve got the sulky guy (Corbin), the fast-talking cool girl (Kizzy), the small and proud of it guy (Jenks), the coolly detached alien navigator with an confusing and unnecessary plural pronoun (Ohan), the guy in charge having an illicit affair with an inexplicably out of bounds alien (Ashby), an empathic alien with feathers (Sissix), yet another alien (a cook irritatingly called Dr Chef), and a give-me-a-real-body AI called Lovey (cue love interest). That all gives you either a cute soap opera cast or a confusing mix of mismatched characters. All the aliens, of course, are different species, presumably because Chambers really likes writing about how different aliens might eat, sleep and have sex, but all of them act with very human emotions. They have to, because we need to be able to relate to them, and even the most alien amongst them (probably the plural alien Ohan) channels very human concepts like duty, responsibility, loyalty, frailty and ageing.

Oh and Rosemary has a secret. Actually most of the characters have some things they donít tell the others (who doesnít?) but Rosemaryís secret is flagged early one and does promote some mild intrigue.

Some people clearly like this sort of slow, character study, although there is no real depth to the characters, just descriptions of their alien quirks. But I canít help thinking it all needs a bloody good editing. Itís not just the place-holding names (Dr Chef? Lovey?). There are times when Chambers goes into excruciating detail about the most trivial of things, which plays havoc with the pace. Itís elegantly crafted, but lacks any kind of real conflict, save for the pressure (late on) to keep the dying Ohan alive. Sadly, the title foreshadows the story Ė it is indeed a long way to a small angry plot and the irony is that this is a story about wormhole constructors. Chambers should have taken a cue from her own story and got us to where she wanted us to go considerably quicker.

Mark Bilsborough

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

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