The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
Published July 29, 2014
There’s a lot to love about Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which follows the travels of The Wayfarer, a ship that builds wormholes, and its small crew, primarily over the course of a year-long journey to a distant planet.
Several readers have compared the novel to Joss Whedon’s much beloved Firefly, and I found myself drawing the same comparison.
Both works are set in space on a well-loved spaceship that’s worn down, but trusted and homey. Lovable, optimistic, and technologically inclined mechanic Kizzy has shades of Kaylee Frye… if Kaylee was hopped up on caffeine anyway! And most significantly, both works have a strong “found family” trope at the center of them. Although Captain Malcolm Reynolds doesn’t always get along with Simon Tam in Firefly, Simon is part of his crew and above all Mal is loyal to his crew. In The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Corbin and Sissix often have their differences, but Corbin is still family, and the crew of the Wayfarer look after their own.
Personally, I found another similarity in the way that this book grew on me in much the same way Firefly did. It took me a few watches to fall in love with the television series, perhaps in part because the characters are such a huge part of the appeal that it’s a show you watch more for the interactions of members of the crew than for plot. Here too, I was half-way into the book before I fully grasped how brilliant this novel is. I suspect it’s because The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is also a character-driven story and the reader needs time to get to know Chambers’ unique characters and appreciate the different interactions they have with one another. In both cases, I was won over and am now a card-carrying member of the fanbase!
There are plenty more reasons to love this book than that it brings back fond memories of Firefly though. Let’s start with the diversity:
The story is set hundreds of years after humans have destroyed and left the earth. As a result, humans have mingled for generations and most now share a “nationless” blend, such as Ashby’s tight black curls and amber skin. Corbin’s pale skin colour makes him a rarity among humans and he’s even described as “a pink man bred for tedious labwork and a sunless sky”. There’s also diversity of genders and sexuality including:
- A character who uses “their” pronouns.
- A character whose species starts out as female and becomes male as they hit middle/old age.
- A character whose species engages in “coupling” (sex) for comfort and fun without subscribing to human behavioral norms of monogomy or being judged for promiscuity.
- Characters who are attracted to the same sex.
- Inter-species relationships.
It’s all here!
I also loved how realistic and organic the interactions between different crew members of the Wayfarer felt. Chambers shifts between character perspectives to tell the story, which means the reader gets a sense of how crew members of different species feel, not only about the plot and their fellow crew members, but also their feelings on the behaviour of different species. We see Rosemary realizing how stiff and formal the crew must seem to Sissix, an Aandrisk whose species engages in much more platonic and romantic touching than humans do, and later see the reaction of young Aandrisks when they meet humans for the first time and curiously ask questions.
Although the characters may not always understand their fellow crew members, and may express frustration towards them and the ways in which their species or they as individuals behave, there is always respect for these differences. In the few cases where tempers boil over, it is made clear that offensive comments will not be condoned. Not only do characters respect one another, they try to accommodate one another’s differences. The Captain offers to complete a work shift for Sissix when she begins to molt, a stressful condition for her species, and the crew have put down strips of carpet over the metal grates to ensure that her claws don’t get caught. This sends a strong message of peaceful co-existence, particularly given the violent pasts that some species have had, and of celebrating differences.
I also have to applaud the fact that Chambers makes her alien species so different from one another and not just variations on the human race, as can often be the case in science-fiction. From the reptilian Aandrisks to the Grum doctor and cook, and the Sianat Pair navigator, there is a fascinating array of races who hold different belief systems and cultural behaviours.
The plot is not complex or twisting, but it doesn’t need to be. The focus is very clearly on the characters and their interactions over the course of the journey. There’s something almost cosy about the novel in the way that it left me with warm and fuzzy feelings and in a general mood of contentment. Ultimately, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a refreshingly unique character-driven novel that I would highly recommend to anyone interested.