The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a science fiction novel by Becky Chambers, the first in the author’s Wayfarers series. Rosemary Harper is a young woman with a troubled past that she is all too eager to get away from. She finds the escape she’s looking for aboard the Wayfarer, a patched-up ship that’s seen better days. The crew have an important job, however, as the ship can create the hyperspace tunnels that make long-distance space travel safer and time-saving. As the ship’s new clerk, she seems to find exactly the peace and quiet she was looking for, albeit alongside the Wayfarer’s chaotic yet affable crew made up of a mishmash of different species. Their relative comfort in close quarters is put to the test, however, as they take on a riskier, more lucrative job: creating the first tunnel to a distant planet. They’ll have to take the long way to get there first, however, contending with each other’s secrets and whatever the galaxy can throw at them along the way.
It’s rare that I feel so utterly positive about a book that I had a somewhat glaring issue with. Within the first 50 pages or so, as Rosemary becomes acquainted with her new crewmates and job, I was ready for the story to kick into a higher gear. Worldbuilding and introductions had been laid down, and I was ready to get a sense of what the underlining conflict to this novel might be. The titular “small, angry planet” that they’re traveling to serves more as a foreboding presence to be confronted at the climax of the story, so in the meantime, I kept waiting for a more persistent, present conflict to make itself known. At the point fairly early on where Rosemary’s troubled past is fully revealed to her crew (and the reader), only to be met with mild perturbance and understanding, I realized that the level of narrative conflict I was expecting wasn’t quite going to be delivered.
This is not to say conflict is absent from the story, don’t get me wrong. Conflicts arise from both within the crew and without over the course of the entire book. Each of these I was compelled by in their turn, too. What my issue stems from is the fact that the book is significantly more character focused than it is plot. The plot, such as it is, is fairly straightforward: the crew of the Wayfarer is undertaking a long journey. They experience relatively isolated, almost episodic travails, but their journey itself is not a struggle. The focus is much more on what effect these smaller incidents have on the characters, rather than any complication they may cause for the actual journey. Nothing is wrong with this, necessarily, except for the fact that with one crew member being a bit of an x-factor, there is a good deal of harmony between all of them from the get-go, which felt just a little too convenient for me.
It’s an irksome thorn in my side, because aside from this issue, I love this book a lot. The amount of care and attention Chambers has put into these characters and her vision of the galaxy is deeply apparent. Though occasionally the worldbuilding exposition could be a little bloated, there is no denying the amount of thought she has put into it. Whether the nuanced social norms between the numerous alien species (as well as biological differences), the history of the human race as we became space-faring and had to leave Earth behind, the actual technologies of space travel itself, or Galactic politics at large, the book’s world has a wealth of lore to discover.
I also came to absolutely adore these characters. While Rosemary serves as a vehicle for the reader to become acquainted with the rest of the crew and the mechanics of space travel itself (her feet previously having been mostly planted on Mars), it soon became clear that the book was less about any single member and really about the crew as an ensemble. A few of them took some getting used to, particularly the “mech tech” Kizzy, whose eccentricities felt a little forced to me at times, but they all grew on me eventually. I became particularly fond of Sissix, the reptilian pilot of the Wayfarer. In part it was because I’m a sucker for reptilian characters in general, but also for how fascinatingly unique her species is socially, as well as for her strong sense of compassion, often leading her to firmly advocate for the well-being of others.
The moment I realized the characters had me emotionally at their mercy was when this concern for others was returned in kind to Sissix by another crew member, leading the two to become intimately involved. It had been telegraphed fairly obviously early on in the text, but I became uncharacteristically flustered and giddy as it came to fruition on the page. It was such a positive cathartic experience for me that the next time I picked up the book I actually reread the section before pressing on, purely for the sake of enjoyment, which is something I virtually never do. I could speak at length about each of the characters, but in the same way that a plot-driven novel might be spoiled by open discussion of events, I feel these characters are best left discovered on your own. Some of them are a little trope-y at times, but each is lovingly crafted with strengths and weaknesses that are appreciably explored.
The diversity present in the world is one of the book’s strongest suits as well, especially in presenting aliens that are much more than just differently shaped human beings. Dealing with the challenges presented by these differences is an important motif central to the story itself. Whether as simple as struggling to put something into words that is usually expressed with gestures, or as intense as the ethical dilemma of whether you should force treatment on someone dying of a disease central to their species’ entire culture, it’s something the crew continually contends with between each other and the world around them. This eventually culminates in their interaction with the Toremi, the species inhabiting the final destination of their journey; a species with which only limited understanding has been fostered.
Before starting this book, I often found the subgenre “space opera” attached to it, would I think actually does a disservice to the story it tells. While each member of the crew can be seen as remarkable in their own individual ways, none of them seems special in the ways typical of that genre. They don’t become central figures of a conflict nor find themselves tasked with the fate of the galaxy itself. They’re out to perform a relatively blue collar job, and while some of the problems that come their way are tangentially related to war or politics, they’re only really equipped to tackle the relatively smaller problems these incidents present, and others they’re not really capable of dealing with at all. It was refreshing that, ultimately, these are just people doing a job as best they can, just a small part of a greater galaxy that they can only exercise so much influence over and are otherwise at the mercy of.
Being so much more focused on character over plot, your mileage may vary with The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. It’s easy to see how some may find it too meandering or indulgent. While I sometimes wished for a stronger plot, I was swept away enough by the compelling characters and richly detailed universe that by the end it hardly mattered. I excitedly look forward to reading more of this series.
My Rating: 4 out of 5