The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet is a science-fiction book that does not read at all like I expected from a sci-fi story. Sure, the entirety of the action takes place in space and on a spaceship. Sure, the characters are a diverse mix of “alien” races. Sure, the spaceship crew’s job is to punch wormholes into space to allow for quicker space-travel but, somehow, it’s not at all sci-fi.
“Humans’ preoccupation with ‘being happy’ was something he had never been able to figure out. No sapient could sustain happiness all of the time, just as no one could live permanently within anger, or boredom, or grief.”
The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet tells the story of Rosemary, a Martian girl who comes aboard the Wayfarer tunnelling ship as its new clerk. The Wayfarer’s crew has a very important and well-paid, but complex, job – to build wormholes in space, allowing people to travel through space in seconds rather than years. . From the pacifist Captain whose secret love raises more than a few eyebrows; to Ohan, the Sianat Pair who prefers the pronoun “they”; to the Martian who definitely is running from something in her past; to the AI who longs for a body despite the potential ramifications, the Wayfarer houses a nine-member crew who are like one big (sometimes not-so) happy family – though each have their differences, they all strive to make this job and their own personal journeys work out for the better.
” ‘What do your crazy speciests do?’ Kizzy asked.
Sissix shrugged. ‘Live on gated farms and have private orgies.’
‘How is that any different than what the rest of you do?’
‘We don’t have gates and anybody can come to our orgies.’ “
What most impressed me about this book was the sheer amount of content Becky Chambers managed to accomplish, whilst also furthering her plot regarding the building of the wormholes. She has a wonderful ability to craft genuine moments of humour in her story as her readers are invited to, like her characters, poke fun at what we might consider “cultural norms” and, by doing so, truly interrogate some of the differences which lead to perhaps unnecessary divisions within society.
The idea of marriage and monogamy seems utterly perplexing to the Aandrisk Sissix who is born, and physically close to, her “hatch family”. To the character of Dr Chef, biological sex is transitional; his species are born female and become male once they have finished laying eggs and then end their life “as something neither here nor there”. These concepts are not woven into the story for novelty value, or because the sci-fi genre demands it, nor are they quick nods to making a novel “diverse” – such concepts are simply facts of the world Chambers creatures and, ultimately, the way that they are handled scrutinises the ethnocentric viewpoint by which most individuals/societies/governments tend to operate.
“Do not judge other species by your own social norms.”
Likewise, through the characters of Rosemary, Ashby, and Pei, Chambers explores the attitudes towards war from those inside and outside (for want of a better word) the industry and the far-reaching consequences in all aspects of existence. We see issues of arms dealing and war profiteering explored within a seemingly removed setting from our own, but the issue remains extremely relevant to our contemporary society, and it is through this alleged “sci-fi”/”alien” setting that light is in fact cast upon our own culture and morals towards such issues – and it’s not a pretty picture to face up to. Chambers shows how simply a misunderstanding or misapprehension during an already tense situation can lead to an explosion of war between aggressors, to the detriment of everyone, from the lowliest insignificant little spaceship to the planet and race involved.
” ‘Ninety percent of all problems are caused by people being assholes.’
‘What causes the other ten percent?’ asked Kizzy.
‘Natural disasters,’ said Nib.”
Much like Firefly, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet‘s main preoccupation is with the development of the characters onboard the spaceship rather than the spaceship itself. Sure, there are aliens with very different belief systems to our own, but of course there are – it’s a simple fact of the story rather than something that is used as a gimmick. And by “alienating” the reader, the novel explores the multitude of attitudes towards fundamentally universal values – concepts of family, friendship, selfhood, sex, and so on. The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet purposely uses the readers’ expectations of a high-tech, futuristic extra-planetary setting in order to instead cleverly highlight issues that affect us just as much (if not more) in today’s twenty-first century – we may very well be in need of this “alien” viewpoint to interrogate the status quo of our own society and morality.
“And I bet most of them — not all, but most — who made it through the war spent a long time after trying to understand what they’d done. Wondering how they ever could have done it in the first place. Wondering when killing became so comfortable.”