It feels like I’ve been writing about The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet all month, but it’s time to round up with an actual review of Becky Chambers excellent debut.
Rosemary Harper has faked a new identity and signed on with the Wayfarer as a clerk. Captain Ashby hopes she’ll open doors to juicier contracts. Everyone else just hopes she’s less of a pain in the ass than their fuel engineer.
Set your headings for space opera – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is much more interested in people than tech, and it’s more interested in their development and feelings than political or military shenanigans. It’s not remotely Literary with a capital L; it’s sticky and fuzzy and given to wrapping it’s observations about humanity in jokes made by aliens. In acknowledging and exalting emotion, it’s at the Firefly end of the SF, but with pacifist engineers rather than smugglers. And you know what? There aren’t enough books about pacifists or engineers – let alone ones where they basically get on with being pacifists and engineers rather than being pulled out of their comfort zone and dropped into the middle of some galaxy-spanning conspiracy.
I loved it. It wasn’t a long slow dive of appreciation so much as a belly flop in the deep end and a book-long wallow in delight.
The nominal plot: fly to newly affiliated region of space inhabited by a tribe of poorly understood war-faring psychotics and open up a hyperspace tunnel back to civilisation (because they may be poorly understood war-faring psychotics, but they’re on our side now). In spite of the obvious politics around bringing a divisive element into a galactic community, the journey is the real story here, an excuse to introduce a richly diverse galaxy and spend as much time as possible with the affectionately squabbling crew. With no experience of deep space (let alone engineering) but a great deal of interest in aliens, Rosemary is a perfect entry into the fix-it world of the cobbled-together spacecraft on its long journey across the galaxy.
It’s not brilliantly written, it’s not shy of tropes, and it’s not afraid to do exactly what you expect. But it’s all executed with charm, making it irresistible (to me).
Particular highlights (as enthused about in weekly read-along posts): effervescent engine tech Kizzy singing mondegreens to banned alien pop; reptilian pilot Sissix (yes, ok, she’s another reason I love this book so much) having trouble typing because her digits are too cold; and – on a rather different note – exploring the limits (none) and post-traumatic responses (varied) of pacifists in the face of life-threatening violence.
This book isn’t afraid of its convictions; it’s neither social justice war nor hand-wringing liberal preaching; it’s just life in many facets with different skins and surprisingly little judgment (except maybe the totalitarian Quelin).
I won’t give it 5 stars straight away, but I suspect I will when I reread it based on the absurd level of affection I’ve got rattling around my cold reptilian heart. Also, my huge crush on Sissix.