If a bookseller recommends a book to you should listen. If a whole shop’s worth of bookseller’s recommend the same book with a joyful look in their eyes as if they’re showing you the ultrasound picture of their first child, then you should buy it without question.
Case in point with Becky Chamber’s wonderful debut novel “The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet,” which has charmed booksellers so much that displays of the book in the shop I work in have been maintained with a loving reverence since it dropped into bookshops in January this year.
“Long way to a small angry planet” is a sci fi novel following the exploits of crew of the starship “Wayfarer” on a year long voyage as part of their career of creating wormholes between galaxies. In many ways it’s a simple story, the crew don’t become embroiled in a large interstellar threat to be overcome, there’s no simmering conspiracy of universal proportions that’s driving the narrative. Instead the story comes from following the colourful crew simply trying to earn a living and made of various alien races such as reptilian pilot Sissix, “Ohan” a blue furred navigator with dual personalities, the ship’s artificial intelligence “Lovey” and the large, amphibian like, six legged cook known as “Dr Chef” an absolutely lovable character made so by his sheer friendliness. The rest of the crew are the two chaotic technicians Jenks and Kizzy (who I developed a crush on), the surly loner biologist Corbin (vital to the ship as it runs on algae) and the Captain Ashby a pacifist who doesn’t agree with weapons on the ship even for defence.
We’re introduced to the crew and the day to day running of the Wayfarer through the experiences of their new recruit Rosemary as she gets to know the members and their various cultures in her first voyage amongst the star. Here is the where the real joy of the novel is found as the reader pretty much hangs out with the crew in their daily lives, where conversations over meals and stop offs at planets to collect supplies make just as rewarding reading as the conflicts that the perilous journey throws in the crew’s way. Key to the success of this is obvious ear for dialogue that Becky Chamber’s has that make’s pages of dialogues lively and engaging.
That’s not to say there isn’t drama during the voyage. At one point the ship is boarded by pirates, in another tense scene a character is incarcerated when his past comes back to haunt him and a stopoff on a moon sees the crew taking refuge from a deadly swarm of insects.
However as these adventures come and go they never take precedence over the real story of the crew and the relationships that develop as they bond through their time together. Of all the story arcs it is that of Jenks and the self aware artificial intelligence Lovey who in falling in love provide some of the most moving moments of the whole story. There is also a compelling ethical conflict over respecting one member’s specific culture even if it ultimately means that character’s death.
Outside of the confines of the Wayfarer Becky has done an excellent job of building a Universe with races with imaginative cultures and customs that make them alien in ways far beyond their mere appearance. The politics and conflicts that arise from a galaxy built on a mixture of species is skillfully done so the issues though complex are never hard to follow, likewise the history of humans as galactic travellers is condensed and believable, bringing with it the story of rival factions of settlers that deserted the Earth.
In our troubled early 21st century Science Fiction has pessimistically edged towards the dystopia of civilisations ruined by war or conquered by brutal fascism. It’s refreshing then to read a novel that shows optimism and faith in the goodness of living beings.
Yes there are always threats, danger and uncertainty in the future, the lonely vacuum of space in the universe Becky has created can be particularly unnerving and frightening. Everyday life can throw up unfairness and tragedy and one scene in particular is amongst the most heartbreaking I’ve ever read on a page. Likewise the issues of racism, alienation, war, greed and the difficulties of getting through a day to day life are never far from the surface. Yet throughout the Wayfarer’s trek there acts of kindness, compassion and loyalty shown by this makeshift family that will bring warmth to the hearts of readers.
At a time when many of us live in nations facing the prospect a troubling and uncertain few years, believing that goodness can be relied upon in our communities no matter the differences between us is a uplifting and inspiring thought.
This novel originally self published by Becky has drawn acclaim from readers and critics alike having been shortlisted for the prestigious Arthur C Clarke sci fi awards. Her second novel in her Universe “A close and common Orbit” is released late October and she is soon to tour the UK.
In the meantime I heartily recommend Long Way to a Small Angry Planet as the best novel I’ve read in 2016. Buy it, but get a physical copy not an e-book, because us booksellers gotta eat you know.
Til Next time