RogerBW's Blog

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers 23 May 2016

2014 science fiction. The mixed human and alien crew members aboard a wormhole-building ship move from world to world, on their way to the job that'll let them move into the big time.

This is a science fiction story about people. There's very little by way of action, or even convoluted plotting: everything is set up to tell us the stories of the various crew members. The story begins with the arrival of Rosemary Harper, a young clerk who's been hired on to get the paperwork into some sort of order (though she clearly has some secrets to worry about). This gives an excuse for a description of the ship and the rest of the crew through a stranger's eyes:

She wore an orange jumpsuit smudged with grease and gunk, patched on the elbows with bright fabric and big stitches. There were hasty notes handwritten on her sleeves, things like "CHECK 32-B -- OLD WIRES?" and "DON'T FORGET AIR FILTERS YOU DUMMY" and "EAT."

But this isn't one of those young adult novels about someone Leaving Home and Finding Herself. Rosemary doesn't even stay as the principal viewpoint character. Almost everyone gets some time as the focus of attention, and the plot is subordinated to this: the ship's journey conveniently brings it to a series of places where each character can have their Important Moment that tells the reader more about them.

It's a weakness in the book, and so is the lack of actual science in this science fiction: the ship's fuel seems to be based on algae, by some means never explained, and the tech in general does what it needs to do to make the story work, rather than the story flowing (at last to some extent) from what the tech can do. It's a pity things are imbalanced in this way, but the character part of the story works so well that I forgive these relatively minor problems. (And this is probably a good book for introducing someone who doesn't read SF to the genre.)

The great thing is that nobody here is a villain. Everyone, on the ship and off, has their reasons for doing what they do, which make sense to them. Everyone on the crew is to some extent likeable, or at least trying to be. Eventually.

The setting is pleasingly free of cliché. There's a Galactic Commons, the overall government for most of the civilised species, but humans are only a small part of it and some people still don't think they should have been let in. It's neither a paragon of virtuous government nor a monster of tyranny. The other species aren't super-wise or "more evolved"; they just have different problems. Humans aren't known for being the best at fighting, or engineering, or anything else really.

It's a very talky book, but never felt slow. It's great fun, and heartwarming in a good way. Very highly recommended.

To be followed in October by A Closed and Common Orbit.

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  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 01:33pm on 23 May 2016

    Yeah but, a science fiction book for people who don't like science fiction. Not buying it. Thunderbird by Jack McDevitt was also a science fiction novel for those who don't read SF too. This might be a thing. Who knows, not I?

    Sorry, give me full fat, high caffeine, raw meaty SF.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 02:09pm on 23 May 2016

    It would be a better book if it had chunky science too. But since that's something that puts many people off SF, and since this book is otherwise excellent, it might be a decent gateway.

  3. Posted by Michael Cule at 09:21pm on 26 May 2016

    Well, I bought a Kindle copy and read it...

    The problem wasn't the tech. The algae... well, I didn't have to figure out how the 'punch a hole in space' bit worked either did I? (Though that said, how does a time loop end up with more fuel being consumed than would otherwise... Forget it!)

    The problem is the amount of empathy in the book. There were no really nasty characters here! It's not just the people on the ship. Even the pirates are given a sympathetic backstory!

    There were moments when I longed for a bit of Baen Books punch-the-bad-guys-in-the-throat action.

    I'll read the sequel sometime: not while I can't get it from the library and the Kindle price is 10.99 though.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 09:35pm on 26 May 2016

    Well, there are those aliens. I don't think they're terribly sympathetic. But even they have reasons for what they do, and I rather like that.

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