The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
Reading Becky Chambers’ new space opera novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is like being reunited with some of the characters you loved most in Firefly except that most of these characters aren’t human, or even “Exodan,” which is a different strain of our species in this fiction. There’s the Zoe character, except she’s named Sissix and from an affectionate lizard-type race. There’s a Shepherd Book character, with a mysterious badass episode in his past, except that he’s among the last of a dying giant caterpillar race and instead of a preacher, he’s the doctor and chef. There’s a Kaylee character named Kizzy. The captain of the ship, Ashby Santoso, is a Mal figure but without Serenity Valley in his past and with a secret alien lover. We’re introduced to this crew, the crew of a spaceship called The Wayfarer, when Rosemary, a woman with a past she is trying to hide (the Simon Tam character), joins them. She is escorted around the ship by the Jayne character, a guy named Corbin who has no social graces but is good at keeping their algae alive, the fuel for the ship.
There are characters from other science fiction universes, too. Kizzy has a partner who is also a spaceship mechanic, Jenks, and he is physically different from everyone else because his mother was part of a group of humans who refused alterations to her offspring. Jenks falls in love with the ship’s computer, Lovelace, who is a version of Heinlein’s Dora, only much less silly (since she was written in the 21st century). The navigator, Ohan, is straight out of Frank Herbert’s Dune, except instead of being addicted to spice, “they” have exposed themselves to a virus that helps them see how to fold space.
So it’s all slightly familiar, while the conversations and adventures are delightfully alien. In an early conversation with Sissix, Rosemary reveals the fact that she’s never eaten a very common kind of bug, and thinks:
“She felt guilty just saying it. Insects were cheap, rich in protein and easy to cultivate in cramped rooms, which made them an ideal food for spacers. Bugs had been part of the Exodus Fleet’s diet for so long that even extrasolar colonies still used them as a main staple. Rosemary had, of course, at least heard of red coast bugs. The old story went that a short while after the Exodus Fleet had been granted refugee status within the Galactic Commons, a few Human representatives had been brought to some Aeluon colony to discuss their needs. One of the more entrepreneurial Humans had noticed clusters of large insects skittering over the red sand dunes near the coastline. The insects were a mild nuisance to the Aeluons, but the Humans saw food, and lots of it. Red coast bugs were swiftly adopted into the Exodans’ diet, and nowadays you could find plenty of Aeluons and extrasolar Humans who had become wealthy from their trade. Rosemary’s admission that she’d never eaten red coast bugs meant that she was not only poorly traveled, but that she belonged to a separate chapter of Human history. She was a descendant of the wealthy meat eaters who had first settled Mars, the cowards who had shipped livestock through space while nations starved back on Earth.”
I like the details about the universe Chambers has created. I like it when Kizzy sings a song she calls “Socks Match My Hat” and we find out that it’s prohibited in the Harmagian Protectorate because it’s actually called “Soskh Matsh Mae’ha” and it’s about “banging the Harmagian royal family.”
I like the way Jenks is critical of an organization that calls itself “Friends of Digital Sapients” because “they didn’t have a lot of techs in their ranks. They ignored the actual science behind artificial cognition in favor of a bunch of fluffy nonsense, making AIs out to be organic souls imprisoned within metal boxes. AIs weren’t like that.”
I like the explanation of how the Wayfarer makes tunnels through space, and the picture of what could happen if this went wrong:
“The Kaj’met Expanse was a Harmagian territory, half the size of the Sol system, in which space had been completely rent asunder. The pictures from there were terrifying—asteroids drifting into invisible holes, planets snapped in half, a dying star leaking into a debris-crusted tear.”
And I like the way some of the aliens are really alien, like the Aeluons, who
“lacked a natural sense of hearing, and had no need for a spoken language of their own. Among themselves, they communicated through color—specifically, iridescent patches on their cheeks that shimmered and shifted like the skin of a bubble.”
The adventure begins when the Wayfarer and her crew accept a tunneling job that takes them through newly-opened space. They get fired on and boarded by Akarak space pirates, and are saved when Rosemary knows enough about their culture to bargain with them and enough of a language they speak (Hanto) to communicate with them.
After the space pirate incident, they land on a planet in order to buy some shields and weapons, and meet “modders” who have modified their bodies in order to perform specialized tasks. Kizzy discovers hidden bombs on a spaceship docked with the Wayfarer and defuses every one. Sissix rescues Corbin from a Quelin prison, and Corbin later saves Ohan’s life, against their will.
The ending, which begins winding up within sight of the “small, angry planet,” is a mess of overheard conversation, suspicious aliens, a last-minute getaway, and the death of one of the crew members.
I liked reading the book so much I stayed up late to finish it. My only complaint is that Kizzy started to get on my nerves after a while–she does things calculated to make her about 500 times cuter than Kaylee, like knitting hats for little helper bots…just too precious. Also she eats all the time but never gains weight or offends anyone else with her crumbs or her greed. Perhaps I’m agreeing with Jenny that the way these characters get along is too good to be true. But hey, it is fiction, and a very pleasant, cozy kind—at least in between alien attacks.