May 18 2020

The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers #1) by Becky Chambers

Sometimes, when I’m in the middle of a long jag of perfectly fine to mediocre books, I start to wonder whether my reading skills are atrophying because I’m only managing 100 pages a day. But then I get a book like Becky Chambers’ The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet and crush all 500 or so pages in a little over 24 hours, and I realize that I was just waiting for the right book to come along to restore my faith in myself, to spark that alchemy that has me tearing through the pages, laughing and crying and barely believing how fast the book goes by.

TLWtaSAP was an absolute joy to read. A space opera focused on the crew of the Wayfarer, a ship specializing in building the tunnels through space-time that allow for interstellar travel, it hearkens back to the golden age of sci-fi, when Asimov and Bradbury told connected short stories revolving around their robots or colonists of Mars. To a large extent, it’s also reminiscent of episodic TV set in space, where you get to explore each character’s back story while unraveling an overarching plot. In this case, the Wayfarer has been hired for an ambitious job following the declaration of a peace agreement between the Galactic Commons and the Toremi Ka, a tribe of a warlike race of aliens who value conformity in thinking above all, and will fight dissenters to the death. While traveling to their destination in Toremi space, the Wayfarer engages in all sorts of adventures where secrets are revealed and deeper relationships forged, only to find that perhaps their mission isn’t as risk-free as the GC had promised.

TLWtaSAP felt like reading (or bingeing, in my case) the entire first season of a really great TV show like Firefly or Star Trek. I’m genuinely baffled by its description, for good or ill, as “feel good” or “slice of life.” Sure, there’s no overarching galactic conspiracy that our team has to save the known universe from but there’s still a shit ton of adventure, loss and death-defying to be had, with alien species, cultures and diplomacy to add complexity to the proceedings. There weren’t any dei ex machinae or other implausible plot twists: everything flowed smoothly because Ms Chambers is a terrific writer with an engaging style who clearly spent a lot of time thinking through the story she wanted to tell. Calling TLWtaSAP “feel good”, however well meaning the sentiment, sounds incredibly dismissive of a complex exploration of the kinds of relationships that develop between very different people thrust into close quarters (in space!) as well as the political and social machinations going on in the setting at large. But hey, if it draws in readers who might be searching for that kind of touchstone before trying out a new genre, then I guess I’m for it, even as I wonder at how much pain and grotesqueness its detractors prefer to see from their genre fiction.

Anyway, I loved this thoughtful, often moving, definitely hilarious (the scene with Sissix and the orchid, among others, had me guffawing so hard) novel and can’t wait to read the sequels. TLWtaSAP well deserved all the awards it received.

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