I have been looking forward to telling you all about The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers since I finished it a few days ago. It is one of those quiet books that you want to tell everyone to read because you loved it so very much and just did not want it to end and you want everyone else to love it as much you do. And then I find out it has made it onto the Baileys Women’s Prize Longlist and did you hear me go Squeee!? Because now for sure more people will know about this book.
The Long Way is Chambers’ debut novel. It was originally published because of a Kickstarter. Chambers found herself almost through a draft when her freelance writing work dried up. She had two options, shelve the book and return to it later or see if she could get funding to get it published. Thank goodness she got funding!
The book is one of those stories that is about everything and nothing. There is not much of a plot and hardly any action but I loved the characters so much every time I picked up the book I wanted to hang out with them and never leave.
The story takes place in the distant future. Humans have destroyed Earth, colonized Mars and headed out to the stars. But we have also gone back to Earth to try and fix the damage. As a result we have a number of different human societies with vastly different values. We’ve also met other species out there in the galaxy and become part of the Galactic Commons. The Wayfarer is a tunneling ship. They take jobs where they create tunnels through space and time to shorten the distance between areas of the galaxy to make space travel easier and faster. Basically they create stable wormholes from point A to point B.
The ship is owned and captained by the genial Ashby, a human of the Exodans, which means he is a pacifist among other things. His crew is composed of Rosemary, a clerk and new hire he brings on to do all the paperwork at which he is really bad and because of that is in jeopardy of not being able to pick up good work. Rosemary is a Martian human and running away from something. Then there are the ship’s techs, Kizzy (human) who loves fire shrimp, crazy outfits and keeps the engines running and the systems in operating order, and Jenks (human) who is the computer wizard and keeps the ship’s AI, Lovey, in tip top shape. Jenks is a small man because his Gaian mother did not believe in vaccinations and other sorts of medical interventions. Lovey, the AI, is sentient and she and Jenks are in love.
Also on the crew is Sissix. She is the pilot and an Aandrisk, a species that to humans look like person-sized lizards with feathers on their heads. Dr Chef is both the ship’s cook and doctor. He is a species called Grum, a six legged kind of insect-y looking individual. He is one of about 300 left of his kind because they had a great war and pretty much destroyed themselves. The survivors decided that as a species they no longer deserved to reproduce and so they are on the verge of going extinct.
We also have Ohan, the navigator. They are a Sianat pair, a species that is tall and furry. Long ago some of them were infected with a virus that allows them to see space and time like no other creature in the known galaxy. The culture developed so that each Sianat is deliberately infected with the virus at a certain age and at that time the infected individual goes from being singular to being a pair. Those who refuse to be infected or who partake of the cure, are heretics exiled.
Finally there is Corbin. He is the ship’s algaeist. The ship’s fuel is mostly algae and it is Corbin’s job to grow the algae and do all things algae. He is really good at his job and really bad at being a decent human being. Perpetually grumpy and uncomfortable around others, he is perfectly happy spending all his time with the algae and minimal time with the rest of crew.
The Wayfarer has been awarded a big and well-paying job by the General Commons. They are to create a new tunnel into Toremi Ka space. The Toremi Ka are a species that is perpetually at war among their various clans. There has recently been a schism and some of the Toremi Ka have made a treaty with the GC, protect us from the other clans and we will give you unlimited access to ambi, a hard to harvest and expensive fuel. It will take the Wayfarer a year to reach the spot in Tormei Ka space where they are to create the tunnel. And so we follow the crew over the course of the year as they go from place to place, making stops to visit friends and family along the way, pick up supplies, and have a few unexpected things happen. They arrive to do the tunnel, a few more things happen.
And that’s it. The whole story.
The point is not the plot, not the tunneling job. The point of the story is the journey there, the characters, their thoughts and dreams and hopes and fears, their relationships with each other. It is a story about getting along with people who have vastly different backgrounds and beliefs. There is much here about tolerance and acceptance. There is a crisis moment when someone is dying but can be saved by a medical intervention that goes against every single one of their beliefs.
It is hard to say why I loved this book so much. Maybe it is because the characters are so well developed? Maybe because I liked them all so much, even the grumpy Corbin. There was no slow part, not once did I wish the book would move along faster but many times I wished it would slow down so I could linger longer.
I know a lot of people don’t like science fiction but I think this is a science fiction book even non-SF reading people might like. And if you are an SF fan and I tell you the book has a Firefly feel to it, you might understand a little more why I loved it so much. That’s the best I can do. Read the book. It deserves more attention. It certainly has my vote for the Bailey’s prize.