The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers #1)
by Becky Chambers
First published in July, 2014
From Goodreads: Follow a motley crew on an exciting journey through space—and one adventurous young explorer who discovers the meaning of family in the far reaches of the universe—in this light-hearted debut space opera from a rising sci-fi star.
Rosemary Harper doesn’t expect much when she joins the crew of the aging Wayfarer. While the patched-up ship has seen better days, it offers her a bed, a chance to explore the far-off corners of the galaxy, and most importantly, some distance from her past. An introspective young woman who learned early to keep to herself, she’s never met anyone remotely like the ship’s diverse crew, including Sissix, the exotic reptilian pilot, chatty engineers Kizzy and Jenks who keep the ship running, and Ashby, their noble captain.
Life aboard the Wayfarer is chaotic and crazy—exactly what Rosemary wants. It’s also about to get extremely dangerous when the crew is offered the job of a lifetime. Tunneling wormholes through space to a distant planet is definitely lucrative and will keep them comfortable for years. But risking her life wasn’t part of the plan. In the far reaches of deep space, the tiny Wayfarer crew will confront a host of unexpected mishaps and thrilling adventures that force them to depend on each other. To survive, Rosemary’s got to learn how to rely on this assortment of oddballs—an experience that teaches her about love and trust, and that having a family isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the universe.
Every once in a while you come across a book that is the literary equivalent of a cup of hot cocoa and a fuzzy blanket on a cold winter’s day. Comfortable, soothing, and a welcome respite from the craziness of reality.
Becky Chambers’s novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is just such a book. It follows the journey of the Wayfarer, a grungy old ship traveling to the farthest reaches of the known galaxy to essentially punch holes in space and create stable wormholes which allow other ships in the Galactic Common to travel nearly instantaneously through space. Because those wormholes don’t exist until the crew of the Wayfarer creates them, they have to take the very long way around.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is just that– the story of a very long journey undertaken by a crew of diverse people from different species and cultures who must learn to deal with each other, take care of each other, and perhaps come to fully respect each other over the course of this long trip through open space.
Our window into this world is Rosemary, a young woman who lived a sheltered life on Mars and must now make her own way in this vast, unpredictable galaxy. Through her eyes, we meet the Wayfarer’s crew: ship’s captain Ashby, the technicians Kizzy and Jenks, navigator Ohan, algae specialist (aka fuel technician) Corbin, pilot Sissix, ship’s doctor and chef Dr. Chef, and the ship’s computer, an AI called Lovelace, or Lovey for short. The Wayfarer might not be the shiniest or the fastest ship in the GC, but Rosemary quickly discovers that they are practically family. Mostly. Corbin’s a grouch and Ohan keeps to himself, but the rest of them are family.
But maybe Corbin’s not so bad on a good day. And Ohan’s nice enough on the rare times he wanders out.
So maybe they are all a found family. Or not. Sometimes they squabble like little kids, and sometimes they fail to put on a brave face when things get hard, and sometimes they want to shove each other out of an airlock. But they stick together through thick and thin, support each other, and take care of each other.
The relationships are the core of this story, and their strengths and flaws are what bind it together, because there isn’t much in the way of a plot. The Wayfarer has a job to do, and it’s going to take a long time to get there, and when they finally make it there, they’re going to do the job and go home. That’s their plan. There are no evil space villains to defeat, no vengeance to be had, no wars to fight. This is essentially the story of a road crew heading out into the hinterlands to build a bridge so other people can travel more efficiently.
This is both the main strength and the main weakness of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Because there are no Deeds That Need Doing, we are treated to a look at the everyday lives of the Wayfarer’s crew. If they were not so endearing and so lovingly written, the whole book would fall apart. But Chambers is well-versed in how to build engaging characters and so, even though their anatomy and cultural habits may be radically different from anything Rosemary– or the reader– has ever encountered, you quickly figure out who is what, their beliefs, their cultures, and how they feel about each other.
Because there is little in the way of plot, however, the story often feels like a collection of background scenes Chambers might have written to get a sense of what was happening in the background had Ashby and Sissix and the others actually been away doing Very Important Things. If this had been a story about people doing Very Important Things, it would have failed. But as this is the story of an interstellar road trip, the little, everyday events rise to the top of the list of important things that are happening. And sure, there’s an encounter with some pirates and a painful encounter with glorified border patrol agents to spice things up, but they are not the main points of the story.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a charming, hopeful book about diverse people who learn to get along to accomplish a goal for the greater good. They are all– to one degree or another– willing to put aside their prejudices and selfish whims in order to achieve that goal, and in so doing they make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.