There’s no two ways around it: Becky Chamber’s debut novel, The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet is probably the most fun that you’ll have with a space opera novel this year. It’s exciting, adventurous, and the cozy sort of space opera that seems to be in short supply lately.
The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet has an interesting history behind it: Chambers recounts the story in the acknowledgements, noting that she was mostly through a draft of the book when her freelance work dried up. Instead of shelving the book for later, she turned to Kickstarter, and successfully put the novel together and began to sell it. It made its way to Hodder & Stoughton and Harper Voyager after it picked up a Kitchie nomination for Best Debut Novel and a level of critical acclaim that’s usually reserved for seasoned authors. It’s as though Firefly and Guardians of the Galaxy had one hyperactive and excited baby.
The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet follows Rosemarie, a fresh-faced clerk recently hired by an interstellar ship named the Wayfarer. There, she meets the ship’s diverse and interesting crew. There’s Lovey (The ship’s AI), Jenks and Kizzy (Techs) Sissix (pilot) Corbin, (Algeist) Dr. Chef (doctor / cook), Ohan (navigator) and Ashby, the ship’s captain. Together, they’re responsible for opening up hyperspace lanes between various parts of space, allowing interstellar communications and transportation to commence. At the start of the book, the Wayfarer picks up a big contract: opening a tunnel between GC space and Toremi Ka space. It’s enough to put the ship on the map in the future, and it’s something that they’ve been wanting to do for a while.
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As a novel, this is a book that’s less interested in putting together an enormously structured story than it is in examining the lives of the characters, which was a nice change of pace for me. Like the tunneling ship that they’re crewing, the story essentially follows this one journey as they take a year-long trip to a newly accessible region of space. Chambers is doing something ambitious here - the focus is on the mix of characters that have all come together to form the crew of the Wayfarer.
Reading this novel reminded me a bit of reading an excellent fixup - a novel assembled from various short stories. In a more story-driven narrative, the characters would move from plot point to plot point as the story requires. Here, though, Chambers jumps from character to character as they undertake their voyage. Their trip takes a year, and as they travel through space, they visit familiar haunts, homes and spaceports. At each point, we learn more about each character. Jenks and Lovely have fallen in love, and when they stop to get parts, Jenks looks into buying a robotic unit for her. Sissix stops by her homeworld and we learn about her species and where she came from. When Corbin’s arrested, we learn more about his past and so forth. As we follow these characters, we learn an incredible amount about the world that surrounds them and it stacks up against the best space opera universes.
Above all, however, the story that Chambers is telling isn’t about a fancy space drive or deep-space conspiracy that has consequences for every living individual in the galaxy. It’s about about a family that comes together on one tiny starship on one small mission to a planet far out in the middle of deep space.
For me, this novel was a real treat to read: it’s a novel with a lot of love and affection thrown into its characters, world and story, and it’s easily the most fun that I’ve had with a novel in a long, long time. This is space opera that’s not to be missed.