By Michaela Medveďová
A crew comprised of four different species, the universe governed by a galactic government, a wormhole-making spaceship travelling light years away to an unknown world. The setting for Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet provides a seemingly perfect opportunity for a breathtaking space adventure, filled with chases and advanced weapons. It is very easy to be tempted to take this road and join the ranks of recently super-popular action-packed sci-fi films that are the uncrowned cultural kings of the last three decades. However, the 2015 book does not quite jump onto this bandwagon. Instead, it opts for the often underrated contemplativeness of the likes of Phillip K. Dick.
Chambers uses the vastness and solitude of open space, not to terrify or thrill her readers but rather to slow down and tell an intimate, delicate story about a group of different people. Chapter by chapter, the tangled relationships among the the crew of the Wayfarer become clearer. By doing so one also learns about their personal backstories, and unveils the surprising conflicts that are hidden in their personalities. Each story is unexpected and often cruel but also beautiful in its own way. By switching narrators, the author enables the readers to dive into the individual stories of the characters. Although Chambers does not necessarily alter her language when distinguishing the characters, she manages to find a unique voice for each of them.
Time jumps between chapters and it is often hard to trace. They are each marked with a date; however, sometimes the chapter is more extensive or the story simply becomes too engaging to notice details. Some story lines seem a bit arbitrary and forced – they come out of nowhere and afterwards have very little space to spread out and evolve.
Another weaker spot is, in fact, a positive trait of the book. It is filled with so many species and topics that even more than four hundred pages are not enough to handle them with sufficient care. Kizzy the technician serves as an example of a seriously underdeveloped character. Thanks to her carefree personality and quirky habits she is, for the most part of the book, used solely for comic relief. Thus, there is not enough space devoted to the post-traumatic disorder she acquires later in the book and no resolution is given to this storyline. However, the need for more background might be well fulfilled in the successive novels. The sequel A Closed and Common Orbit was published in 2016 and the third volume on its way.
The greatest strength of this book lies not in an exciting story or compelling characters – it simply forces the reader to think about humanity, intelligence and empathy, and life itself. By mixing humans with other species, Chambers seats them in front of a mirror and lets them ponder about what they see, and a reflection may not be pretty.
The species Chambers created in the book come all with a detailed description of physical features and, more importantly, their customs, traditions, and a way of life. The writer explains their cultures in similar depth as an excited anthropologist would. It is clear that she immersed herself fully in the story in the process of writing, and has extensive knowledge about the galaxies she has created. As the story progresses, other species are described so well that nobody would question their existence. If the reader were part of the crew, they would also get to know their crewmates over time.
Aboard the spaceship, the human race comes into contact with different, arguably more evolved species, and this leads to a somewhat disturbing feeling. When human culture is perceived and assessed by aliens, uncomfortable truths come to the surface and the book shows the arbitrarity of culture. For instance, the essential maternal instinct is shown to be a result of a pure chance in the process of evolution. In this sense, the book is some true food for thought. It allows humans to see themselves in a new light. It is not an easy task and this book is not one of those we read and instantly forget. In order to enjoy it, one must leave their sense of human centrism behind.
The willingness to see humans as a tiny part of the huge universe is rewarded by an accurate evaluation of human history. Even in the company of many different species, it is the human race that is among the most bloodthirsty and reckless of species. People weaponized for their own gain and destroyed everything they had. However, the author offers a brighter future – a new start on different planets. The damage humans did to Earth and each other is impossible to change; but in the respective histories and fates of the species that surround humans in the book, we can see different possibilities of how our race can come to an end.
The quiet and contemplative atmosphere of the book is disrupted only at the very end. The action sequence during which the production of a wormhole gone wrong proves The Long Way Down may actually have been a great adventure story, had Chambers intended it to be. It is messy, fast-paced and unpredictable, and at the same time not extremely challenging to follow. However, the action is not there just for the sake of it. In the closing sequence, some of the stories culminate in a heart-wrenching way. The emotion captured by the author is tear-jerking but definitely not cheap. In fact, it represents a truly raw climax to the story.
Thanks to the mixture of adventure and philosophy, the book can be given high praise. The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet is, indeed, unputdownable. It reads extremely well and the readers will find it easy to relate to characters and live out their stories. If there is someone who did not finish the last page of the book and sighed with a wishful thought to be aboard of the Wayfarer, please raise your hand. I hope the sequel is just as good. This book is definitely not perfect but it is as close as it can get.