The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet: Like watching Barney & Friends while eating cotton candy

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The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers science fiction book reviewsThe Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers science fiction book revewsThe Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers self-published her debut novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet in 2014 after a successful Kickstarter campaign. It was picked up and published by Harper Voyager the next year and since then has been included in all sorts of “best of” lists and nominated for major awards. People I trust love this book and I can see why. I don’t love it, and I’ll explain why here, but I encourage you to try it out for yourself (if you haven’t already) and let me know what you think. There are lots of things to like about The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. It’s just not my thing. It had too little tension, action, and plot for me. It was just too sweet.

Running away from her secret past, Rosemary Harper takes a job as a clerk on the Wayfarer, a spaceship with a diverse crew. Ashby, the human captain, is a pacifist who refuses to have weapons on board and is having a secret affair with a woman of a different species. Kizzy the engineer is an excitable young woman who loves to smoke “smash” (like pot, I guess) and go to rock concerts. Jenks, the other engineer, is in love with Lovey, the ship’s AI. Sissix, the pilot, is of a cold-blooded reptilian species, but she has a very warm heart. The navigator is a being that consists of multiple genders and has a virus that lets them visualize interstellar space in a way that no other species can. Doctor-Chef, the ship’s cook and physician, is always eager to counsel someone over a cup of tea. Corbin, a technician, is the only disagreeable character. He’s kind of a jerk, at least at first.

This assorted group of folks work together to “punch” wormholes in space for interstellar travelers. When we meet them, they’ve just been hired to go to a “small angry planet” to punch a hole for the hostile alien species that lives in that system. They’re a little worried about this job, but it pays well and will enable them to make some necessary repairs and upgrades to their ship.

At the beginning of the story, when Rosemary first boards the Wayfarer and meets its crew, I thought I was going to love The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet because it reminded me of Firefly, a beloved science fiction TV series. I liked the characters well enough and was looking forward to the adventures they’d have together.

A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers) Kindle Edition by Becky Chambers

Sequel

The problem is that there wasn’t much adventure…. or action… or tension… or even much plot. A few things happened on the way to the small angry planet, and something happened when they finally got there (it was “a long way”), but each time the crew was met with any pressure, tension, or conflict, it was quickly and easily resolved. And the way it was resolved was always through a bit of cooperation or diplomacy or someone being friendly or deciding to do the right thing. It was so sweet and heart-warming that I felt like I was watching back to back episodes of Barney & Friends while eating cotton candy. To be clear, this is not a book aimed at kids since it includes swearing, sex, and drug use, but even with these “edgy” elements, it still felt childish and naive.

There are many bright spots — some nice world-building and imagery, some cool technology, some funny incidents, several touching scenes — but there was nothing that challenged me or made me think, which is what I’m looking for when I read science fiction. Instead, it’s a squishy kind of “social science fiction” with the message that we can learn a lot from people who are not like us (and an undercurrent suggesting that human beings are uncivilized cretins who are far inferior to all the more enlightened species Chambers invents for her story). I’m not complaining about this multi-cultural heart-warming message — it’s nice — I’m just bored by nice. I suspect that many readers who want to really chew on their science fiction will feel the same way. If you love Gibson, Bujold, Wolfe, LeGuin, Silverberg, Banks, and Martin, this may not be for you — it’s too “lite.” I also suspect that The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet might be a good introduction to science fiction for readers who think they don’t like the genre. It’s like science fiction pre-school.

Rachel Dulude narrates Tantor Audio’s version of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. It’s 14.5 hours long. I think most listeners will like her lively performance. I found it annoyingly enthusiastic at times — especially with Kizzy’s parts — but it may be that I just found Kizzy annoying in general.

I have a copy of Becky Chambers’ second WAYFARER novel, A Closed and Common Orbit. I will read it and hope it gets more exciting now that the introductions to the world and characters are over.

In conclusion, I’d like to re-iterate that I don’t love The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, but I seem to be in the minority. I’d like to link to Sarah Chorn’s review of this book because, as a person with a chronic illness who advocates for people with disabilities, there was a lot that she appreciated about this novel and I think that deserves to be mentioned.

Published in 2015. The acclaimed modern science fiction masterpiece, included on Library Journal‘s Best SFF of 2016, the Barnes & Nobles Sci-Fi Fantasy Blog Best Books of 2015, the Tor.com Best Books of 2015, Reader’s Choice, as well as nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Kitschie, and the Bailey’s Women’s Prize. 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.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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4 comments

  1. April /
    I enjoyed it a good deal but I found the pacifism of the captain to be extremely unlikely to work in real world situations, so basically unrealistic. I'll be reading the second too.
  2. I kind of love the idea of a Doctor Chef.

    • April /

      The group dynamic is the best part of the story – the individual characters and their relationships.

  3. Paul Connelly /

    I had a similar, but not quite as strong, reaction. It was nice, it had some interesting parts, but it felt like deeply old-fashioned SF, except that the HR department had made the author take Valuing Diversity training first. It was like something from the days when just being on a spaceship was so exciting, you didn’t really need that much more of a story to go with it.

    There have been a couple of these very old-fashioned seeming SF stories popping up in the last few years. The trilogy by Peadar O’Guilin that starts with The Inferior was another example–all I could think while reading it was, “This could’ve been written in 1962!” Before Delany, before Le Guin, before Dune, before Lord of Light, etc. But it was more in the brutalist vein–enforced cannibalism, species extinctions before your very eyes, savages fighting to the death for the entertainment of the distant techno-elites, etc. I have to confess I enjoyed it more than The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.

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