Once again, we have the distinct pleasure of having Antonio Díaz reviewing a novel for us. In this case, he writes about The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers, one of the most talked-about SF books of the last few months. And, as you see, this time Antonio has also written his review in English (you can read it in Spanish here). Hope you enjoy it!
Review Soundtrack: Antonio suggests reading this review while listening to Angry Planet by New Model Army (Spotify, YouTube).
In her literary debut Becky Chambers presents a coral story that takes place in a spaceship with a multispecies crew. A rather typical setup, as we can see merely thinking about Firefly, Star Trek or the dozens of sagas with this approach. But the author knows how to correctly land this idea helped by an excellent pacing, multiple points of view and the exploration of a wide variety of SF topics.
Avoiding spoilers I can say that the Wayfarer crew work consists in 'tunneling' the space fabric building pairs of portal between two points in order to allow fast intergalactic travel. This is a lonely job that generates tension and friction among crew members. Specially if it is a heterogeneous lot and it is set for a long haul.
If I had to categorise this novel I would say that it is a character-driven space opera. Because the characters are the novel's main focus throughout the whole text, way over the universe or the events that take place in it. The Wayfarer's crew is fascinating, specially the alien species, and everyone get their own point of view at least once in the novel. Maybe between amidst this non-human personnel there are some clichés, but I don't think I have enough experience in SF to find them dull. I didn't find myself groaning, as sometimes happens when I read fantasy, raising my eyebrow and sighing: 'Tolkien elves again no, please'. On the contrary, I found the alien species fascinating, not only through the human perception, but also through the perception that they have of themselves, the other aliens, and the humans.
The main characters development (that would be the Wayfarer’s crew in its totality) is simply outstanding. Everyone has an arc (some of them better defined than others) and Chambers explores all of their voices. Despite being a new author one can see a lot of work (and several drafts) behind a book that is rather compact for all its content.
Another of the book's advantage is a truly excellent rhythm. The smoothness of the reading experience is undoubtedly helped by frequent point of view changes and a feeling of movement inserted between each exploration of the character's psiques. It's been a real page-turner for me.
Few can be said about the novel's main topics without ripping it open, so this should suffice: cloning, mechanical improvements, gene-tweaks, intelligent viruses and AI rights, among others, are explored. There is no need to say that not all topics are explored fully or have an equal amount of lines, but they globally fill the novel with a lot of content.
A very important point that has to be made about The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is that it has a certain degree of existential optimism. This veil that covers the novel reminded me strongly of Bujold's Vorkosigan saga and, despite the distance in genre and rhythm, Addison's The Goblin Emperor. It is a surprising change of pace from the space opera written by Weber, Scalzi, Corey, Ringo, Campbell, etcetera in which the testosterone levels are way higher. I don't mean by this that every problem meets a swift and satisfying ending, but that these conflicts are not solved by a length measurement (of Proton Laser Spears, that is). Chambers switches the conflict focus more to an internal dilemma.
Reading the novel I was getting the impression that Chambers did elaborate a very rich and well defined universe for only one novel. At the end of the book, after all was said and done, I discovered why: it is not a one-shot novel, but the start of a saga. Nevertheless, it is a totally self-contained book that has no need for a sequel. The UK paperback has plenty of extra content, including an extract of the second novel, A Closed and Common Orbit. The characters portrayed in this extract didn't have a relevant role (if any at all) in the first novel, which gave me an even greater feeling of completeness.
A curious note, besides the self-interview that the author includes and the novel's very interesting writing and publishing tale, my paperback included a bunch of questions to discuss in a hypothetical reading club and that helps you reflect about the book's central topics.
Chamber's publishing story is one that has moved from being surprising and new to be one more and more common every day. After the epilogue, Chambers says that in 2011 she started writing The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and when she was two thirds in she found herself unable to maintain both the writing and her day job. She thought the whole thing over, started moving the draft around the Internet and with friends in order to polish and finish it and finally she set up a Kickstarter. The campaign was a success, raising the modest sum of $2,810 (I understand that the goal was even lower), which led to Chambers finally self-publishing her novel. A publishing house took notice and they decided to buy the rights to print it. We have no other way but to admit that we live in an age where there are new ways for a writer to successfully enter the market. We live in interesting times.