The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. Harper Voyager, 2016. 9780062444134. 464 pp.
Gene: The book we both read this month but that you haven’t finished yet.
Sarah: I’m still going to finish it. I really like it a lot. (Later: I did finish it, and I loved it even more.)
G: I knew you would. It’s fun.
S: It’s been a while since I read science fiction. And getting back into it, I noticed there’s a lot of explanation needed to establish how this world that’s not like the one we live in. And I found myself not annoyed by that in this book, which is a sign of a very good writer. It’s in there in more natural ways. Rosemary is joining a ship as a new crew member. She’s been really sheltered, she grew up on Mars, this is her first time in deep space, this is her first time meeting nonhumans, so people get to explain things to her about being in space, alien cultures, and there are little bits of a future Wikipedia that is also written and edited by volunteers to fill in the info we need to know as she needs it.
G: And she’s a person who has studied other cultures and languages, so she’s looking up information she needs in an informed way. But I think what’s funny is I thought, okay, there’s someone new to the ship and we’re going to see the crew through her eyes. And that’s kind of true, but it’s not as true as it would be in other science fiction novels.
S: Yeah. Because we get to see through all of the crewmembers’ points of view. I really liked that. Their ways of seeing things, what they know and don’t know, is very different.
G: So the basic plot of the book — and you can’t pitch this book on plot much — is: a kind of kluged together ship that punches wormholes though space…
S: They’re like the highway building crew of the future.
G: …travels around with a crew that’s not just humans. At the beginning Rosemary is welcomed onto the ship by Corbin, who is the grumpy outsider on the crew. By the end of the book (I hope this isn’t ruining anything) everyone is completely a family. They get a big contract to go to a war zone and they’re going to make a bunch of money to punch a hole from there. But very little of the book takes place in that setting. The plot is so secondary to the characters that it’s just about them.
S: And there’s nice little interactions. Sissix the pilot who is sort of a lizard lady…
G: A, to us, sexually promiscuous lizard lady.
S: Yes. So little things are established. She likes it warmer in the cockpit, she’s sluggish when she first wakes up, she has to use a warming blanket — her equivalent of coffee is warming her blood up. It all makes sense! So there’s a completely different way family works for her. In her culture they’re sexually open, they don’t wear clothes, but because she’s on a human ship she wears clothes for them. Her people touch and hug a lot but for them she holds back.
G: But she touches a lot by everyone else’s standards.
S: She acts like a very affectionate human rather than who she is.
G: And the whole ship is powered by algae growing in vats.
S: I loved that.
G: …which this guy Corbin, who is a jerk to everybody and a loner, he tends to it. Rosemary is brought on to do all the paperwork the captain has let slide. Captain Ashby is human but he’s part of the Exodan Fleet, the diaspora of humans —
S: The rich people left Earth before the collapse of the planet because they could afford to and went places like Mars. The poor people, the Exodans, left behind to die boarded less than amazing ships and headed out of the solar system. They were found by emissaries from a galactic confederation. Humans are a very recent addition to what is basically the space UN.
G: And, like most Exodans, Ashby is a pacifist.
S: They felt like violence caused the downfall of Earth and they don’t want to go through that again. So there’s a strange friction between him and Rosemary because of their origins. Even the humans aren’t the same.
G: Oh, and the Captain’s lover is this sexy amphibian lady from a culture where it’s forbidden to be involved with other species.
S: The thought of that to her people is disgusting.
G: Everyone has some tension. Rosemary is on the run from something, and it’s unclear from what or from whom.
S: If I was going to booktalk the plot that’s what I would start with: bookkeeper on a spaceship on the run.
G: The Captain is a pacifist in dangerous space. His lover is captain of another ship, and she’s a scarred-up badass. Sissix is trying to deal with being around people who aren’t like her. Then there are two engineers, Kizzy who is comic relief with a lot of heart — she eats snacks everywhere and loves life.
S: She’s gregarious and loud and funny. And then her buddy is Jenks, a little person in a time when most people have genetic differences like that “fixed” (in quotes) before they’re born. He grew up in a situation where that didn’t happen, so he’s different and people are weird about it.
G: People think the difference is something else, like maybe it has to do with where he’s from or it’s on purpose? Plus he’s all body modded, tattooed and pierced and stuff.
S: He curses and smokes and he’s also a badass, a perfect foil for Kizzy.
G: And he’s in love with the ship’s AI, Lovey, short for Lovelace.
S: Which is nice!
G: And the computer is in love with him. They talk. He hangs out. And they’re discussing the possibility of her having a body someday, which is illegal for some reason.
S: If you had said ahead of time, “In love with the ship’s computer…” Ehhhh…
G: I didn’t want to give that away. It’s so nice.
S: The way it played out is completely believable. I loved it.
G: And then Ohan.
S: They’re sort of a blue chimp.
G: I pictured Sully from Monsters Inc. but with mathematical formulas shaved into their fur.
S: They’re a race that chooses to be infected with a sentient virus that changes the way they think and gives them the math superpowers needed to do the real-time calculations to make wormholes. Individuals use the “they” pronoun to honor their virus.
G: And we can’t forget Dr. Chef, who cooks and heals and has an amazing bedside manner. What does he look like in your mind?
S: There’s description in there and to be honest that doesn’t always stick with me, but some kind of cross between a hippo and a caterpillar. He has lots of opinions and advice.
G: I read that Chambers lived in Iceland. And there are so many descriptions of food in this book. I couldn’t help wondering — was that because the food in Iceland is so bland? Did she consciously think, “You know what I need to think about? Someone cooking a lot of amazingly good, unique food.” Or maybe she was unconsciously dreaming of goodies.
(Gene’s note: Sarah and I have both been to Iceland. We both loved the place. But the food, other than the skyr and the half a sheep’s face I ate at a truck stop (with mashed turnips)? Meh.)