Last month I read a science fiction book that was so good, I missed my bus stop on two different occasions and totally lost track of time on a five-hour flight. It’s called The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers.
Reading this book is like meeting a bunch of new friends. Half of them happen to be aliens — except for the one who is an artificial intelligence. That’s what impressed me most about the book: Like other sci-fi I love (Mass Effect, Firefly, Star Trek, Sirantha Jax), this story introduces you to the crew of a spaceship and makes you feel like you know them. You root for them as if you’re part of their team, because you want so much for them to be real.
In The Long Way (that’s how I’m abbreviating it, and I’m sticking to it), the crew of the Wayfarer is a group of tunnelers. That means their job is essentially building wormholes in space to enable interstellar travel. It can be dangerous, but for them, it’s also kind of routine.
The protagonist is a young woman named Rosemary who is trying to escape her past — which you know nothing about, early on. She’s hired as the ship’s clerk. That’s right, she’s hired to do paperwork on a spaceship with an multi-species crew. It’s all new to her, which makes seeing how things work feel exciting.
However, while Rosemary is the main character at first glance, there are many chapters devoted to the other characters on the ship. They’re all viewpoint characters at some point — some just have more page time than others. But it’s fascinating to see things from all of their different perspectives, including their cultures.
Though I knew the book’s pace was slow, I didn’t feel that way reading it. Instead of yawn-inducing descriptions of planets and politics, details are the salt and pepper of funny conversations between characters. Chambers is a wizard at providing details about the world she’s created here. Everything felt like it was happening before my eyes. Even though nothing much was happening with the plot, the crew of the Wayfarer had me totally enraptured.
For example, Chambers makes an explanation of tunneling interesting by having one of the crew’s quirkier characters explain it, in her own voice, using kitchen utensils and food in her demonstration. Introducing another alien race, she shares details of their skin and features by describing one of these aliens through the eyes of a human lover, making it all the more interesting. And the aliens have their own ideas about humans — including all of their flaws.
And let me just say, as someone who loves believable aliens and space travel, to me The Long Way was like a big old ice cream sundae of world-building. You don’t just meet an alien character who looks kind of like a reptile (that’s all you get, in some books) — you get to know this person’s traditions, such as giving away a feather to people who have changed her life, the games her people play, how intimacy works in her culture, and more. You can tell Chambers not only loves what she’s writing, she’s also put a lot of time into it. The level of detail is incredible. The first half of this book contains more flavor than what other sci-fi books may share in an entire series of novels.
I honestly had trouble putting The Long Way down, and that’s without a strong plot at all. Most of the scenes center on the characters, their lifestyles, their cultures, their hang-ups. That’s the drama here. There are a handful of memorable action scenes, but they’re more intense for being about people that you really care about — and for not being overdone. This is a story about real people in an arresting universe. I can’t wait for the next one.
Also, for anyone interesting, Chambers finished the novel through Kickstarter. It’s pretty cool to see her journey! Check it out here. =)