Last week I read a science fiction novel I’d seen in a number of “must read” lists: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014), by Becky Chambers. The title certainly appealed to me, and, along with the book’s cover, it seemed like it might be fun, funny, or even zany.
I like to let things unfold, so I usually avoid trailers and reviews until after I’ve seen or read for myself. A few months ago I wrote about Axiom’s End, which I really liked. I was anticipating a similar ‘great new author’ experience. (I’ve also mentioned the S.L. Huang Cas Russell books. I kinda liked those, too, so I’m definitely feeling favorable towards new authors.)
Unfortunately, I didn’t like this book at all.
There are matters of taste versus quality, and there certainly are quality things not to my taste. I want to be clear that I do have complaints about the quality of the storytelling. If it was up to taste, I probably would have liked this book.
On paper, the framework is exactly the sort of thing I enjoy — a “small scruffy crew of misfits on an independent spaceship.” In fact, it’s essentially the TV show Firefly crossed with a strong dash of a Star Wars type “galaxy of different aliens” (here called the Galactic Commons or GC).
Which may be part of the problem. I loved Firefly (and Dark Matter and the Mike Brooks Keiko series, not to mention The Expanse), but here I find only the overly clever (ultimately tiresome) snappy Joss Whedon dialog, a strong representation of Kaylee Frye, and a pale imitation of Malcolm Reynolds.
All in all, it felt like fan fiction written by a devoted Star Wars and Firefly fan whose authorial vision is built mainly on media science fiction. (And who seems to have no feel for science or technology, despite the hard SF frame.)
All of which is survivable, but the book also committed a worse sin: I found it boring. It’s nearly 900 pages with nearly no action. (On the other hand I do credit it for not making the stakes “the fate of the entire galaxy (if not, indeed, reality itself).” That existential stuff gets so old.)
I’ll note that (once again) I seem to be an outlier. The book has been quite well received. The Wayfarers series it debuts got a Hugo for best series. Mileage obviously varies.
[WARNING: Major spoilers follow.]
It starts off okay. The nominal protagonist, Rosemary “Harper” (the author’s obvious avatar), wakes early during a trip in a cheap long distance single-person transport pod (think K’Ehleyr coming aboard the Enterprise in The Emissary). Rosemary is on-route to her new accountant job. As she falls back asleep, she worries about the fake ID she paid a lot of credits for…
From then on we’re with the crew of Wayfarer, which is owned and captained by Ashby Santoso. Wayfarer is an analogue of Serenity, the spaceship from the TV show Firefly. Captain Santoso is a (gentler kinder “no guns”) version of Captain Malcolm Reynolds.
Wayfarer is a “tunneling” ship with equipment for punching through the “sublayer” to create pathways between distant galactic points. They are independent, constantly needing new work.
(Which immediately raises considerations about what kind of industry this could be. How much tunneling goes on? Who’s behind it? Does the economy support independent operators?)
The Firefly comparison comes into sharp focus with another crew member, Kizzy Shao, one of the two ship’s technicians. She’s a close analogue of Kaylee Frye, ship’s technician on Serenity — the two are all but indistinguishable.
The other ship’s tech, Jenks, is apparently Tyrion re-imaged as a space tech. Jenks, it turns out, is head over heels in love (to the point of problematic obsession) with the ship’s AI, Lovelace (called “Lovey” by all). The love is apparently mutual.
Some of the crew are non-human. (In this reality, humans are late arrivals to a Galactic Commons that forms the backdrop for the Wayfarers series.) The chef and doctor, Dr Chef, is a Grum, of which Chambers writes, “If you crossed an otter with a gecko, then made it walk like a six-legged caterpillar,…”
The pilot, Sissix, is a lizard, because lizard lifeforms are required in this kind of SF. (She, being cold-blooded, has issues with temperature. Why not simply wear an electric warming jacket?)
The sublayer navigator, Ohan, is a Sianat Pair (referred to in the plural). Members of this race infect themselves with a virus, one that only affects their species. It is the source of the plurality and their ability to navigate the sublayer — humans and computers can’t. (Think navigators in Dune.)
Finally there is Artis Corbin, apparently human (unknown even to himself, he turns out to be an illegal clone). He’s the ship’s algae engineer. No, it’s not for oxygen. Algae is apparently the ship’s fuel.
(Paper, on the other hand, is something most of them have never seen before. For me the book was page-to-page “Yeah, buts” — a whole lotta head-shaking going on.)
A great deal of that head-shaking having to do with the author seeming to have no feel for STEM. Despite a hard SF frame, the technology and science are just hand waves.
Chambers apparently has the mental image of submarines with engines consuming fuel oil. Kizzy is a canonical grease monkey — she usually has “engine gunk” on her clothes, hands, and face. At one point there is a broken fuel line leaking green gunk. My mind boggled.
It’s due to SF media — things that look good on the screen, visual icons, but which don’t make actual sense. (It’s bad science and bad science fiction. Star Wars is a particularly egregious offender.) On top of that, the author’s lack of STEM makes her metaphors crudely physical.
The giant tunneling mechanism mounted to the ship (the “bore,” how ironic) does its work with a huge amount of noise, just as if it were a giant physical drill.
The sublayer, equally a physical landscape, is a familiar trope. Naturally when Rosemary experiences it for the first time she throws up. (Why can’t it fill you with joy or laughter? Why is it always nausea?) Navigator Ohan, who just uses a scratchpad, calls out commands to Sissix (“Three-point-six ibens, ahead. Two-point-nine ibens, up. One… no, no,… zero-point-seven-three ibens starboard.”)
Of course, at one point, they get caught in a time loop. Of course, at one point, they get caught in a time loop. Of course, at one point, they get caught in a time loop. (“Thirty ibens to port, now!” cried Ohan.)
Like Star Wars, it’s dressed up in a science fiction costume because Anno Stella Bella, that’s what everyone is eating these days.
Speaking of which, why is it that, despite having a whole planet available, settlements are in picturesque desert locations? The crew of Wayfarer spend time in a place that’s a lot like Mos Eisley where everything is an attractive patchwork of grunge tech.
Finally, there is “ambi” (“ambient”?) which is a harvested energy source that can be stored in “ambi batteries” (which, along with food, is what the “pirates” take, but it’s fine since the GC is funding them and just buys them more). Ambi apparently is thickest near black holes, but can be harvested from nebulae with the right tech.
I suspect ambi is meant to be some kind of vacuum energy, but it’s treated like a physical fluid-like substance. My guess is it’s important in the series. In this book, access to more ambi motivates the need for new tunnel to a heretofore unknown (and insane) species (there’s a fair amount of Global Species Insanity in some of the aliens; the rest are basically humans in alien costumes).
The universe also features ansibles (for easy communication), artificial gravity, genetic manipulation and machine-body mods, nano-tech (even in the toothpaste), fully conscious AI, cloning, and stasis chambers for food. All the comforts.
(To no surprise, weaponry, SF or otherwise, is almost completely absent. The captain expresses revulsion at the idea of weapons even after his ship is attacked.)
One last techno-complaint. This is one of the (many) reasons I never watched ST:Voyager. AI is digital. It can be backed up and copied. If damaged, it can be rebooted. Jenks and Lovey worry who will run the ship if Lovey moves to the illegal body Jenks gets. Why is this a question? Why can’t a copy of Lovey move to the body while another runs the ship?
Lovey is damaged by the alien nutjob with a bomb, and all the tension revolves around the concern of getting her back. Meanwhile my brain is screaming: “Load the backup! Load the backup!” All the supposed high-drama efforts about Lovey at the end I mostly page-flipped through.
The ebook version I read paginates to 865 pages, and, to a first approximation, nothing happens. (If we take what action there is, average it across the page count, the plot movement per page approaches zero.)
Here’s the entire 900-page story in a paragraph:
Rosemary, running from a rich father she didn’t know was an illegal gun-runner until he was caught, joins Wayfarer (as its much needed accountant). They accept a tunneling job that requires a long journey. They make some stops along the way — friends or family conveniently located (because Small Universe Isn’t It). Incidents bring some of the crew closer together. The captain visits his fish-descended alien secret lover (she captains another ship); Rosemary and Sissix become a couple; Jenks seeks an illegal body for the ship’s AI; Kizzy disarms some bombs. At their destination a crazy alien causes a bit of excitement (think bomb scene in Contact — totally different bombs from the ones Kizzy disarmed in the captain’s lover’s ship). It results in some brief thrills, the one real action scene when the ship and crew tunnel home ahead of the damage. Except that “Lovey” is damaged and Jenks goes a little crazy, but A Solution Is Found. Then, for 100 more pages, nothing much happens (except Captain Speaks Common Sense At The Tribunal) and everyone is happy, especially Rosemary.
That’s pretty much it. People hang out together. Everyone is very nice. Even the “pirates” who attack, damage the ship while boarding, break the captain’s jaw, and threaten violence,… turn out to be otherwise polite and only take what they really need.
(Is the gag that it’s about an accountant finding love, so it’s meant to be boring? Other than the treacle clever dialog there’s no real humor, let alone zaniness.)
I wondered about the book at the 300-page mark when I realized that nothing had happened other than Rosemary joining the ship. Not just no action, but nothing particularly interesting. The more I read, the more I found it derivative, inauthentic, and immature.
It frequently commits what I think of as “first time” errors. That is, characters interact with the world or each other as if for the first time (in situations that would actually be well known to them). It’s only first time for the reader, and the author has to exposit in a way that feels organic. Chambers seems to have no facility for this.
I have to give this one a strong Nah! rating. If it was meant as YA SF, especially for young women just getting into SF, I would have a different take on it, but as a mainstream SF, I’m sorry, but I think it’s bad. I think Becky Chambers is writing way out of her weight class.
Stay spaced, my friends!