Chambers: Small Angry Planet

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!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

21 responses to “Chambers: Small Angry Planet

  • Wyrd Smythe

    This was a long post, but it could have been much longer. I didn’t get much into the cross-species love affairs, nor include any quotes, or get into the numerous technology issues I had. Suffice to say I could spend several posts getting into all the things I didn’t like about this book.

    One thing I’ll mention that puzzles me involves Ohan’s virus.

    SPOILER: He gets cured. And retains his navigating abilities. The crew just happen to encounter a group of Solitary Sianats — those who’ve rejected the Pairing. They have a cure that removes the virus but leaves the skills intact. Which is a good thing, because Sianat Pairs die young and painfully due to the virus. It also creates some issues during their life — one of which is the species insanity that worships the virus and causes individuals to resist with every fiber of their being any attempt to “cure” the condition.

    The crew obtains this cure for Ohan, but of course Ohan rejects the idea hands down. So it’s put away in case he changes his mind. As the virus starts killing Ohan, a crew member injects the cure against Ohan’s feeble dying wishes. Once the cure kicks in, Ohan begins to return to fuller health than he ever had, he loses his plurality but retains his skill, and he’s very grateful (and wants to continue being navigator rather than retire to the Solitaries planet).

    The point is, Greg Egan wrote a powerful short story, Cocoon (in his collection Luminous), about a “cure” pregnant women could take to insure heterosexual offspring. The story asks, given such an option, would people take it? A key idea here is that being gay isn’t a choice or “condition” (let alone a “disease” that should be cured) — it’s a part of normal variation in living creatures (animals can be gay, too).

    So, in a book written by a gay woman and with such prominent gay metaphors (the cross-species love), it’s really weird that someone with a “condition” that makes them special — who apparently chooses this condition — is forcefully cured. Granted to save their life, but still against their will at the time. And it’s all fine because Ohan is happy after the fact.

    It just seemed weird to me. I’m not sure Chambers even realizes the implications. Or does and is making some other point. Or doesn’t intend Ohan as a metaphor in this way — they/he is one of the few not paired off with someone “odd.”

    • Wyrd Smythe

      (You see why it could have been a much longer post.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      In general there is something a bit weird about using inter-species sex as a metaphor for non-cis sex. I get the idea behind it, and I have no issues with people loving whoever they want (so long as it’s mutual).

      But I am also aware of the dumbass argument that gay marriage somehow “harms” the “idea” of marriage. The best these fools can come up with is mumbling about slippery slopes and how it will lead to people marrying goats or robots.

      So I worry that stories like these, where one human is essentially having sex with a lizard and another with a fish, gives these twisted idiots ammunition. It gives them something to point at and say, “See?! They do want to have sex with animals!!”

  • Wyrd Smythe

    “Nib brought out a fresh pot of mek to his houseguests and siblings, all of whom were situationed around the pixel projector. Bear sat on the floor with his back against a counch. Kizzy sat behind him, putting tiny braids in his thick mane of hair. Jenks lounged nearby, smoking redreed and looking content. Ember sat at the workbench, frowning as she fussed with a circuit panel.”

    Part of the pajama party that happens along the way. As you see, it includes hair-braiding.

    Maybe I just walked in the wrong door. The book feels so much like it was written for teenaged women.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Ashby held up a hand to block the glare of the white sun. “Sissix?”

    “Mmm?” Her voice, like his own, was muffled behind a mask.

    “Why are we here?”

    “Is this a philosophical question, or —”

    He shot her a look. “Why are we here, on this platform, right now?”

    This gag was old long ago, and it was dumb from day one. Chambers apparently uses it with no irony or self-awareness. It’s just one of many bits borrowed and used without creativity or flair.

    If you told me Becky Chambers was a cover for a GPT-3 algorithm, I’d believe you.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I had to laugh when, reading a Rex Stout Nero Wolfe novel the other day, Nero and Archie had a passing bit of conversation that is this exact “why are we here” joke. The novel was published in 1936, so it’s an old gag, indeed.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    If two crew members have a particular dislike for each other (for reasons never really specified), it’s a trope they’ll end up bound together somehow (a version of Enemy Mine).

    Sissix and Corbin are such a pair. After Corbin is discovered as a clone and hauled away, the only way to get him back is for Sissix to become his sponser and guardian for a year. Corbin, heretofore generally a prick to everyone, is so humbled by the experience he turns a new leaf and becomes a nice guy. (He’s the one who saves Ohan against Ohan’s will.)

    This book is so constructed you can smell the paint and see the seams.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    … He turned his head, pressing his ear against the wall. “Is that your tertiary synapse router making that click?”

    “Let me check. It’s functioning normally.”

    “Hmm. I don’t like that sound.” He moved to face the wall and removed the access panel. His eyes darted over the lace of blinking circuits that lay within. “Yeah, see, right here. The shunt’s worn out.”

    Technobabble bullshit by Jenks during a cosy chat with his beloved Lovey (while smoking his pipe in the computer room).

    The thing is: “tertiary synapse router” making a clicking noise? 😀 And “shunt” is an all-purpose term used by people with no clue. Lastly, computers are not engines where parts visually wear out. Or, in any real sense, “wear out.”

    It just shows how out of her depth Chambers is with technology.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    With Jenks off his rocker because Lovey is so damaged, another friendly tech, Pepper, who they met during one of their journey stops, shows up to help:

    “Thanks. I’ve got a fuck-ton of wrenches in here.”

    “We’ve got wrenches.”

    “Yeah, but these are my wrenches.”

    Because wrenches is exactly what you use to work on a computer. O.M.f.G.

    If it’s meant as a joke, it’s a lame one, but I’m afraid the author really thinks this passes for sparkling dialog.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Continuing the painfully pointless efforts to save Lovey…

    “Hard reset.”

    Even with only secondhand technical knowledge, Ashby knew the term, and it wasn’t a pleasant one. A hard reset of an AI was like stopping someone’s heart for a few minutes, then trying to get it beating again. He exhaled. “That’s a fifty-fifty chance, Kiz.”

    “At best. I know. It wasn’t even on the table until we’d run out of other things to try.”

    Again: O!M!f!G!

    Firstly, no, a hard reset is nothing like stopping a heart. Secondly, it always works. You do it every time you turn on a computer.

    This whole long supposedly tense bit about trying to save Lovey was utterly lost on me, and I skimmed through it as fast as I could.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I saved one to end on a (somewhat) more positive note (but you see what I mean about it could have been a much longer post):

    The pixels flickered with signal decay. They were a long way from the Fleet.

    Um, no, that’s another visual trope for dramatic effect. Comms would be entirely digital, so you either get a perfect signal or one with serious problems (think bad DVD). It’s not like old timey TV.

    But whatever. I wanted to mention their screens are one slight shred of creativity. It’s hand-waved, but it appears the screens use flying nano-machines as pixels. It sounds like the screens are 2D, but such a system would allow 3D images. There are a lot of issues with the idea, but at least it’s something a little different.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Yeah,… I definitely didn’t like this book. 😀

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I just read the James Nicoll review of the first book, and he puts it diplomatically:

    This book is towards the softer end of the SF scale and it’s best not to dwell too closely on certain details of the background. I didn’t have too much trouble ignoring the more marshmallow aspects of the universe because, while punching wormholes is how the characters earn their living, the book’s main concern is the connections the crew form with each other. Chambers knows how to keep that entertaining.

    I’d go along with that, except I didn’t find the relationships entertaining. You could read his review if you want a more positive look at the book.

    Nicoll reviewed all three in the series. The second book, A Closed and Common Orbit, follows Lovelace in her new body and identity. In his review, Nicoll writes:

    Chambers’ bio mentions that she was “raised (…) as the progeny of an astrobiology educator, an aerospace engineer and an Apollo-era rocket engineer,” which is why I feel it’s OK to be openly boggled that her interstellar rockets are powered, somehow, by algae. I have absolutely no idea how Chambers envisions her system working. Well, at least it’s not powered by implausibly efficient springs.

    I imagine, by “springs,” he’s referring to books like The Windup Girl (which was pretty good; I’d recommend it). But I totally agree about the mind boggling.

    It’s been suggested this is deliberate on Chambers’ part. I guess that’s possible, but the book I read felt like it was written by someone with no command of STEM. If it’s deliberate, I don’t see the point.

    Of the third book, Record of a Spaceborn Few, Nicoll writes:

    Sweet zombie Jesus, I think Chambers’ rocket science is actually getting worse. And this is a series where ships are somehow powered by algae!

    Apparently, early Earth ships burned chemical fuels (algae?) to “tide them over until enough kinetic energy had been generated through the floors.” Apparently due to footsteps.

    Sweet zombie Jesus, indeed. It really reads like a new age fantasy — weapons downplayed, everyone is nice, and algae and footsteps power things.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Don’t beat around the bush Wyrd. Tell us how you really feel. 🙂

    Can’t say it sounds enticing to me either. In general, from your description, I get the feel that it’s all about relationships. Rather than space opera, more soap opera in space. Might be you’re just the wrong demographic for it. But if so, so am I.

    Ah well, another book sitting in my Kindle account I’ll likely never get to.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Heh, well I was actually a lot nicer than I could have been. There’s an old internet tradition of shredding things, and I could have gone full cat on it. I tried to make it nicer, but I really did not like this book. Definitely not the audience for it.

      Based on the James Nicoll reviews of the second and third books, definitely not a series I’ll pursue.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      You know what’s weird about that article? The title: “15 recent sci-fi books that forever shaped the genre” Recent things that forever shaped the genre? Um… some hyperbole there, me thinks. 🙂

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