The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton 978-14736-1979-1, £18.99, 416pp, hc) August 2015. (HarperVoyager 978-0062444134, $15.99, 464pp, tp) July 2016.
The first 30 pages of Becky Chambers’ Kickstarter-backed novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet are catnip for space opera fans, especially those with a bent toward TV shows that portray a spacecraft’s crew as a chosen family, like Firefly or Farscape. It’s like settling into a nice warm bath on a cold wet day, sort of like a cozy mystery, but with aliens and wormholes. Then you start to realize that as much as you love these characters and the exquisitely developed universe they inhabit, nothing much happens. Sure, each crew member has a secret, but that’s backstory, rather than plot, even though Chambers devotes a lot of time to telling us about them. Eventually, there are hints that something might happen soon – Ashby, the human leader of the crew, is warned that an interesting job might be coming his way – and then more pages pass… and more… and more before the job starts. And still the ship and its inhabitants meander around some more, as nooks and crannies of this created space are wandered through under sometimes flimsy and generally unclear reasons – until the last 40 pages or so when the plot and action finally get their act together.
So why keep reading to those last 40 pages? Because the characters and worldbuilding are worth it. Chambers has created a world that both rips off and improves upon so many of the great space operas of the past. The scenery feels familiar and new. The characters are a distinct mix, from the alien cook/medic Dr. Chef to the human fish-out-of-water Rosemary Harper, who serves as the reader’s entry into this invented world. The hyper (and Abby Sciuto-esque) mechanic Kizzy keeps the dialog zippy, while programmer Jenks provides the heart. The interplay has substance and covers for some of Chambers’ lack of story.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet would have benefitted from an editor who could have helped the writer prune all of the offshoots that, while interesting (and likely to make great stories on their own), suck a lot of the narrative force from this tale. There’s an amazing series of books waiting to be found in Chambers’ rich mind and her invented space deserves to be revisited, despite this book’s drawbacks.