The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL, ANGRY PLANET
Some of the most fascinating elements of sci-fi are the huge canvas and gigantic array of toys and tools that authors may use—or squander—as they see fit. The future of humanity, the varieties of alien races, environments, and technology that strain the limits of our imagination…all this and more is readily available.
There’s a downside to this, too. Sometimes books lose the personal touch in this scope, and characters and fail to stand out against the fantastic backdrops and epic scope that the author crafts.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet absolutely does not have this problem.
The visuals and sensory details in this story were well-balanced, grounding it excellently. The atmosphere of the Wayfarer, the primary setting of the story, was a keystone of detail, containing everything from computer banks, to a greenhouse attached to a kitchen, to jellyfish-patterned curtains that reassure the reader that this novel never loses sight of its personal angle on the far future.
The settings were beautifully written, often acting as characters in their own right. This was true both figuratively, in that different locations on and off different planets added conflict and emotion to scenes, and literally, because Wayfarer is overseen by an excellent AI character named Lovelace.
Chambers writes compellingly from a number of points of view, without the voice changing enough for it to be jarring.
As far as I can tell, it works for a few reasons. The strength of the cast is a major one. Third-person limited point of view allows the narrative to maintain a certain smoothness, and occasionally take a half-step out of the characters’ heads to describe how they think without straining suspension of disbelief.
The main thing that stood out for me, though, was that the voices of the characters, both internal and external, just make sense. These characters talk how I talk. Even while they’re all very different, it still somehow feels like they think like I think. While that can sometimes come across as a flaw in science fiction, to me it’s very much a plus in this case, because the author uses it to her advantage.
Different characters in the story have different cultures, needs, and motivations, all well-crafted and multi-dimensional. (One possible exception to this could be the way that humanity’s cultural history seems to have shifted further into ethnic homogeny, with most of the humans in the story being vaguely brown without much more specification than that. The primary cultural groups seem greatly simplified, but even those cultural differences are still referenced in the story in an interesting way.) That means, even when we get to see all the characters’ logic in a clear and straightforward way, they want different things, which preserves interpersonal conflict and adds vital tension to the story.
I will note that the one actual queer pairing in the story may not be enough for those looking for queer romance, even though it features the “main” character, because this book has an ensemble cast. However, it didn’t limit my enjoyment of the romantic storyline(s). There are a few heterosexual pairings in the book as well, but they were all between different types of satient beings, written with the same lack of assumptions and care to emotional detail that the f/f pairing was, even when they featured slightly less central members of the cast.
In addition, none of the romances took over the narrative. Instead, they were given room to breathe in scenes that didn’t necessarily move the story forward directly. The characters’ non-romantic interactions were just as interesting as their romantic ones. The book focused on how personal interactions can echo diplomacy between peoples, especially when large cultural gaps come into play.
I read The Long Way in two or three days. The scenes stitched together that well.
The second book in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit, was similarly excellent, but it suffered a bit from having a smaller cast of characters. That may not be the only reason, though: I hadn’t realized that the book was going to move on to another main cast, and I wasn’t ready to let this one go.
The third book set in the same universe, Record of a Spaceborn Few, is currently set to come out in 2018. Based on the Goodreads summary, it will again feature a new cast of characters. I’m a little sad not to see more of where these characters go after the story closes, but I’m excited to meet another cast of fascinating, varied, and lovable characters.