Thoughts: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

So, given all the Covid-19 that’s going around, it’s probably a good time to catch up on reading, yes? I have a bit of a (totally normal) cold right now, so I’m feeling particularly sympathetic to the quarantiners.

And happy coincidence, Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a good choice for comfort reading. It is just lovely. Spoilers will follow so if you haven’t read it yet, save it up for when you might need it and don’t read this.

The Long Way… follows a ragtag found family living on a tunnelling ship in space (a ship which punches holes in space to create wormhole shortcuts between places. Roughly the book follows them on one particularly long journey out to a new controversial member of the galactic council (the small angry planet), to punch their hole and wormhole back. This is the broader story arc, but the unnumbered chapters sometimes read more like short stories; it’s an episodic book. I wonder if it would have been even better as a short story collection, each chapter fully self-contained.

The worldbuilding is fantastic, no two ways about it. The details are all well-thought out, and contribute to the general picture of a universe built around a variety of different species. Most species are vaguely humanoid and/or comparable to recognisable animal species, but even this is taken into consideration, in one of the wikipedia-style entries/essays sprinkled throughout the book. In this universe humans are very small players, but it did feel a bit human-centric regardless. Whether that’s because tunnelling is considered a low-paid thankless job and so the people doing it will be mostly human, or for any reason at all, I don’t know. It didn’t bother me too much, though I would have liked to have seen even more of the alien species. The chapters we got from their points of view were great.

One tiny nitpick concerns the lingua franca of the universe – or one of them? It’s not clear. OK, so one thing I liked was that the languages weren’t named “[species]-ish” or similar. Yes, good. But Klip, the seemingly main language, seems to be the only language the human characters speak, and I doubt that such small, insignificant players would get to dominate the linguistic landscape like that. Most of the alien species are at least bilingual in a “native” language which obviously evolved around their biology, and Klip. The humans are all monolingual (except for our surrogate character, Rosemary, who’s specifically studied languages at uni, and some of the others who’ve picked up bits and pieces from friends), and the fact that Klip is so easy for them to speak (and therefore built around their anatomy) struck me as a little strange when they’re looked down on by some of the older species. Is it unfair of me to single out Chambers for what is, after all, a very common feature of sci fi and fantasy (all humans speak Common/Westron/Klip…)? Maybe, but her worldbuilding is so good I don’t mind so much holding her to a little higher standard on this.

I actually started wondering if this is a feature of non-anglophone sci-fi and fantasy as well. As English is such a dominant language right now, English speakers are used to speaking what is essentially the Common Tongue, and having a “native” language can seem like something “for other people”. If that makes sense? It would have been cool for humans to have their own human language apart from Klip.

The Long Way… is in some ways one of the most utopian novels I’ve ever read – the universe has its problems of inequality, bias, war, corrupt politics, but at the same time (almost) every single character is reasonable, wise, trying always to be a better person, taking great pains to be as kind as possible. It’s lovely. There isn’t much in the way of conflict (though there is some) and some characters do just give you their backstory in a long speech, but I didn’t even mind. The Wayfarer was a nice place to be, and I enjoyed being there.

The one member of the Wayfarer crew who is difficult to get on with is Corbin, who was kind of a problem character in that he didn’t really fit in the crew, and Chambers kind of forgot about him or avoided bringing him along throughout a lot of the middle of the book. I could see why – he’s difficult and unreasonable, and he would have been a discordant note in some lovely scenes. That’s kind of a problem on its own, and was compounded by the fact that everyone’s niceness made it hard to be convinced by the animosity between Corbin and Sissix. I’d seen Sissix be the very soul of kindness, so it was a bit hard to believe that she spent all her time arguing with Corbin. She certainly never did while we were watching, except when it was plot-relevant. It was also a bit hard to accept how annoying Corbin was when he spent all his time alone and out of sight. He aimed a couple of sharp words at Rosemary, and that was pretty much it.

I thought maybe Chambers had wanted him to be there for the first scene with Ashby, because having someone come in and complain to the captain is a good way into spaceship life, but once that was done he was at a bit of a loose end.

This is why I wondered if it would be better as fully-fledged self-contained short stories. It would sort of lessen the need for everyone to be everywhere, and I think it would also make it easier to share out the chapters, so we’d get more Corbin and more Ohan, who was also criminally underused.

Corbin and Ohan have another thing in common besides their convenient solitary natures – they both had a huge, life-altering resolution to their respective story arcs, and we got to see hardly any of the consequences. A lot of the conflicts are resolved pretty peacefully and quietly, but these two things in particular I think warranted more space and time.

Honestly though, despite my nitpicks I loved this book. None of the problems interfered with my enjoyment of it, and I’m looking forward to reading the other two in the trilogy.

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