I bought The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet a year and a half ago, in my quest to capitalise on my employee discount on my last day of working in a bookstore. It was one of those rare purchases that I made based almost solely on the book’s cover, which had been calling to me across the store on every shift. A year and a half on, with virtually no expectations to speak of, I decided it was finally time to read The Long Way, and soon found myself unable to put it down.
“I never thought of fear as something that can go away. It just is. It reminds me that I want to stay alive.”
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a character-driven science fiction book that follows the diverse crew of the Wayfarer, as they take on a new and dangerous contract to tunnel a wormhole to a distant, war-torn area of space. During the book, we are introduced to the nuances of each of the unique and unusual characters living aboard the ship, each of whom harbors their own secrets, and we see each character confront their own personal challenges, all whilst facing the dangers of space.
This was one of those rare books that was just a sheer joy from start to finish. Although it takes place against the backdrop of space, this book is all about the characters. This isn’t to say that there aren’t also interesting settings, unusual species, action-packed scenes, and science (Becky Chambers has packed these all in too), but the characters are ultimately the stars of the show.
Let me tell you about a couple of them:
- Kizzy: a youthful, enthusiastic and hyperactive human technician who never fails to lighten the mood and is simply adorable
- Sissix: a bold, sharp and affectionate “Aandrisk” (a fictional, bipedal reptilian species) pilot
- Rosemary: a human, and the ship’s new clerk, who arrives with a fake identity and a brand new ID chip, desperate to leave her old life behind
‘Ninety percent of all problems are caused by people being assholes.’
‘What causes the other ten percent?’ asked Kizzy.
‘Natural disasters,” said Nib.'”
The bullet points above barely do the characters justice: it’s impossible to articulate what makes these characters tick, and what’s so interesting about their development without spoiling the book. Over the course of The Long Way, we get to know these characters, learning about their pasts and the cultures of their species, and get to see relationships develop throughout the course of the book. The character development across the under-400-page book was so rewarding, and by the end, I felt completely invested in each of their stories.
I particularly liked that through these characters, Chambers addresses themes that a lot of science fiction books don’t go near, presenting a range of diverse characters, of varying sexualities, cultures, and lifestyles. Science fiction is a fantastic genre, but too often it doesn’t feel diverse enough. None of the characters in this book are cardboard cut-outs: each one is unique and three-dimensional.
The other thing that really made this book was the writing. Not only does each character have a voice so distinct that I could tell who was speaking just by the phrasing and tone, but the writing in general is smooth, uncomplicated, and descriptive. Unlike some sci-fi writers, Chambers doesn’t weigh her readers down with jargon, and instead focuses on telling a story about people. While the lightness of this read might not be the cup of tea of hardcore sci-fi fans, it’s great for anyone who doesn’t necessarily get on with that kind of writing.
Thematically, this book leans heavily on diversity and differences (and I definitely don’t mean this in a bad way). A lot of the situations, while they’re set against an unfamiliar backdrop, address very human issues that we’ll all be familiar with. It was really great to read a sci-fi in which the characters discuss the challenges of living with other species, and tolerance and respect play a big part in resolving conflicts.
“Humans’ preoccupation with ‘being happy’ was something he had never been able to figure out. No sapient could sustain happiness all of the time, just as no one could live permanently within anger, or boredom, or grief.”
Plot-wise, while this book does have a main plotline, it also follows a number of smaller storylines, and reads in an almost episodic way, as each chapter focuses on a different event or challenge faced by the crew. This works really well, as it keeps the pace of the book fast, and means that something is always happening.
Overall, I loved this book. It was effortless to read, I connected with the characters, and the storylines felt unique and heartwarming. Most importantly, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was the diverse sci-fi I’d been looking for. I would recommend this book to fans of V. E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, or to anyone looking for a lighter, character-driven introduction to science fiction.
The second book in the series follows a different set of characters to The Long Way, and while I would have absolutely loved to read more about characters like Kizzy, Dr Chef, and Jenks, I’m excited to see what kind of themes and characters the second book focuses on.
“Tresha. It was the thankful, humble, vulnerable feeling that came after someone saw a truth in you, something they had discovered just by watching, something that you did not admit often to yourself.”