I grew up with space opera and visions of adventures in space. Thanks to my dad’s influence, I grew up devouring the original Star Wars movies, as well as the then-current TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation. You couldn’t get spaceships and alien civilizations out of my head no matter how hard you tried. But having said that, I haven’t loved every bit of space opera I’ve come across. To some fans’ horror, I wasn’t even all that thrilled with Firefly when it first came out.
Thankfully, it’s the 2010s, and we have a new generation of writers coming to the fore. This is how I came to discover Becky Chambers’s Wayfarer series. So, today, I’m looking at her first book in the series, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.
In the far future, humanity has joined the other races in the Galactic Commons and become a key player in interstellar politics. One such human, Rosemary Harper, is a recent add-on to the crew of the worn-down space-tunneling ship Wayfarer. Alongside such quirky crew members as Captain Ashby Santoro, the pilot Sissix, and the eccentric engineer Krizzy, Rosemary is introduced to a variety of new cultures and attitudes beyond the life she knew on Mars. But as their newest clerk, she’ll prove instrumental in helping navigate the tricky legal and logistical hardships that comes with life in outer space.
In every sense of the phrase, this is an ensemble story. Every single crew member has their own story arc, sometimes explored within the confines of a single chapter. That’s part of what makes this story a little unusual at first glance. It’s less about following a Rosemary across her journey to start a new life, and more about the ongoing adventures and challenges that the crew faces on various trips. It all leads toward a singular end, but along the way, you get an engineer dealing with PTSD, another engineer in love with an AI, a captain’s affair with a non-human woman, a reptilian pilot trying to reconnect with other members of her species, and a mad alien navigator wrestling with his race’s terminal condition.
(And all that’s just before the halfway point of the book, too.)
One of the things that Chambers does so brilliantly in this story is create a sense of culture and a sense of family. She looks for ways for alien minds to be truly alien, like how the Aandrisks don’t recognize their children as individuals until they become adults, or how the Toremi Ka’s perspective is more warped than anything else the races of the Galactic Commons has ever encountered.
But even with biological and psychological barriers, there’s a way to overcome them, and that’s something I love about this book. Reptilians Aandrisks and human beings can and do coexist. Interspecies love is shown here to be just as honest and pure as any LGBT or hetero romance. And for all their different needs and issues, the crew of the Wayfarer really do pull together whenever a crisis hits, even when it hits less-appreciated people like Corbin or Jenks. You get the sense that Ashby is as much a starship captain as he is an exasperated but caring parent to everyone else in their dialogue.
If you love colorful ensemble casts, a sense of family and kinship, and imaginative new forms of life among the stars, then by all means check out this book, and the ones that follow it. This is the kind of science fiction that I’d love to see more of in years to come.
Bibliography: Chambers, Becky. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014.