Rating: 5 stars
Dip lent me Becky Chambers’s debut novel ages ago. It’s been sitting on my pile of books a longish time. I’ve read some pretty heavy books recently and felt in need of a change of pace. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet was just the thing I needed.
Chambers describes things so well that I could visualise them, almost like a virtual graphic novel inside my head. The world she has created reminded me of Red Dwarf and The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A little bit of Star Trek: The Next Generation, too. It’s populated with species other than humans, and humans aren’t necessarily the top of the pile. I found all of the characters relatable, and I loved the group dynamic on board the Wayfarer.
I wondered whether Chambers based the Standard Time used across the Galactic Commons on the French Republican Calendar and its associated decimal time of day and decimal structure for weeks (décades). The Galactic Commons is an alliance of different species that is centred around the Core. This makes time keeping interesting, as the different species have their own traditional ways of measuring time. In the case of humans, time is calculated from the relationship between Earth and the Sun. Except Earth is uninhabitable, and humans mostly live in colonies on Mars and Saturn, which have different time relationships with the Sun. I suspect that my obsession with time and with counting made this more interesting to me than it might be to other readers.
Chambers has also taken things that are familiar in our current lives and expanded their potential development. Gaming has moved on. People who use pixel based platforms are considered old fashioned. The hip kids have a jack inserted into their brains so that they can become one with the game. Hydroponics continue to be essential for growing fresh food in hostile environments. Chambers uses a device whereby characters access information feeds that explain key scientific and historical concepts that underpin the universe she has placed them in. So we have discussion on the evolutionary paths that different species have taken in different areas of the Galactic Commons, reasons why sapient species from one area resemble non-sapient species from a different area, why bipedalism and opposable thumbs are common but not universal, and why DNA and chromosomes are universal. There is an aggregator feel to it, somewhere between Google and Wikipedia. I also enjoyed Chambers’s projection of nanobot technology. I had friends at university who went on to do their doctorates in medical nanobot technology, finding ways to get these minuscule robots into the human body to carry out repairs at a level impossible for humans. Chambers has bots doing everything from supporting the immune system to cleaning plaque from teeth. And, like antivirus software, these bots need to be updated regularly to combat the latest disease mutations.
The Artificial Intelligence that manages the operation of the Wayfarer is called Lovelace, which is a nice touch. It has the nickname Lovey, and put me in mind of Janet from The Good Place. I enjoyed the romance between Lovey and Jenks, and the debate Lovey has with itself about whether or not it would like a body. For something that is a complex system of programs and access points, Lovey has a charming and reflective personality. There are echoes of Holly in Red Dwarf, HAL in 2001 A Space Odyssey, GERTY in Moon, Orac in Blake’s 7.
Chambers builds up the reader’s sense of who the main characters are, what they have experienced in the past, why they behave the way they do, what the broader historical events are that have moulded species interrelationships. She does this slowly. It enabled me to become immersed gradually, at what felt like a natural pace, rather than feeling, as I sometimes do with Sci-Fi and Fantasy, that I have to take a lot of things on trust in order to accept the reality of the fictional environment.
I liked how Chambers tackles the issue of fake news and the Galactic Commons version of Holocaust denial, by having a dispersed gang of volunteer archivists fact checking sources in feeds, supporting the professional archivists in their work. It’s a good projection of how my profession might end up working, as documentary evidence becomes increasingly digital and increasingly easy to falsify.
The big message of the book is acceptance. The main characters are at pains to take others as they come, to hold off from prejudgement. There’s a focus on worth deriving from talent or ability, whether that’s aptitude for tech, skills in language, a natural propensity for administration, culinary and medical knowledge, or insight derived from a virus. There’s a sub theme of sometimes needing to overcome prejudice, or hiding who you really are in order to not be cast out by your own people. There’s another one about changing your name and appearance in order to be the person you feel yourself to be inside, and one about accepting that fear is a normal part of existence and that feeling fear isn’t showing weakness. Then there’s the Galactic Commons itself which felt a lot like the EU or the UN in its organisation and tensions, particularly in the way certain species whose way of life is less liberal than that of other GC members are accepted, or perhaps accommodated is a better word, because they possess key resources that the rest of the species depend on. My favourite, though, was the conversation between Dr Chef and Rosemary about accepting that we are all capable of doing both the best and the worst, and making peace with that in order to guard against doing the worst.
Dr Chef bobbed his head up and down. ‘And this is where our species are very much alike. The truth is, Rosemary, that you are capable of anything. Good or bad. You always have been, and you always will be. Given the right push, you, too, could do horrible things. That darkness exists in all of us … All you can do, Rosemary – all any of us can do – is work to be something positive instead. That is a choice that every sapient must make every day of their life. The universe is what we make of it. It’s up to you to decide what part you will play. And what I see inmyou is a woman who has a clear idea of what she wants to be.’
Rosemary gave a short laugh. ‘Most days I wake up and have no idea what the hell I’m doing.’
He puffed his cheeks. ‘I don’t mean the practical details. Nobody ever figures those out. I mean the important thing. The thing I had to do, too.’ He made a clucking sound. He knew she would not understand it, but it came naturally. The sort of sound a mother made over a child learning to stand. ‘You’re trying to be someone good.’
When I started to read, I thought The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet would be a quick read. The further in that I got, though, the more I didn’t want it to end. I eked it out for as long as I could, relishing it as a slow read. It’s not often that Sci-Fi does that for me. Usually I either whip through it because it’s exciting, or whip through it because it’s written lazily, or it drags because it’s boring. Not this time. Good work, Becky Chambers.