The crew of the space ship Wayfarer is made up of people of different species, beliefs, cultures, and home planets. Captain Ashby, a human, represents the good employer who sees his crew as his best asset, choosing them over the almighty dollar. Sissix, a female with a tail who looks like a cross between a reptile and a bird, pilots the ship. Dr. Chef, a person with six handfeet who crafts meals tailored to each species diet and completes medical exams comes from a military background nearly and is part of an nearly extinct species. Each person aboard the Wayfarer is different from others in their species. Jenks, a human, was born without medical help and did not grow tall (I get Peter Dinklage vibes). Sissix’s species is very physically affectionate and must restrain her natural impulses around humans, but she’s also left others like her because she feels the Wayfarer crew is her family. She chooses them over normalcy for her culture.
Enter Rosemary, a new clerk for the ship to keep their paperwork straight and who speaks a few different languages. She’s hiding a secret from the crew, but it’s not the focus of the novel. Plot-wise, the Wayfarer crew punches holes in space to shorten the time it takes to travel between places. A big government deal comes up, meaning this ragtag crew and patched up ship will earn more money than they ever have before. But the job involves creating a wormhole between a planet with an unreasonable, angry species and the rest of the galactic commons (a group like the European Union for space). The angry planet has a resources the rest of the GC would like to share, and they’re hoping for a peaceful coexistence.
Everything about this novel is phenomenal. Not one character is alike, and all are engaging in their own ways. Chambers manages to write about culture, xenophobia, homophobia, colonialism, science deniers, religious extremists, consent, love, the nuclear family, language — just loads of stuff. And the author weaves it in so carefully that the book is never heavy handed. Take for instance Sissix. Early in the novel Rosemary asks why the stairs in the Wayfarer are carpeted. Sissix says due to an instance when one of her claws got caught in a metal stair grate and was ripped off, causing her to holler like a hatchling. In one moment, Chambers informs us 1) Sissix has claws on her feet, 2) her species lays eggs, and 3) her crew is species-aware enough to modify the ship for Sissix’s well-being (like adding in a wheelchair ramp or closed captioning).
One elusive character, Ohan, is from a planet of people who get infected with a virus that allows them to see the space-time continuum, necessary while the ship punches out a new wormhole and something no other species can see. Because the virus is such a part of this species, they go by “they” and “us” and “we” — all plural. You feel like you’re reading about a character while learning how to address trans people. Later, as the virus accelerates Ohan’s life and he becomes weakened, he refuses medical treatment which reminded me of the Amish communities in the U.S. that do not accept medical help. Becky Chambers isn’t telling readers what to think about Ohan, I’m coming to these conclusions on my own. The writing is so smooth that you get thinking (and talking, if you read this novel in a book club like I did) about the gorgeous differences of people.
While there are no characters with obvious physical disabilities, the attention to furniture, flooring, temperature, etc. all suggest that people in this space age care about access. Characters notice when chairs are designed for their species, ships make agreements to change the temperature based on an onboarding guest’s physiology and what is painful for them. There’s even attention to eugenics: should a shorter human like Jenks, who possibly has dwarfism (it’s not stated outright) have been euthanized as an infant? Can the Wayfarer’s AI, a sentient computer, be granted a body so she can experience a physical relationship with Jenks, whom she loves? Questions about bodies and access are all there, though never pounded over your head as something politically correct. Much like humans today, these characters exist as they are because that’s who they are. Unlike humans today, the characters are able to respect their differences and make accommodations because it’s the right and ethical thing to do.
Diversity aside, Chambers writes some great science fiction. Body modification, mechanical issues, using algae as a fuel source, wearing space suits and brushing one’s teeth with nanobots (I WANT), creating wormholes, landing on a new planet, going through an airlock that checks people for contaminants, learning the history of humans leaving Earth (which they destroyed) and how humans basically lucked their way into continuing as a species. Thanks to globalization, all humans characters are have brown skin, something we’ve been told isn’t far off in real life. Words like “artigrav,” meaning “artificial gravity,” are sprinkled throughout. The level of science fiction feels real enough without getting so technical I wanted to give up.
And in general, the characters are just a pleasure to read. If I started describing my favorites, I’d end up naming almost everyone, which we don’t have time for here today. I do have a special place for Dr. Chef and Kizzy, though, in case others who have read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet wanted to know. Highly recommended.