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

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.

26 comments

  1. I absolutely loved this. I agree that Dr Chef and Kizzy are wonderful characters. Sissix was also one of my favourites. Are you planning to read the rest of Chambers’s books?

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    • I’ve definitely considered finishing the series, but my only concern is I’ve somehow wrapped myself in a stifling quilt of series this year and am getting stuck reading the same authors repeatedly. It’s not that this is bad, but I have so many books that I own that I need to get through, too. Did you read the rest of the series? Did you think it was worth it?

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  2. I’ve heard so many good things about this book, but a friend who knows me well (and loves the book) has suggested that I skip this one and go straight to the companion novels, which she thinks I will like much more. I trust her, but your review does make it sound very tempting!

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    • I know you like your hard sci-fi, and this is more about what it means to care for other people, whether those people are blobby, lizardy, or an AI. I’m assuming that means the other three books focus more on the science side.

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  3. This book was just a blip on my radar before, but now I’m absolutely convinced I have to read it! I love how you broke down the interaction between Rosemary and Sissix—I didn’t realize how much information was packed into that scene. Adding to my TBR!

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    • As someone who went through a couple fiction writing programs, I was blown away by how much Becky Chambers could do with so little. I mean, it’s really, really smart, and if you read it you won’t be disappointed. It’s a great book for the pandemic and with your political turmoil in the Philippines because it asks us to look at people different from us and how to coexist.

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  4. This sounds so entertaining! And i”m always in awe of the science fiction authors that manage to weave all these modern-day social issues into their writing. Perhaps it’s because they are dealing with other ‘species’ people seem to be more accepting of differences? Regardless, it’s a nice and accessible way to introduce these topics to a wide range of readers, plus it makes it fun!

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  5. Great review! This one has long been on my want-to-read list but I’m confident I’ll want to read the whole series and that makes it a bit more daunting to get started. Based on what you’ve said about it here though, I really shouldn’t put this one off too long! I love that it manages to tell an interesting sci-fi tale as well as tackle a whole host of issues within the writing, and provide excellent characterization as well. It sounds like there’s nothing at all to dislike here, and I want to read more books like that! I’m so glad you loved this one.

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    • In Laura’s comment, she mentioned that the series is more like four companion novels, so I’m thinking that I can read one and then not read another for quite a while and still get back into it. That’s kind of my plan right now.

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  6. Awesome review! I really like the point you make about Chambers not telling the reader what to think, but rather letting readers decide for themselves. I absolutely love books that let bold/eccentric/surprising characters exist without judgment – that was one of the things I loved in So We Can Glow (which I think we’ve talked about a little bit). This book sounds excellent – adding to the TBR 🙂

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    • I eased into this novel smoothly, though I know some folks in my book club struggled. I later learned part of the problem might be that it’s hard to follow along on audio book. I didn’t listen to the audio book, but a few book clubbers often do. Personally, if I’m watching a sci-fi movie, I have to have subtitles, and I don’t do sci-fi audiobooks.

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      • That’s good to know in advance, and good to think about what format would best suit a sci-fi novel! I just started listening to audiobooks recently, but I’m starting to develop specific rules about what types of books I listen to as audiobooks (memoirs as audiobooks? always. science non-fiction as an audiobook? probably never again). I agree with you that sci-fi as an audiobook would be challenging to follow.

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  7. I’m so glad you love this book! Me too. 🙂 It’s not often readers are exposed to character-driven science fiction that still explores all sorts of key science fiction themes. I find character-driven science fiction to often be softer, but Chambers explores hard sci-fi concepts like wormholes, space time and the likely biology of the species in this world.

    I also appreciate how Chambers embraces cross-species relationships and the stigma associated with this. Or even what it means to be sentient! So many great things to explore and discuss… What did your book club think of this novel? Is it the sort of thing many of them would have read outside of book club?

    Will you continue the series? They are not sequential books, but all set in the same universe with a criss-crossing cast of characters. I started the second book but had to DNF when it was due back at the library – but I plan on reading them someday!

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    • The book club was torn. There some Trekkies who loved it, people like me and my mom rooting for certain funny characters, and then the folks who don’t read sci-fi at all and felt out of their depth but appreciated the novel. A couple of people were terribly skeezed out by the inter-species same-sex relationship, which made me sad. I think if you boil sex down to pleasuring another body, then those really base thoughts of “which body part fits where?!” tends to go away.

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      • I’m impressed at the diversty of opinion on this book across the group. That shows you have a well-rounded collection of different types of people — and makes for some wonderful book club conversations!

        Though, I am a bit disappointed that people were skeezed out by Rosemary and Sissix. You’re right — sex is about pleasuring the other. And I think Chambers does a great job exploring this relationship in a way that allows the reader to step away from their own preconcieved notions of relationships and sex. This is a great opening to discuss such taboo topics! Did y’all get into this much or just let it go?

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        • The squirmy people had a hard time articulating why they felt that way, so not a ton of discussion was produced, and I was glad for that. I personally didn’t want to get into sex, LGBTQ rights, and religion all on a Zoom call, and because this is library-led, the leader has to remain fair about people’s view points.

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