May 28, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Natalie Sidney reviews 'The long way to a small angry planet' by Becky Chambers

The long way to a small angry planet is Chambers’ debut novel and book one in a four-part interconnected series. Originally self-published, but thanks to a very successful Kickstarter campaign, was picked up by publisher ‘Hodder & Stoughton’. The novel is focused around a tunnelling ship – The Wayfarer with a cast of characters from various planets and genders. As a very character-driven novel, this fits in a sub-genre referred to as ‘cosy sci-fi’. It doesn’t have the high stakes, life or death scenes every chapter but they are definitely a factor of this novel. It poses the question ‘what would daily life look like on a cross-species spaceship?’. This is a very modern approach to a classic sci-fi trope of a spaceship taking odd jobs (see – Firefly), but actively addresses the disparity of having an intergalactic crew yet still has a woman doing the admin. Chambers calls attention to this through her character-driven novel, paying particular attention to the contrast between cultural heritages and how this leads to political decisions. 

Structurally, the novel follows a third person, episodic structure following each crew member at some point, giving insight into their histories and motivations. Chambers gives us an insight into how cultures and relationships are viewed from each crew members frame of reference. For example, there is an organism called ‘Ohan’ who is from a species referred to as ‘Sianat Pair’ and is the navigator of the ship. They are from a species where they are seen as two people in one being and referred to using they/them pronouns. Chambers treats this both with sensitivity and as the norm – when a new crew mate meets them, pronouns are discussed and that is that. This neutral approach to gender and pronouns in threaded throughout the novel, as some species we meet don’t think of gender in the same human ways and ze/zir are used throughout. It is a very refreshing take on a historically heteronormative genre. 

The novel begins with Rosemary, who was raised on a Martian colony and grew up planet-side, joining the Wayfarer. The ship is made to create ‘tunnels’ across the galaxy to allow easier travel, not the safest job but one where Rosemary can see more of the universe than most. The crew is chaotic but in the best way possible, as Rosemary soon learns. From the cultural practices of various species to the science of tunnelling and rocketry, we learn alongside Rosmary the challenges of day-to-day life aboard the Wayfarer – making us in turn speculate how this might look, how this system evolved and a few ways to mitigate issues on an intergalactic scale. 

The novel follows the crew after they are offered a politically charged job in a warzone that would secure the financial future of the Wayfarer.  Through this journey, Chambers walks us through a layered political system that both critiques human history and highlights issues that may become prevalent in the future. A poignant example of this is the ships AI ‘Lovey’ who was made sentient and is seen as an equivalent crew member with personal relationships with each crew member. The novel touches on the ethics of developing AI and when AI doesn’t want to be trapped in a box anymore. 

The novel leaves the reader with a warm feeling of optimism. With its anti-prejudice message throughout, it’s a world built for everyone, where everyone can connect with and see themselves in a particular character. It’s not a perfect world, and it never claims to be, but to me it showed the power of good people trying their best. They don’t always succeed, but they are genuinely caring, empathetic people and that is a powerful thing, both in their world and ours.