by Becky Chambers
400 pages, Hodder
Review by Pat Black
If I achieve nothing else today, hopefully I will have made you want to listen to Deep Purple’s “Space Truckin’”. Alternatively, you could check out a strange and wonderful book, which shares the same themes, though not the same Jon Lord organ riff.
Becky Chambers’ debut, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, is described as a space opera, and I guess it carries those notes. Far into the future, humans have moved out into that great big galaxy out there. We’re calling ourselves Exodans, having left our home and spread out into space, meeting the vast array of intelligent alien life forms out there. The Exodans trade, they mingle, they prosper, and yes, they make love with their new neighbours. In this book.
Alien sex. Yep. That got your attention.
“Space opera” might make you think of ray guns and battleships, quests and conquests, goodies and baddies, heroism, villainy, square-jawed heroes and babes, all that stuff. You can take this as either a warning or a hearty recommendation: there isn’t much of that in this book. It has iMAX-ready epic scope, but this is a funny, intimate piece of work about a space crew, and their big and small dramas out in the cosmos. It might be a sitcom without the outright comedy; it might also be a soap opera, without the kitchen sinks.
Our story centres on one ship, The Wayfarer, whose purpose is to “punch” through space and time to create tunnels. This allows for long-distance interstellar travel through the territory of the Galactic Commons, a sort of outer space European Union. The ship, under the command of Ashby Santoso, is hired for a job to open up a channel on the far side of the galaxy to an uptight, fighty race no-one much likes, in a bid to foster better links and communications.
I want to describe Ashby as a sort of square-jawed space captain type, Captain Kirk mingled with Mal from Firefly, and maybe a little bit of the late Han Solo. I imagine him as looking like these guys, but… he’s not, really. We learn quite quickly that the human diaspora has long tired of warfare, having ruined their own place with it in the species’ infancy. Humans are peaceniks now – not quite space hippies, but certainly not cowards, either. They just don’t care much for warfare; they have a horror of it. Although Ashby has to make decisions and keep his crew in line, he’s not one for firing his ray gun or losing his temper. This makes him a great rarity in space opera: the ideal boss.
Our “in” when it comes to life on board The Wayfarer is Rosemary, who has been hired to do accounts and admin. Through her, we are introduced to the human/alien menagerie on board; Kizzy and Jenks, the two human techs; Sissix, the pilot, a feathered reptile from Andaria; Dr Chef, a giant caterpillar-looking thingy who is, as his title implies, part-chef, part-medic; Corbin, who looks after the algae which keeps the ship working, and also the office *rsehole; and Ohan, a dual personality locked in the body of a weird four-legged creature, the navigator who handles the awesome task of pushing the ship through the fabric of space and time. And the whole is kept running by Lovey, the ship’s AI.
It turns out that Jenks the tech is in love with Lovey; he sleeps next to her generator, and talks to her all the time, synching his mind with hers. Lovey, who has a distinct personality, reciprocates. He secretly hopes to create a synthetic body to download Lovey’s personality into, and from there, one reasonably supposes, to help himself to some robot lovin’.
Sissix’s species are a sensual lot, big into touching, petting and ultimately coupling with anyone who’s up for it. Corbin, in contrast, is an uptight pain in the backside, but he also has a deadly secret which causes some big trouble for the crew later on.
Dr Chef is a kindly big soul, and it was here that Chambers really stretched out, describing how simple gestures or a change in colouring can denote mood, expression, psychological states; utterly alien, yet still familiar and easily interpreted. And then there’s Ashby, who is having a fling with a strange, bad-ass alien mercenary type, who has to sneak into and out of the ship on some pretence or other in order for them to be together.
It isn’t all canteen gossip and email flirting. There are bursts of danger and violence. When the ship is boarded by horrible space pirates, this is the point that millions of writers would have pushed the story in one direction, probably involving a bit of shouting and shooting. Chambers, to her great credit, instead nudges it to places you wouldn’t expect.
Later on, the ship must weather heavy fire from other alien nasties. But if you’re coming to this book expecting some peeeowww peeeoowww – and we all like a bit of peeeowww peeeooowww now and again – then you may end up disappointed. It’s not overly fussed with fighting and shooting. There’s plenty of drama, loads of future tech, and a fair bit of intergalactic political intrigue, but if you’re expecting some Peter F Hamilton or even Iain M Banks stuff, forget it.
What I liked best about this book was the sense of family it engendered among the crew. There sometimes comes a moment if you’ve been working at the same place for a long time when you realise – not without horror – that you have come to know your colleagues as well as family members or close friends. Indeed, you might have spent more time in their company than you have with your loved ones. While you wouldn’t place them on the same shelf, exactly, there are bound to be strange fraternal ties with long-term work-mates, and maybe even a little bit of love, too – even though you could walk away from them tomorrow if the right offer comes in. You know just about everything there is to know about them, and vice versa. In their own way, and though it might pain you to admit it, they are family. So it proves aboard The Wayfarer.
Plus, I was tickled by how normal scenarios were given extraordinary framings. Ashby’s love affair with the alien is meant to be a secret, but the whole crew knows about it, and in great detail. They love it when she arrives on board; love the gossip; love speculating about what’s going to happen next for the star-entwined lovers. Much as you would if one of your mates started going out with someone, and they started to appear on the social scene.
So, too, for Jenks and Lovey. This isn’t a deep dark secret. It’s something shared between peers in the same social group, as it would be back home. During one violent incident, when a little blood is spilled, it reminded me of the horror and sympathy that might be elicited when one of your mates gets punched on a night out. I want to say it’s a feminine reaction to an explosion of nastiness, but that’s reductive and also sexist. It’s a sensitive handling of an unpleasant event. The whole book is very sensitive. It cares about its characters, even the irksome, rule-book junkie Corbin.
In the same vein, when a boarding party touches down on an alien planet beset with shrieking giant insects, I expected an action scene with ray guns and peril. Instead, the party meets new mates, makes friends, and settles down to a barbecue underneath a protective shield dome. I would bet anything that Chambers thought of this scene while she was at a barbecue, swatting away bugs and wishing she had some sort of heat shield to keep them off. I imagine this was in Scotland, and the bugs were midges.
Then, another landing party lands on Sissix’s homeworld, where we are introduced to part of her complex family unit as well as some adorable alien babies. This leads to a truly outstanding gag when the young Andarians are allowed to approach the humans, breaching their strange sense of tactile propriety.
Sissix is a wonderful creation – just odd enough to be fascinating, but with what we might recognise as humanity, too. The Andarians enjoy sex with multiple partners of any gender, in any old way. The elegant, feathery reptiles often have to be reminded that humans are a bit funny about intimacy and touching, and they scoff at the monkeys’ odd hang-ups, such as hiding their genitals. Despite humans’ innate shyness in these matters, it seems that anything goes in the future, and humans and aliens can, and do, get it on out in space.
The book openly questions why so many creatures in the universe might have similar characteristics between so many disparate worlds, despite being separated by great gulfs of time and space – feathers and scales, for example, or eyeballs and limbs – and also dares to provide an answer. Chambers speculates that this phenomenon might also extend to feelings, which are, literally, universal.
The crew’s journey does take them to the place that’s mentioned in the title, but this is only a matter of connecting A to B, and giving our characters something to do. LWTASAP is a quirky number, and possibly not what you were expecting when you signed up. But you’ll be so glad you made the trip.