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

HarperCollins Publishers, LLC, © 2014
ISBN 9780062444134
Print length 467 pages, $10.81

When Rosemary’s feet leave Mars for the first time, it’s to take a cramped pod shuttle to rendezvous with her new employer, Captain Ashby Santoso, aboard the Wayfarer, a tunneling ship that digs passages through space, shortcuts for travel throughout the Galactic Commons. While Rosemary is running from family problems, she finds that she has run to a new home, one she won’t want to leave behind.

Long Way is character-driven space opera at its finest. The capable but quirky crew consists of Captain Ashby, pilot Sissix, algeist Corbin, techs Kizzy and Jenks, clerk Rosemary, medic and cook Doctor Chef, navigator Ohan, and the ship’s AI Lovey. Their ship, Wayfarer, is a hodge-podge of cobbled-together parts and equipment that somehow, through the expert ministrations of Kizzy and Jenks, functions at or near optimum. Still, its small stature and low-end tunneling equipment suit it only for small jobs. Ashby has occasionally dreamed of taking his ship and crew to the next level, but credits are tight and one does not just step operations up a notch without the proper equipment.

So when a prime new job practically lands in his lap—not just any job, but one that would significantly boost the crew’s and the ship’s credits, status and capabilities—Ashby says yes. Their assignment is to connect the Galactic Commons to a distant, newly opened territory. No problem, except that there’s no pre-established tunnel, nor any anchor in the new space toward which they can aim a new passage. The Wayfarer must travel to their destination without shortcuts. A year of close quarters, idle hands and potential risks all seem worthwhile—until they arrive.

But that’s not the point of the story. While the climax helps to drive the narrative, Long Way is really about the characters. En route to their goal, Wayfarer stops at various ports of call to make essential purchases, to relieve the long-haul boredom, or just to visit with friends and family. It’s these episodes that make the story more interesting as we learn more about the characters and their various species and cultural norms. The crew, inter-species though they may be, are indeed a family of the heart. Through good times and bad, they stick together and support one another as family should. More than once, I had tears in my eyes as I read moving emotional sequences.

Author Becky Chambers takes on a lot in this uplifting, hopeful tale. In a Galactic community, where species are as different from one another as it is possible to be, somehow the powers that be have managed to find and maintain a delicate balance. Humans are new to the mix, adding volatility that had been resolved long ago by the more traveled races; what’s important to note is that Long Way takes on issues critical to such a melting-pot social setting like ethical questions, moral quandaries, gender issues and cultural differences between species, the sorts of things that humans can’t seem to master in this world. Chambers clearly holds strong, positive opinions on these and similar topics, and they shine through in her narrative.

There is no one set protagonist or antagonist in this book. Instead, the reader sees through the eyes of each crewmember at one time or another, but for me this did not detract from my enjoyment of the story. I found myself cheering the crew as they prospered, or laughing at their hijinks, or holding my breath for their safety or resolution in tight situations. Although humans fill a small space in this larger tale, the other species also wrangled with issues that would be familiar to any of us. I had no trouble relating to non-human characters. My only criticism is that I would have liked to see more about the physical appearances of the various species so I could imagine them as I read. Chambers does a passable job in this area, but she so excels in the rest of the story I can forgive this small shortcoming.

Overall, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is the most enjoyable read I’ve experienced in a long time. Its positive attitude and the compassionate outlook of the characters truly lifted my spirit. I can’t recommend it enough.