The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers was longlisted for the Baileys Prize last week; so was The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney, which is one of my favourite books of the last year. Having decided that championing the latter is only meaningful if I actually read some of the others, I picked up the copy of The Long Way… which had been knocking around on my shelf for a couple of weeks.
Ostensibly, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is about the crew aboard the Wayfarer; a ship which specialises in punching holes in space for ease of transport by other vessels. I think that’s what it does, anyway. I am not well-schooled in sci-fi and the “sci” element confused me; this is a reflection on my single award science GCSE, not on the quality of the writing. Early on, Ashby, the Wayfarer’s captain, is presented with an irresistible deal which will earn the crew a fortune; the only problem is that it involves traveling to a distant part of the galaxy, to a region torn apart by civil war.
Initially, I was really entertained; Chambers launches straight into space-related excitement, with transports whizzing through the universe and aliens introduced from the off. The opening chapters have a delightful Hitchhiker’s Guide vibe, with an anarchic comedy that recalls Douglas Adams. Chambers nonchalantly drops in a dizzying array of alien species, as well as interesting human characters, whose interactions are always entertaining. The crew of the Wayfarer are all brilliant in their own ways; I particularly liked Sissix, a reptilian alien with notably affectionate tendencies, and Ohan, who comes from a species who voluntarily become infected with something which makes each individual into twins (again, not so well-versed in the science). Rosemary, one of the humans on-board, is running away from a dark secret, while another is in love with the ship’s AI. It is all very exciting.
The problem with all this character-related brilliance (and make no mistake, the characters are brilliant) is that the main plot is somewhat neglected. Developing each character with a backstory and individual story makes the middle third of The Long Way… very episodic, with lots of amusing incidents on different planets, plenty of astonishing creations in terms of character and convincing world-building in terms of the history and culture of the various alien species the crew encounters, but minimal focus on the main plot; for most of the book, I completely forgot about the job the Wayfarer was meant to be pursuing, and it seemed like the crew did too. This did affect my enjoyment of the book, despite the tremendous entertainment it afforded. It is fair to say that the title is an entirely accurate description of the story.
Overall, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a really fun read; Chambers has lovingly created a cast of characters I not only enjoyed reading about, but would quite like to go for a drink with. I loved the space setting and found the explanations of the politics and history of the galaxy genuinely engaging, and Chambers’ writing style is hugely entertaining. I just would have liked a little more narrative focus because I am incredibly dull and reliant on organisation to make my life make sense. Boo to me.