There are a lot of things to like about The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. It’s set in an interesting universe where humans aren’t dominant and there are lots of interesting alien species to deal with. The characters, for the most part, are interesting and fun to spend time with. And the writing it pretty quippy and moves at a good clip. It should be a fun read and it is, but it doesn’t go much further than that.
I’ve read a lot of commentary about the book that it’s about characters and not plot. While that’s true it wouldn’t be correct to say “nothing happens” in the book. Several things – exciting things! – happen. It’s just that they’re resolved fairly easily and don’t really have any impact on things going forward.
Take, for example, an early crisis. The ship, Wayfarer, is off on the titular long trip in order to bore a new wormhole in space. Fairly early in this journey they’re set upon by pirates! A sticky enough situation, made all the more so by the fact that the ship’s captain is a pacifist and, thus, everyone on the ship is unarmed. That is a fantastic twist on a typical space opera trope. It’s not really a spoiler to say they talk themselves out of it. It’s a pretty exciting scene.
Yet it has almost no residual effect. One character has a brief bit of PTSD, but it goes away just as quickly. More annoying, our heroes escape the pirates by giving them some of their supplies – supplies which, apparently, were completely superfluous to the main mission. Thus, while there’s talk about getting reimbursed for them, there’s no complaint that it will make their job harder or require extra stops along the way. It’s a problem, it’s solved, and the book plows ahead.
The effect is kind of like an old-fashioned TV show from before the current golden age of serialized TV. Each episode is basically a standalone story, with little ongoing plot to drive things along. Thus, along The Long Way . . . we get “episodes” for just about all of the Wayfarer’s crew that all play out the same way – some crises appears, it’s resolved, and everyone goes on their merry way.
Consider Rosemary, who if not the main character of the book (it bounces POVs around a bunch), is at last our audience surrogate, the new person on the ship who has to learn how things work (our Tim Bayliss, if you will). We know from the beginning that she has a big secret in her past. If she’s not running from something, she’s at least in search of a new start in a new life. We find out why about halfway through (her father’s a war criminal, in essence) and she worries this will impact the life she’s made on the ship, cost her friends. It doesn’t, because everyone on board is so incredibly understanding – even the alien chef/doctor (another neat touch) whose species is about to be extinct due to the war Rosemary’s father fueled. A great potential for tension is completely squandered.
And so it goes. With the exception of the ship’s algae specialist (that’s what fuels the ship – don’t ask, it’s never explained) everybody gets along swimmingly through the voyage. When his “episode” comes it falls flat because we suddenly need to care about somebody nobody else does (particular shame given the issues it raises). The goal of the actual “long trip” basically disappears once they embark, only to rear its head at the very end.
I’ve seen lots of references to “imagination” in reviews praising The Long Way . . . and that’s a spot on description. Becky Chambers let her imagination run wild in creating the universe in which the book is set. It’s just a shame more interesting things don’t happen in it. In that way it reminds me a bit of The Goblin Emperor, another book with a fascinating setting and interesting characters that didn’t really amount to much.
There’s something to be said for an author who just takes her readers and drops them into a fascinating place filled with interesting characters. Ultimately, I want a little bit more than that. Others might not care so much and, so, your mileage may vary when it comes to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Still recommended, if with a little hesitation.