Science fiction is a genre I very rarely read. That’s not to say I’m averse to reading it; I just feel like I’m unqualified to be writing about it as I have so few reference points to draw upon when discussing it. But this means that I’m especially delighted that the Baileys Prize longlist has brought Becky Chambers’ “The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet” to my attention because it was such a thoroughly engrossing, skilfully-written and enjoyable read. The novel primarily follows a journey of the spaceship The Wayfarer as it travels across the galaxy to create a new “tunnel” connecting a reclusive embattled civilization with an allied group of human and alien species. Rosemary is a human with a mysterious past who joins the closely connected crew. There are thrilling adventures, lucky escapes, tragic losses and hilarious escapades. But what really brings this novel alive are its vibrant characters who form complex relationships that speak meaningfully about building cross-cultural exchanges.
The crew encounter several kinds of aliens on their journey and Chambers carefully describes how they differ from humans and the other species that are part of the ship’s crew. Some of these aliens are friendly and others are adversarial. However, the contrasts between their culture and human culture made me think more complexly about the way we interact with each other both in interpersonal relationships and broader attitudes towards other races/cultures. The author is careful not to idealize any specific alien culture over others, but shows how each has its own specific qualities, problems and contradictions. There are inherited prejudices that everyone carries, but which individuals work to specifically overcome. It’s especially moving how the guilt of former generations plays out across two species who might hate each other. The character of a species called Grum that has been rendered almost extinct states how “We cannot blame ourselves for the wars our parents start. Sometimes the very best thing we can do is walk away.” This is a powerful statement about our ability to separate ourselves from the shameful actions of our forefathers to act independently in thought and action. The way in which the story of large scale conflicts between alien races plays out has a lot of parallels with how we relate to each other across national, religious, sexual and racial boundaries.
One thing I found particularly impressive about this novel is the way different relationships are handled. Several characters engage in romantic relationships with alien species – one human character even has a long term affair with a sentient AI system. Don’t worry, there are no cringe-worthy descriptions of human-alien sex scenes. Rather, the development of the relationships come across as wholly believable and emotionally poignant. Each couple face their own challenges in overcoming prejudice, practical challenges or dealing with culturally confusing differences. Although the way we humans relate to each other socially and sexually may feel “natural”, when viewed from an alien perspective it can seem quite bizarre. The author has a pleasurable way of poking fun at this at some points such as when one character named Sissix who comes from an Aandrisk race that resembles large lizards states about humans: “This was a people that had coupled themselves stupid.” There is also something quite radical in how a character named Kizzy makes occasional references about her two dads. The reason or story behind her same-sex parents is never explained (nor does it need to be), but is presented as something perfectly natural and is fully integrated into the story rather than being treated as an “issue”. This all speaks meaningfully about the way love ought to be respected over our fixed social and political ideas about how relationships should be.
Becky Chambers includes a touching message at the end of this novel encouraging people who have artistic urges not to become discouraged in trying to realize their vision. This is a debut novel whose creation was supported by a Kickstarter campaign and it was originally self published. It wouldn’t have come to prominence without the support of encouraging readers who felt moved by the story and message that Chambers makes. It’s a heart-warming testament to how communities of readers can make a difference. “The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet” is a dazzling read and it definitely makes me want to look out for more sci-fi reads in the future.