Well, this book lives up to its title: they definitely take the long way around. Although nominally space opera, if you were hoping for sweeping galactic politics and high stakes, you might want to look elsewhere. The Wayfarer is in the middle of a tense diplomatic situation for sure, but this story isn’t about that. This story is about the Wayfarer crew, their journey rather than their destination, and the things you learn along the way. Becky Chambers hasn’t written space opera so much as space pop, and I’m cool with that.
This is a difficult book to summarize, because the back cover makes it seem like Rosemary is the main character, but in actuality this is an ensemble cast. Chambers takes the time to ensure each of the crew receives at least some time in the spotlight. Rather than trying to introduce them all, let me just say that there is an eclectic mix of Humans and other aliens, each of whom has distinctive personality traits, some as a result of their species and some as a result of their personality. What’s interesting to me is how Chambers manages to make most of the characters fairly round. There are moments when you love each character as well as moments you dislike them, and that takes talent to do repeatedly.
This crew lives and works primarily in space, and the story is more about their relationships than their mission to tunnel a wormhole from alien space back to familiar territory. Chambers explores the conflicts that arise from multiple species living in close quarters, the misunderstandings and the fun, as well as the stress that is possible when you are an unarmed vessel out in deep space. Though I would likely describe this book as a slow burn, there are moments of action and tension that kick the pace up into heart-pounding territory.
I love the thoughtfulness Chambers has put into her species. Some people will no doubt fault the level of exposition in this book, and you know … cool. That is a legitmate critique here, and I’m not going to say you’re wrong. But I think that’s the case for a lot of science fiction (Charles Stross called), so this is more about whether or not you like or can tolerate infodumping. If you can, if you want to go on this fun ride through the gallery of alien biology, customs, and foods that Chambers has created, then you will have a good time.
Another noticeable stylistic element is just the way that Chambers weaves humour throughout the book. This is particularly evident in the dialogue, which is rich with asides and moments that, in a tightly-paced 43 minute TV show or a novel that took itself too seriously, would be cut for time. This book revels in the idea of breathing room, the idea that there really isn’t any hurry to get on with the main plot. And while it is tempting to single out humour as the dominant emotion on display, I think that misrepresents the wealth of tones Chambers infuses into these scenes. There is plenty of humour, yes, but there is also anger and righteous fury; there is awkward bigotry and accidental insults; there is intense attraction and abiding love.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is one of those books where, if you like it, you like it for the reasons others dislike it. If you want direct, precision-plotting, this book is not for you. This is a book for people who religiously complete every side quest in a video game before daring to continue the main plot. If you want a book where you get to hang out with video game NPCs for a couple of hours—and oh yeah, galactic events are happening just outside the ship, but let’s not worry about those—then this is the book for you.