As someone who spent the last 3 years after studying English & Classics (and therefore only reading books from the literary canon for over ten years) binging on all the science-fiction I could get my grubby little hands on, I can safely say with an educated background in science-fiction that this is a very unique book. When it comes to science-fiction, the genre has a tendency at least in published fiction, to be male-oriented and oddly prudish when it comes to exploring the unlimited physical, sexual, and emotional options of aliens.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is rife with aliens. And they are fleshed out and have backstories and cultures! The cultures are different to humans! How is this something that is refreshing in a genre that has no limitations? The story loosely revolves around a ragtag crew that pilots a ship The Wayfarer boring wormholes between locations in space for easier travel. It’s what Firefly would have been if there had been benign alien species and it had a bigger budget (and a more creative show-runner).
The magic of Chambers’ writing definitely comes from the strength of her characters. Rosemary Harper, new crewmate to the Wayfarer is the woman whose eyes we see through. But this in no way limits the insights we get into each crew member. The interspecies crew is the readers’ conduit into a future where the Earth has become inhabitable and a Fleet of “Exodans” leave in order to find help elsewhere in the Universe (a la Battlestar Galactica). The world-building is extraordinary. Chambers’ casually references her fictional history throughout so she never lectures to her reader and yet we become informed on each culture easily.
Chambers’ willingness to fabricate completely new species with unique and original cultures and backstories is incredible. It made me realise how lacking other science-fiction I’ve read is in alien cultures that are treated the same way as Human cultures. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is honestly the only novel that immediately springs to mind which compares in terms of such a well-rounded representation of an alien species.
Even the characters you don’t expect to like are redeemable in their own ways. I genuinely felt sad when I finished the book because it was as if saying goodbye to friends I had made, as I had irresponsibly stayed up until 2am finishing the book. I do this far too often, but find it hard to put down a book once I’m stuck in.
This Universe Chambers has created is huge and begs more exploration. The politics of her world and the often heartbreaking experiences of the Wayfarer crew are gripping in ways that multiple action scenes would not have been. As a science-fiction novel, A Long Way breaks certain barriers of representation and sexuality that in my personal experience I have only seen addressed through television shows before. The plot is fantastic, but it is the dialogue and interactions that drive this space romp and I cannot wait for the sequel.