I’m having a hard time collecting my thoughts about The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. I’ve been trying to put it in context of my previous readings, but it is so unlike anything I’ve read before that I can’t truly compare.
The story starts with Rosemary Harper floating through space but, from page one, the reader is given a firm foundation. This is a story set after humans were forced to leave Earth so long ago that there are people who doubt that’s even where they came from. They interact with other species throughout the galaxy (the umbrella term for all being “Sapients”) who have their own identities, cultures, and anatomies. With so much going on, and all of it that far removed from the reader’s life, it would be easy to get lost. But Chambers weaves the cultural and historical details into the story expertly. Everything makes sense, and yet we are not overwhelmed with information.
Part of the reason it works so well is because the story is character-centric, and the cast is diverse enough to show several sides of the galaxy. They feel like real people and their backgrounds are the building blocks to their personalities. I usually have a hard time keeping characters straight in my head, but this was just like meeting several interesting new people at once, each distinct and fascinating.
Still, unlike many character-centric novels, I never had to wonder what the story was or what the characters were after. The driving goal, plot-wise, is “do the job;” that is, get from one side of the galaxy to the other so they can tunnel their way back. You know what the characters are working towards and where the finish line is, so the plot building up to it doesn’t feel aimless. And yet, Chambers makes it clear that what they really want is to keep their crew together. Those are our stakes, the true driving force behind everything the characters do.
With all of these factors, I could barely stop reading. I kept wanting to see what would happen next, or wanting to spend more time with these characters because they were just fun to be with. But despite all that, I wouldn’t call it a fluffy book either. It took “human nature” into consideration and put issues of diversity, prejudice, and political turmoil on a larger playing field. It makes you think about things: What constitutes being alive? Who has that right to live? How do we live together with such different cultures and even environmental needs? And how do we as a society make these decisions? Based on the characters’ differences, the reader begins to consider these things before they realize they’re doing it.
I was infatuated with this book by page 50, and in love with it not too long after. Overall, I just felt a lot of joy in reading it, something I really needed after The Casual Vacancy. It may have been a long way, but it was a worthwhile journey.