Saturday of Book Reviewing – Chamber’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Written far more recently than my usual science fiction fare, Becky Chamber’s first entry in this ongoing series, Wayfarers, is a delight and an abrupt departure from the hard sci-fi of the past. Published in 2014, I’m not terribly shocked that this California born author so wonderfully told of a progressive world where, even if not universally true of the universe at large, there could still be a chunk carved out as an accepting safe haven for all kinds. And I mean all kinds; this novel delves into new species, various sexual orientations, and unique gender identities while giving the characters who embody these descriptors more depth than just surface labels of diversity.

Really though, the remarkable, tangible element that is most highlighted by Chamber’s writing is more than The Long Way’s capacity to realistically depict acceptance and tolerance in the far future. It’s in her ability to tell a science fiction story from a confident, grounded female perspective. Typically, especially in general fiction, I do not find this a noteworthy observation. Plenty of women and men have weaved fantastic stories with well developed female characters. The reason I point this out specifically here and now, is possibly in light of recent #metoo events. Now more than ever, women’s voices are being thrust to the forefront and it marks a stark contrast to the past where they used to be a casual footnote, or worse, like in a considerable portion of Heinlein’s work (see I Will Fear No Evil for blatant examples) where they are abused and treated as significantly less significant than their male counterparts.
In Chamber’s world, the sex of the individual, the personality traits, the miscellaneous physical aspects, the mode of communication? All extras. The most important, singular defining thing that makes a creature, a person, an artificial intelligence, a character is sapience.

Sapience.
Which is really just a fancy world for
Wisdom.

Think about how remarkable that is. How a world could function, could thrive when the defining trait necessary for respect has nothing to do with characteristics outside of one’s own control. Nothing to do with gender, race, skin color, sexual orientation, religion, origin, etc. It’s damn near utopian and keep in mind, this universe has seen its share of bloodshed. Hell, our main protagonists nearly meet their ends at the hands of both pirates and traitorous diplomats. From the sucking void of the present, this future of equality shines brightly as a beacon of hope, as a sign of what one day may be, as a possible positive outcome of all the current terrible revelations of reprehensible imbalance.

So like I said: delightful. Admittedly, it was a little slow to start, and the action scenes take a fair bit to get to, but the history is rich and the cast is lovable. I’m excited to see what happens to them next in A Closed And Common Orbit. Real talk though? Don’t bother trying this one out if you’re looking for page after page of fighting and violence and explosions: this is not the Michael Bay of space fiction. This is the day to day of someone’s actual existence. These aren’t big damn heroes, these are the ‘everyman’ spacers trying to make their little niche of darkness a little cozier, a little brighter. I, for one, could use some of that light right now.

– Jessie Gutierrez

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