Not quite the Traveller novel I was expecting

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet — Becky Chambers


2014’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is Becky Chambers debut novel.

I picked it up because, over on Livejournal, Heron61 said

It’s basically what you’d get if you took Firefly (minus the unfortunate Civil War metaphors) or an average campaign of the Traveller RPG and focused more on interpersonal dynamics and character’s emotional lives, while substantially reducing the level of violence.

Traveller was the first table top RPG I played extensively and I still remember it fondly. Yes, this book reminds me of Traveller; it even begins with an event that could very well be someone failing their low passage roll [1]. That said, while I see the similarities that Heron61 mentions, I was more strongly reminded of James Tiptree, Jr.’s short story “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” … that is, if James Tiptree, Jr. instead of being relentlessly, inexorably depressing, had been a cheerful optimist. The book isn’t quite what I was expecting, but it was a refreshing change of pace.

The human species is one of the younger, less respected, members of the Galactic Commons; humans are despised for their almost total success at killing off the Earth. Although the senior members of the Commons are not sure that admitting the humans was a good idea, admission has at least given humanity access to aid and jobs, the sort of jobs you’d give beings whose survival was not a priority.

The good starship Wayfarer makes its living by creating wormholes that connect one stellar system to another [2]. Its crew is diverse: the owner, Captain Ashby, is human, as are crewbeings Corbin, Jenks, and Kizzy. Sissix is a reptilian Aandrisk, Dr. Chef is a Grum and Ohan is a Sianat Pair, a symbiotic being. Rounding out the crew is the ship’s AI, Lovey. As the book opens, they are joined by Rosemary Harper, a seemingly insignificant but competent clerk from Mars.

Rosemary provides our entry into the Wayfarer but in many ways she is not the protagonist; she is important, but she is not the only important character, and the book does not always follow her point of view.

Interstellar travel isn’t safe. There are any number of ways a ship can fatally break down along the way. There are pirates lurking in the deeps. As if all that were not bad enough, the Commons engages in occasional police actions and outright wars, as contact with new civilizations sometimes goes horribly wrong. If Wayfarer is to survive all these dangers, the crew has to work together. While they may not always like each other—Corbin in particular seems to go out of his way to be unlovable—they do depend on each other, which requires a certain level of trust and sharing.

Rosemary has secrets she desperately wants to keep. She soon discovers that she is not the only person on board with secrets and tragedies; her problems are not even close to being the worst. At least Rosemary is a legal person; Commons Law treats Lovey as a gadget. In the course of the narrative, one very unlucky crewbeing will discover, much to their surprise, that they are not even a non-person but something even lower in the pecking order. As the Wayfarer makes its way from job to job, system to system, Rosemary struggles to fit into what amounts to a new family, and to figure out what she can offer them (more than her impressive filing skills) and what they can offer her.

All this in addition to a dangerous job (wormhole punching), space-pirate raids, and encounters with aliens all too prone to lethal violence.

There’s a fair amount of churn in Chambers’ fictional universe, just as there is in Andre Norton’s universes. Interstellar civilizations come and go. Kicking off a Sixth Extinction certainly didn’t earn humans any gold stars for civilizational continuity, but it’s not like we’re the worst fuck-ups in the Galactic Commons. The Grum were so horrified at their own behavior they’ve decided to simply die out, while the unfortunate Akaraks have become poverty-stricken interstellar nomads after their homeworld was strip-mined by a more powerful civilization.

This book is towards the softer end of the SF scale and it’s best not to dwell too closely on certain details of the background. I didn’t have too much trouble ignoring the more marshmallow aspects of the universe because, while punching wormholes is how the characters earn their living, the book’s main concern is the connections the crew form with each other. Chambers knows how to keep that entertaining. Relationships range from simmering hostility (which would be pretty much any relationship that includes Corbin) to intimacy.

As in the Tiptree story, attraction breaches species and other boundaries; like the Tiptree, some relationships face profound obstacles and not every romance ends happily [3]. Chambers is matter-of-fact about these relationships; they are pictured neither as horrifying transgressions nor as inescapable tragedies. One can choose to be a Corbin and live a grumpy solitary life, but it’s more fun not to take that option. It may turn out that the person (or, I guess, persons, although we don’t really see that option exercised) you love is very, very different from sort of the person you expected to fall for, but that’s part of the experience. I will say doesn’t surprise me about the humans—humans can probably form romantic attachments to abstract concepts or particular colours—but it’s odd to see it in the aliens. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of the cooperative abilities species need to be advanced, complex civilizations [4].

As it happens, I was listening to the Pierces as I was reading this and I must say, if you had to pick theme music for the book, you could do a lot worse than this.

I probably wouldn’t have picked this up without a recommendation, but I do not regret reading it and I plan to pick up the next Chambers novel that I see. You can purchase the novel here.

1: Traveller has several levels of passenger travel. The worst, hibernation (low passage), is inspired by the Dumarest books and gives you a one in six chance of dying. It’s cheaper than the alternatives, except when it’s much more expensive….

2: It is not completely clear why wormholes aren’t used for more local travel, though we are told of a system where early adoption of the technology left that system’s space-time in tatters. Perhaps it’s dangerous to cram a lot of wormholes into a small volume.

3: Well, if you look at it dispassionately, all romances end with a break-up or a death or both. This novel covers a short enough period that you can (mostly) ignore all that. The key to happiness is picking the right timescale.

4: Chimpanzees with nukes would last days, maybe. Ants with nukes, hours. Maybe minutes.

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