UK Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Genre: YA, Science Fiction
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is one of those books that comes surrounded by hype. Initially self-published, it garnered enough attention to be offered a publishing deal through Hodder & Stoughton, and was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Kitschies Golden Tentacle for Best Debut Novel, and nominated for the 2016 British Fantasy Awards’ Sydney James Prize for Best Newcomer.
It’s a hell of a list, and a hell of a resume to live up to when a reader picks it up for the first time.
My husband, who reads rarely for pleasure and struggles to settle into a book, complained that it was lightweight, but he also blitzed through it in less than a week, which is relatively unheard of for him.
The book opens with the promise of a conflict. Rosemary Harper, fleeing her old life because of something she didn’t do, has concocted an entirely new identity and found herself work on a tunnelling ship as a clerk. They dig wormholes through space, she completes the paperwork. She spends the first few chapters terrified someone is going to find out who she is and she will be in deep trouble, which seems like a promising plot point for tension as the ship takes on a job which means the crew will be stuck together on the ship, with only each other for company, for a year.
Except the tension from this plotline never develops. Instead, what is delivered is a cast of characters who, with one exception, all get along very well, are welcoming and understanding, and thoroughly determined to be accepting of everything thrown their way. The reviewer for the Financial Times called it “SF for the Tumblr generation”, and that actually fully describes what I felt reading it.
‘Diversity’ is very much the byword for this novel – and I can pinpoint the issues in it which I have seen cross my own tumblr dashboard, regarding appropriate pronouns, being accepting of other people’s sexual identities, and even a sideways nod at pro-choice politics. Chambers uses the perspectives of non-human species to provide both alternative societal structures, but also to provide critiques on the issues she perceives in human society. It was interesting to see a sci-fi novel that didn’t model other societies on Earth’s, and it was pleasing that Chambers had considered how different species attitudes and cultures may have developed into alternative social mores; however, for me, some of it felt a little heavy handed. Some of this may have been because I was so aware of these issues, however it may also have been because the plot was not particularly driving, and was more of a vehicle for introspection on these topics. This is not to say I necessarily disagree with the political points being made, but I feel that, had there been a stronger plot it would have seemed less pointed.
“But Claire,” I hear you say, “didn’t you say only a short while ago that you love domesticity between friendship groups?”
Yes. Yes I did. But for that to be the case, I have to be thoroughly committed to the characters, and for this I just… wasn’t. Everyone seemed to be so perfectly understanding, barring Corbin, and even then aside from a few bickering matches there was no real tension as a result of that. I couldn’t relate to, or engage with them. They seemed to be idealised tropes and never felt quite like fully fleshed people to me, so I never felt invested.
That said, this meant the emotional punch of the resolution to Jenks’ storyline caught me off guard; although unfortunately the development of Ohan’s narrative felt sadly lacking.
- I thought it was refreshing and interesting to see a full exploration of a science fiction universe that wasn’t human-centric. I really enjoyed the idea that other species had established order in the galaxy before these weird ape-descendants managed to get their act together.
- It feels like there were too many plotlines to give each the time it deserved, so most of them felt rushed. Rosemary’s mystery from the opening is resolved in barely more than a page, whilst Ohan’s is given a lot of time, and resolved with one action from which there is no fallout.
- I would have liked to have seen more of the issues raised explored more deeply. Possibly this could have been done by raising fewer issues.
- That said, what I felt to be a lack of overall driving plot meant that the different cultures in the book could be explored more thoroughly, without pressure. There were some very interesting approaches which deviated from usual human societal norms.
Rating: 3/5 – it was an easy read, and there was a lot to be impressed with, but I felt that more could have been done to develop it further.