No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, April 20, 2015

2015/04: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet -- Becky Chambers

"Do you have any idea what this song is?"
Kizzy blinked. "'Socks Match My Hat'," she said. She went back up into the ceiling, tightening something with her gloved hands.
"Soskh Matsh Maeha. It's banned in the Harmagian Protectorate."
"We're not in the Harmagian Protectorate."
"Do you know what this song's about?"
"You know I don't speak Hanto."
"Banging the Harmagian royal family. In glorious detail."
"Ha! Oh, I like this song so much more now."
"It's credited with setting off the riots on Sosh'ka last year."
"Huh. Well, if this band hates the establishment that much, then I doubt they'll care about me making up my own lyrics. They can't oppress me with their 'correct lyrics'. Fuck the system."[loc 995]

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is immense fun. It reminded me, while I was reading, of Delany's early space opera (for instance Nova) and of the Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Space is (a) big (b) full of strange new worlds (c) rather grubby.

Rosemary Harper, a woman with a Dark Secret, signs on as a clerk on the Wayfarer, which is a wormhole builder: their latest mission is to travel to the homeworld of the bellicose Toremi and install a wormhole there. It's a standard year's journey out to where the wormhole will be constructed: plenty of time for interpersonal relations to evolve like whoa.

The Wayfarer has a small but diverse crew, including several humans, a clone, an AI, and assorted aliens. Chambers does characterisation very well, and brings out both the otherness and the similarities of both humans and aliens. (Sissix, lizard-lady, on humans: "I'm tired of their fleshy faces. I'm tired of their smooth fingertips ... of their inability to smell anything .. of how neurotic they are about being naked. I want to smack every single one of them around until they realise how needlessly complicated they make their families and their social lives and their -- their everything." [loc 2855]) There are some stunningly effective scenes in this novel: an interspecies seduction attempt, a human/AI relationship, the loneliness of an individual whose race is almost dead.

And I think that's what makes this a successful novel. To be honest, the plot of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet faded quickly from my mind: not that there's anything wrong with it, and it highlights some interesting issues of comprehension and assumption, but it is an unexceptional SF plot. (Maybe the key's in the title: it's not about the small angry planet, it's about the journey.)

It's Chambers' characters who have stayed with me. Tolerance, compassion, affection, pragmatism, and humour: love, oh, definitely love, in several forms. Chambers presents an interesting future history of humanity and its diplomatic and personal relations with the alien species of the galaxy. But all that is background: what matters is the people, and they are all people.

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