This is a book that all my bookfriends were convinced I’d love. It turned out to be a book I did really like, but… didn’t quite reach the love level.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet takes place in a futuristic space setting, many generations after humans have made contact with the various alien species (and had to leave a desolated Earth). It focuses on a small spaceship crew whose job it is to travel to a designated location and there “punch” a wormhole through space-time. Such wormholes connect two very distant spots together and make travel between galaxies easier. The crew is exactly the type to be well-described by the term “motley”: some humans, some non-humans, and an AI, most of whom are good friends and enjoy travelling together. Their newest addition is a clerk, Rosemary. She is our window into this tight-knit group, but has secrets of her own.
Anybody who’s heard of this book has probably heard it described as “feel-good”, “wholesome”, “sweet”. That is exactly how I’d describe it too. It’s very character-centric (and setting-centric), and almost all the characters are genuinely good people. The basic plot consists of flying from point A to point B. Sure, the characters have mini-conflicts along the way (space pirates! sickness! overly harsh border control!), but the heart and meat of the book is in the character interactions and the exploration of the galaxy. It’s just… a nice book. I had a non-stop headache the two days I was reading it, and it was a great book to chill out to. For anybody who wants a more optimistic look at the future, where most people are generally decent and even the deepest cultural misunderstandings can be overcome, this is the book.
As a character-centric book, there’s enough variety on the crew to have someone for every reader to enjoy. The clerk Rosemary, in space for the first time and slowly coming out of her shell with her new friends’ help. The captain Ashby, always trying to do right by his crew. The pilot Sissix, who’s kind of like a dinosaur (with feathers!) and just plain cool. The mechanics, hyperactive Kizzy and in-love-with-an-AI Jenks. Lovey (short for Lovelace), said AI. The doctor and chef Dr. Chef, who’s kind of the Six-Limbed Team Dad. The navigator Ohan, who has a symbiotic relationship with a parasitic virus that helps navigation but also shortens their lifespan. And if you don’t like any of their charming, crazy ways, there’s always resident asshole and algae expert Corbin. I liked them all but my personal fave was actually Corbin, mostly because his unhappiness, ineffectual anger, and complete lack of desire to join in the fun with everyone else was hilarious to me.
The other main aspect of the book is its setting. And… look I just really hate worldbuilding. I mean worldbuilding in a very specific (probably incorrect) way: when information about the world is given to us in a very direct way, when it isn’t the reader putting the clues together but when the world is explicitly explained to us either through dialogue, or paragraphs of text description. That’s what a huge chunk of this book is. The world described is fantastic: very creative, technology is used in an interesting way, and it’s rife with clever thematic parallels to real-world non-“traditional” families, relationships, identities, etc. The aliens feel alien without being so different that they’re impossible to sympathise with, and the way humans are imagined to develop in the centuries since is fascinating (medical gene tweaking! cosmetic gene tweaking! Mars colony vs spaceship fleet descendants!).
But oh man is the way it’s presented to us unfun. For example, at some point Rosemary runs into a human in one of those “old-school” (for her) spacesuits. He’s a bit weird, doesn’t want to talk to her non-human companion, shows her a flower from Earth and basically proselytises a bit about how humans should return to Earth; she’s awkward and uncomfortable around him. It’s a really fun, interesting encounter, clearly reminiscent of every awkward run-in you’ve ever had with a missionary. And then the book explains, in detail, what members of his organisation believe, how there’s another organisation thinking of returning to Earth but with non-human cooperation, and then through dialogue tells the backstory of one of the characters tied to this organisation. The habits, backstory, and motivations of most non-human species encountered are presented in a similar way. And there’s a lot of non-human species. To be honest, this just happens to be my biggest pet peeve in fantasy books. I admit it’s a me thing, but for me it just sucks the fun out of exploring a new world if it’s all explicitly spelled out.
If, however, that sort of exposition doesn’t bother you and you’d like to read something kind and positive, I really recommend you try out this book. And even if it does bother you, it’s still a pretty good book to fall into, especially when you’re feeling down.