[Review] The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

About the Book

Somewhere within our crowded sky, a crew of wormhole builders hops from planet to planet, on their way to the job of a lifetime. To the galaxy at large, humanity is a minor species, and one patched-up construction vessel is a mere speck on the starchart. This is an everyday sort of ship, just trying to get from here to there.

But all voyages leave their mark, and even the most ordinary of people have stories worth telling. A young Martian woman, hoping the vastness of space will put some distance between herself and the life she‘s left behind. An alien pilot, navigating life without her own kind. A pacifist captain, awaiting the return of a loved one at war.

Set against a backdrop of curious cultures and distant worlds, this episodic tale weaves together the adventures of nine eclectic characters, each on a journey of their own.

518 pages (paperback)
Published on August 13, 2015
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Author’s webpage
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It took me a really long time to actually get my hands on this book, and when I did finally get it, I listened to it via Audible. Therefore, I’m going to try to nail all of the name spellings, but since I never actually saw them, I might spell them wrong. I’m also going to try to avoid using names I know I’m going to spell wrong. This will probably be messy, because there is a lot I want to say, but I don’t want to take up too much space so I’m really going to gloss over so much of this book, and paint it with some broad strokes. You have been warned.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is one of those books that just sticks with you. I was impressed almost from the start. This novel is incredibly character driven, and the world, while sprawling, is actually kind of limited. I know that seems like it shouldn’t be possible, but it is. In one sense, this small, intimate crew of individuals is flying through space, and it’s huge and sprawling and we experience bits and pieces of a ton of different species and cultures along the way.

On the other hand, the world is kept pretty small. The crew all sticks together, and most of the book takes place on the decks of the Wayfarer, the small tunneling ship that reminds me a bit of Firefly. The small, intimate details really allows Chambers to focus on the characters, and the cultures that she’s created. It makes this book shine, and no detail is left out, and I’m a sucker for details, so I was pretty happy.

The action exists, but it’s actually pretty minimal. The real highlight of this book is experiencing these characters, different cultural backgrounds and species, learn to interact and live together, form meaningful relationships and experience life together.

This also kind of segues into why I’m talking about this book on this website. You see, the thing that I was impressed by almost right away is how well Chambers wove accessibility into her novel, and it’s done so well and so subtly that I doubt many people have even mentioned it before.

I should say that none of these characters are really disabled, but they do live in situations and environments which cause them a bit of struggle. For example, Sissix, a reptilian-like individual, is both cold-blooded and has claws. The cold-blooded part puts her needs for heat in the forefront, causing tension between her and another crewmate throughout the novel. The fact that she has claws requires the crew to put special covers on the stairs and in the hallways so her claws don’t get caught and snap off. She has some low emotional moments, which are caused by friction between her culture and the culture(s) on the ship around her.

So no, she’s not disabled, but part of her ability to successfully work as part of the crew on the Wayfarer requires some accommodations, even if they are small. Then theres Jinx (I hope I’m spelling that right), who works as a tech on the ship. He is short of stature, and his very existence was called into question when people started pressuring his mother to terminate him, or modify him to reach “normal” standards. She escaped, and Jinx has a little chunk of the book where he talks about how he’s never felt the need to modify his body (despite how common modifications are) because it perfectly reflects who he is and he is comfortable in it.

There is an alien race without voice boxes, so they have modifications which allow them to communicate with the outside world. There is an AI and a quest for a body, an interesting exploration of the nature of sentience. There is a woman who has been ostracized by all of her people because she is “weird” and dubbed unreliable by her people, and a touching moment when she finds acceptance and family despite her life as an outcast for something beyond her control.

Perhaps the most compelling part of the novel, and a bit of a missed opportunity in my opinion, is the cure narrative that finds its way into the plot toward the end of the book. The Navigators, an individual who has a terminal disease which allows them to function at a high level until it ultimately kills them, has the opportunity to be cured of their disease. This presents an obvious moral conundrum for all those involved.

I generally have a very hard time with cure narratives, and it was no different here. The Navigator was ultimately against this cure, and they had some very real, very valid concerns which resonated with me pretty profoundly. The idea of the cure was explored, and ultimately rejected. Reasons were given, they upset some people, but I understood. My brother, who is autistic, once told me that he’d never let anyone cure him of his autism, because that’s how he sees the world, and there’s no reason to cure something that’s not broken. It’s something many people struggle to understand. The fact remains that a cure isn’t always a good thing, it isn’t always wanted, and it shouldn’t always be something that characters are given, either willingly, and never forcefully, regardless of reasons given. Not every problem has, or needs, a fix. My chronic illness will never be cured, and in the end I lamented the fact that this important aspect of life with chronic illness, invisible illness, disabilities, and the like, wasn’t reflected in this novel the way I hoped it would be.

That being said, I can kind of see why that aspect of the novel went the way it did, but it ended far too neat and tidy. While the hopeful note was welcome after so much heavy intimacy and loss, it was a missed opportunity to give a voice to so many of us out there who are tired of cure narratives in our novels – all of us who want more authors and speculative fiction works to explore the fact that not everything can be, or should be cured, and not everyone who is offered a cure will want one, and many people have serious issues with the word “cure” (and rightfully so). Period. The cure is a complex topic and I could go on for days, but I think this sort of messily sums it up as it pertains to this novel.

It also is entirely possible that I’m looking at that entire situation completely wrong. It has been known to happen.

Despite that one issue, I really loved this book. It’s an intimate space opera, a novel that is both hopeful and addictive. It’s packed full of a ton of details, and a lot of messages, and plenty of accessibility and acceptance themes woven through its pages, both obviously and subtly. Is it a book that focuses on disabilities? Not really, but kind of. It’s a book that shows how accessibility, and characters who require accessibility, can play huge, important roles in novels and not slow the book down at all. It explores the relationship of chronic illness and the individual, as well as social norms, bias, and how all of these things impact the quality of life of so many people. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet shows that differences can make things better, and no one should be left out. Such a small detail as a special covering laid over the floor so claws don’t get stuck sends profound messages for those of us out here who need accommodations on a daily basis. Accommodations, and needs for accommodations exist. They help us. They don’t limit us, and they certainly don’t limit you.

This a book that shows that there is a place for all of us.

 

4/5 stars

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