“The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet” Book Review [Jalapeño Fiction Award] Becky Chambers

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Jalapeno Score: 37/50


Overall Impression: 

“The Long Way to F*n Nowhere…” Don’t get me wrong, I think Becky Chambers is a talented writer, I really do. I think she has ideas and active imagination. But there is something fundamentally lacking in the book, and it is plot. Imagine you started building the house from the roof, then added balconies, and installed awesome windows, and a swimming pool. What’s wrong with that picture? There is no foundation! To be fare, in this particular book, there was an overarching plot, but the stakes were not as high, the motives were vague. I kept wondering why I was spending over 400 pages with the story that never picked up!

To be fare and balanced, the book has really wonderful ideas and messages. It is my assumption that the fans of the ‘Farscape’ will like its diversity and richness of the world.  I prefer a tightly knit story. As a first book, “The Long Way…” is still one hell of an accomplishment, and I will be looking forward to other books by this author because clearly the talent is there.


Plot:                                   

The story follows a crew of a spaceship Wayfarer, that builds tunnels in space, like cosmic highways of sorts. Everyone on the ship is very sweet and harmless, and even the most divergent characters are in essence just a bit shy or insecure. Everyone is pretty much a cupcake. The old ship receives a lucky break being contracted for a major government project – to drill a tunnel to the faraway planet that recently joined the union. In order to do that, the Wayfarer needs to travel for months away from the familiar space to the point of destination, and from there drill a tunnel back. The entire story develops within the storyline of Wayfarer getting to the point of destination, and every chapter has non-essential, albeit interesting, plot divergences telling the story of every crew member. None of those tangents in any way connected to the central plotline, but some of them are quite interesting in their own right. My perception was that I much rather would follow any of those plot lines, than this particular trip to nowhere. I don’t know if I am being too harsh, hopefully I provide a balanced opinion. For that reason, I have five scales below, so you can see more clearly the strengths and weaknesses of the book.


Science-meter: 7

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The author spent a good deal of effort on developing the fictional science of tunneling through subspace.  The space travel science gets the most recognition in the book.  You get the most flavor for it in the Chapter “Blind Punch”. Supposedly the space could not be drilled just about anywhere. I liked that idea, it created potential dangers and richness for the Wayfarer’s job. A punch is the term for making a tunnel. Here’s how one of the characters, Kizzy, explains the tunneling process ‘in simple terms’:

“The area above my bowl of porridge’ she gestured importantly –‘is the fabric of space. The porridge itself is a sublayer – basically space in between space. And this groob’ – she picked up a small black fruit from her plate – ‘is the Wayfarer.’…’We’ve got two ends of space to connect, right? Here and here.’ She pressed  her finger down into the porridge, making indentations on opposite ends of the bowl… ‘Once we are in  position, I turn on the interspatial bore… Runs on ambi cells… Then we punch.’ She slammed the berry down into the porridge. ‘And then it gets weird…’Well, we’re just squishy little three-dimensional creatures. Our brains can’t process what goes on in the sublayer. Technically, the sublayer is outside of what we consider normal time. Understanding what’s going on in there is like … it’slike telling someone – a Human, I mean, to see  in in infrared. We just can’t do it. So in the sublayer, you feel that something is wrong with the world, but you can’t put your finger on what it is’ ”

And so on. You get a fare share of details about the type of a punch and all kinds of issues with the tunneling.

Probably my favorite part about the book, related to the tunneling tech, is the alien species who live a symbiotic relationship with a virus and have a dual identity. You address this creature ‘they’. The one on the Wayfarer is named Ohan, and it is afflicted with a deadly condition, wane, which every virus-affected member eventually develops. Wane dramatically reduces the lifespan of these species, but it also gives them amazing analytical abilities. They understand the sublayer, they can calculate the complicated math necessary to punch through uneven and dangerous sublayer. That’s why I added this creature to the category of science, because it complements the tunneling science premise.

Finally, another cool tech idea is ambi, a type of expensive and effective energy source harvested from, the best I understood it, energy of vacuum. I enjoyed this part as well.

As you see, the story doesn’t really build on a lot of real science, just some sciency speculations, although when done well, I really like these kind of things. This book, in my opinion, accomplished it.


Plot-meter: 5 

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Some people may disagree with my assessment of the plot, although reading through numerous other reviews, I saw some people leaning towards this opinion as well. There are a lot of great subplots, but the central plot in this book was underdeveloped. Remember that saying, that if in the first chapter there is a gun on the wall, in the last one it must fire? It looks like the real story is left for the sequels. This particular book,in my opinion, served as a prequel to the real story. Also, this story was clearly meant to be plot-driven, action-driven, versus the introspective character-driven stories. I think in this respect it missed the mark.


Character-meter: 9 

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Becky Chambers created multiple interesting characters, aliens and humans, AIs and clones, you name it. They all had their stories. My problem was that they all came across saccharine. I have nothing against nice people, but in the fiction, characters must have villains. The absence of a real villain is probably one of the biggest problems of the story. There is a Toremi terrorist in the story, who shows up in the story near the end, but he was not connected to the story of Wayfarer. Not to give too much away, but whatever trouble happened in the end, was not addressed against Wayfarer  per se. Our heroes were just sadly an unfortunate victims of aggression that had nothing to do with them personally. If this was an experimental literary fiction, then I would not rate these flaws of the classic storytelling so harshly. But this is a typical ‘meat and potatoes’ space western. It must have heroes and villains, it must have dangers directly related to the characters and be really life-threatening. Well, check it for yourself. The end was somehow anti-climatic.

Also, I was a bit annoyed with the childishness of the characters, especially their names. Dr. Cheff, really? The ship’s doctor who also was a cook, and his name was Dr. Cheff? Kizzy? Rosemary? Jenks? Lovey? You get the point.


Originality-meter: 8

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I think it’s a great rendition on similar stories, but filled with own innate originality. Great imagination! Great potential for future works.


Writing-meter: 8

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I honestly suspect that Becky Chambers is a great writer in the making. Her writing flows nicely, it is funny at times. I think I’d like to see her write in different voices and styles too. That is why I rate her  writing highly.

Concluding words: uneven, with great potential. Looking forward to the sequel.


Thanks for reading this review. Please let me know what you think, I’m looking forward to read your comments. Do you have a favorite 2015 or 2016 sci fi novel? You can nominate it for the award.

To find out about the Jalapeño Fiction Award, go to this page.

Copyright Ellie Maloney (2016)

 

5 Comments

    1. Actually if this book is reallyBecky Chambers’ first book, I understand where she got trapped. When I wrote my first draft of the Dark Matter Rises, I had the same problem. I came up with the story, but I began way far away from the real action. In my story, the character also had a long fricken way to Mars. All cool stuff. From shuttle, to station,to orbiter. All the way things were happening, but they were nonessential things. So I really understand the problem… But I couldn’t just say A-Ok to this book.

      1. I can ‘relate’ to that my books are entire diversions with a plot hopping up and down somewhere in the background, waving its little hands and crying out pitifully ‘Don’t forget me!’ (sigh)
        Anyway you gave credit where credit was due, which is more than some professionals do.
        (Away for a few days visiting family, dubious signal range- will catch up on week-end)

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