book-reviews

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

by Becky Chambers

Rating: ★★

Like a sort of science-fiction puppy. It means well, but is really quite dumb, and the cheery, touchy-feely hyper-sociability starts to get annoying after a bit. The writing was also a bit weak. Chambers is okay at setting a scene, and while a little too peppy for my tastes, her dialogue keeps things going, but her exposition is repeatedly awkward, and her efforts at producing formal documents are straight-up failures.

The heart of the book, really, is the focus on the relationships between the cultures and species of the galactic community, as encapsulated in the sample that is the Wayfarer's crew. The central message is a sort of paean to the multicultural melting-pot, praising compassionate acceptance of differences between individuals from radically different backgrounds. This is an element of science-fiction I've always liked, so I found it easy to get behind, and really the attempt at a diverse cultural melange was most of what I liked about the book. That said, it was sometimes laid on too thick, with the short homilies taking on the tone of an after-school special, and the 'alien' value differences being rather tame even compared to the variety from here on Earth. The cultural-exchange message was also unfortunately bound up in the characters, who I think were meant to be endearing and ended up sickly, with a never-ending stream of snippets where people are nice and concerned about each other and doing-their-best and just really soppy. In particular, the ones I think I was meant to find lovable (Kizzy, 'Dr Chef') struck me as horribly overbearing, while Jenks seemed borderline pathological in his obsession.

I am generally okay with science-fiction authors handwaving away bits of futurology which they don't want to explore. Even if their excuse doesn't really cut the mustard, I am happy to lend them some belief on credit so we can pursue a different concept or story. But the contract here is that they have to, y'know, not dwell on it. Make your excuse and move on. If you keep returning to a topic, if you have the audacity to make it a sub-plot, then you have to be prepared for the reader engaging with the concept. Chambers is not prepared. The treatment of AI in this book is mind-bogglingly dumb, as if the author's background research was nothing more than a few episodes of Star Trek, and the AI sub-plot was a constant, jarring reminder that the setting doesn't make any sense. And once you've started being hit with that, you notice other things, like how despite pervasive, near-miraculous medical nanotech, people still seem to die of old age. Or how some nanobots are presented as disposable single-purpose commodities for no good reason (bots in your body can tweak your immune system, but they can't clean your teeth?). There is a constant and lazy disregard for the technology of the setting which is really hard to ignore.