The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is a rarity in modern science fiction and fantasy: A novel with a large ensemble cast, none of whom are assholes. Most of the people in their universe are not assholes. Even the guy who’s sort of an asshole turns out to want not to be an asshole, and is just incompetent at it. God, this is refreshing. I had no idea how much I needed an asshole-free SF novel until I read it.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, which I think I’ll just abbreviate as Long Way, is a space opera about people traveling the galaxy in a small spaceship. Many reviews have compared it to Firefly. This is less because it’s a good comparison than because nerds have spent the past decade mentioning Firefly every two minutes and have forgotten how to stop. I mean, I liked Firefly, but I have to admit it was kind of asshole-based. Which this, as I mentioned, is not. Also the characters on Firefly were drifters and borderline criminals, and Long Way’s crew have actual jobs building space portals for the Galactic Commons. One of the characters is a clerk who solves problems with form-filling skills and general reasonability. If you have to compare Long Way to a TV series a better choice would be Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is also about people who like each other despite their differences working together to accomplish productive things in space.
Long Way’s structure encourages the TV comparisons. It’s an episodic novel: The crew of the Wayfarer are taking a months-long trip to set up a portal in a distant system, making stops along the way. Their adventures are thematically related, and set up plot strands that come together for the denouement, but don’t have a single overarching plot. I’m often impatient with novels that remind me of movies or television, but that’s because those novels usually seem written to fit the Procrustean bed of the default Hollywood blockbuster plot template. Long Way’s episodic structure was common in the days when SF writers gathered their stories into fix-up novels, but it goes against the modern conventional wisdom on how genre books should be written, which is pretty much “use the default Hollywood blockbuster plot template.” So I haven’t seen it much lately, which makes it feel fresh. And the novel uses this structure deliberately to support its themes. This is a novel about a family accepting a new member and becoming closer over the course of a long journey in each other’s company. Every member of the Wayfarer’s crew gets a spotlight chapter that allows both us and the other characters to learn their background and understand them better.
This isn’t just an unusual structure for modern SF, it’s an unusual subject. The SF genre tends to think that, at least at novel length, the genre is properly about epic problems: wars, invasions, world-wide conspiracies. Big crises with high body counts. Any SF plot that doesn’t put at least an entire city in peril doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Some stories kill hundreds of offstage extras just to prove how Serious they are. Not enough SF is about the human-scale problems that make up the bulk of almost every other branch of literature, from romance to social satire to murder mysteries. Long Way is proof that a small human-scale story can be far more compelling than epic bombast. A standard epic space opera plot is brewing in this universe–the Wayfarer gets caught at the very edge of it–but the novel concludes that the civilized galaxy ought to be sensible enough to have nothing to do with this sort of nonsense.
The villains are a culture that cannot tolerate difference, even in opinion: everything is true or false and they work out conflicts with fights to the death. The antagonist who seeks to establish a single worldview, creating order by assimilating or destroying anyone who doesn’t fit, is another trope standard in televised space opera–think Star Trek’s Borg or Doctor Who’s Daleks. As with those shows Long Way‘s villains clarify its heroes’ values by embodying their opposites. Everyone wants to understand each other better, and this “understanding each other” strategy generally works because in this world when you extend a hand to someone they are unlikely to bite it. The Galactic Commons is a place where everyone’s first instinct when meeting someone different is curiosity.
In SF the world is as much a character as the actual characters. Long Way uses a lot of explanations and infodumps in its worldbuilding, but that shouldn’t put anyone off because Long Way is a perfect example of how infodumping can be a workable technique. Long Way’s infodumps stay interesting because they’re placed where they’re directly relevant and centered on people instead of things. They explain how the characters live and what’s happening to them in that moment, and end long before they test the reader’s patience.
Some critics are skeptical of the entire concept of worldbuilding. They’re right that it’s a bad sign when a novel echoes with what M. John Harrison called “the clomping foot of nerdism”: irrelevant yet intricately worked out histories and legends of how Lordfather Zargon collated the heavens and Tuf the Mighty defeated the Poodlians at Smug Harbor. The most unreadable of these books–usually they’re epic fantasies–include whole prologues of this stuff, usually in italics. But there are different kinds of worldbuilding. I like the kind that imagines the material conditions of the characters’ lives. Who else lives in this world? What jobs do people do, what hobbies do they have? What do they eat? It sounds trivial, but I’ve found one of the surest signs I’m reading a good SF novel is that it pays attention to food. This is the kind of worldbuilding Long Way engages in.
Material worldbuilding gives the sense that the protagonist’s world isn’t the backdrop for a solipsistic hero’s journey populated by disposable extras, but a lived-in world full of other equally significant people. The story revolves around the protagonists, but their world does not. I think this distinction is crucial to how Long Way is able to create a world that feels less dysfunctional and more benign. Not safe–these characters get hurt. But hurt is not constant and not their natural state. This world is not designed to constantly punch all but the most privileged people in the face. So when one character actually did die it connected with my emotions in a way very little recent SF has managed. It’s not that it was an unusually well written death scene, though it wasn’t bad. I just hadn’t been numbed by 500 pages of prior misery. Numb, I’ve come to realize, is what most modern SF leaves me feeling.
For a couple of decades the dominant strain of fantasy and science fiction has been grimdark. This stuff appears to have sprung from the brain of Timon of Athens in full root-chewing mode. A Game of Thrones is the thought leader here: Trust gets people killed, callousness trumps compassion, and the continued existence of any possible society will inevitably depend on an exploited underclass. Fans call this “realistic.” I guess I can see how they might believe that, if they’re still stuck at the emotional age of twelve.
There’s also a superficially similar tradition of dystopian SF that’s produced worthwhile and even brilliant writing, using dysfunction and dystopia to come to grips with real injustices and the brokenness of the real world. Much as some fans would like to believe otherwise, SF is inherently political. If its imaginary worlds are not responses to the real world, wrestling metaphorically with real problems, the genre isn’t doing its job. Getting down into the weeds with exploitation, oppression, and dystopia is one way to do that, and a vital one.
What depresses me–
And when I say “depresses” I don’t mean “I don’t want to think about this stuff,” I mean I’ve come to realize many novels I’ve tried to read have literally not been good for my mental health–
What depresses me is that when I browse the SF shelves at the bookstore grimdark and dystopian stories are practically all I see. Diving into the misery seems to be the only tool left in 21st century SF’s utility belt. So much SF has so much grimness baked into its worldbuilding, it seems the genre is telling me it cannot even imagine a world that isn’t either a boot stamping on a human face or a war of all against all, if not both. Exploitation and injustice are inherent, ineradicable properties of the real world and of any other world conceivable, no matter how fanciful. It’s exhausting when most of our fictional alternatives are… well, not really alternatives. It’s like SF was taken over by Margaret Thatcher.
Long Way gave me what I haven’t had nearly enough of from recent science fiction and fantasy: a world that isn’t irredeemably terrible. Not a world without problems: the Galactic Commons is maybe too willing to make deals with assholes if it might be profitable, and their caution over transhumanism translates into second-class-citizenship for clones and artificial intelligences. But this society is not Omelas and doesn’t need to be entirely dismantled before anyone can begin to fix its problems.
Grim SF is one perfectly fine way to deal metaphorically with an imperfect world, but the genre needs alternative metaphors and a wider emotional range. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet imagines a world where people are trying to do better. Not a warning, or a cry of despair, but a role model. I hope it’s a sign of a trend.
Moby Dick and Les Miserables are big on infodumps and I’m fond of both. ↩
Not as good as Hamlet’s, but way better than Little Nell’s ↩
I should acknowledge, because I can imagine someone misunderstanding my argument, that when I say “alternatives” I really do mean metaphorical and allegorical alternatives, not literal alternative plans for society. I mean, I don’t expect very many people to misunderstand that, but it’s always worried me that when you mention Star Trek people–even fans, who should know better–talk about Gene Roddenberry’s “vision” as though he had a workable blueprint for the future. We’re talking about people flying around in a spaceship, guys! ↩