The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

January 19, 2021

Book Cover

by Becky Chambers

I came across this book from a recommendation list published by… The Verge, I think? Or somewhere. It was recommended, had a lot of good reviews on Amazon, and I was itching for some sci-fi after going on a bit of a fantasy binge of late. Also, it was maybe $7, just within my impulse book-buy range 1.

So the question of why I bought it has a fairly clear answer. But why did I finish it? And… I’m not completely sure.

This is not an adventure book. It’s somewhat marketed as one 2, hinting at a kind of Firefly style of serial adventures. It’s good marketing; I bought it, and likely because I was craving that kind of adventure, even if somewhat subconsciously. But this book ain’t that. The best way I can think of it is as tour of a somewhat interesting place by fairly interesting characters. Yes, there is some action involved in a “will they or won’t they make it” scenario 3, but those scenes last at most a single chapter. Honestly, though, even within those chapters (they are, maybe, two of them?) the tension is resolved fairly quickly.

This author is, at least in this book, simply not interested in “action” part of action adventures.

But she is interested in the wreckage. Where the action might take only a few paragraphs, she’ll spend chapters worth of prose exploring just how the violence of the scene has effected everyone. She explores the sense of violation and vulnerability the characters feel, how they cope with it, how they lean on each other, how they rationalize, and how it affects all their decisions.

And this is probably why I finished the book. She got rid of all those flashy action scenes acted out by cardboard cutouts 4 and replaced all that prose with real people.

There was no real suspense for me, but I liked the characters and they felt real to me. The book wasn’t a page turner in the way so many are; I didn’t stay up at night unable to put the book down; yet I kept picking it back up.

So if you decide to pick up this book, beware: you will spend a lot of time with people (no matter what alien visage they present). You’ll spend time learning about weird cultures and how they view the world. You’ll spend time touring this universe Becky has dreamt up.

What you will not be doing is turning pages frantically wondering what’s next.

In some ways, that might be disappointing. But if I had to choose between well fleshed out characters with little action, or a lot of action with cardboard cutouts, I’ll choose real people, thank you. And so far as that goes, I think Becky has made the right choice.

But I can’t help but feel there’s missed opportunity here. While action books are so often filled with shallow characters, it doesn’t mean that action itself should be discarded. There’s a lot of opportunity to reveal a character’s depth while they are in the middle of a stressful situation. It’s possible to deliver those heart-pounding scenes while revealing more of a character’s depth.

And I should really point out that in at least one chapter toward the end, she tries. I won’t spoil anything, but the crew is placed in a difficult situation after an incident. She follows some of the characters as they work through it and you see at least one character truly struggle to deal with it. It still fell flat for me. It wasn’t bad; I just didn’t see any key inflection points in any of the character’s arcs. Toward the end of that chapter, I was wanting the crew to resolve it about as much as they did.

I believe this was her début novel, which is exciting. Yes, some parts fell flat, and there were segments I found rather boring. I also kept picking up the book, and that in itself is worthy praise. I look forward to reading some of her later works to see how she’s developed as an author.

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  1. But $9… whew, I dunno. I gotta really think about it then. :-/ 

  2. “Follow a motley crew on an exciting journey through space” is how it reads on Amazon. 

  3. But we know they will because there’s at least twenty chapters left. 

  4. I do like action scenes, but not when their done by cardboard cutouts.