I love this book.
With that out of the way, if you’re looking for problems with this book you’ll find them. It’s not an action-packed romp, nor is it a sexy romance. Some of its plot points blaze into glorious satisfaction, others fizzle and leave you wondering why they were ever included (looking at you, Rosemary’s dad). For a long stretch at the start you wonder if you’re just going to spend the whole book reading about weird aliens sitting at a dinner table congratulating each other for existing. Like these weird aliens, the book is flawed, and also like them, I am so very glad that it exists. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet deserves every accolade thrown its way because it does something no one else has tried before and, despite its weaknesses, it does it exceedingly well.
Why this book exists is a thrilling story of hope and success in and of itself. Becky Chambers essentially paid the costs to write it through a kickstarter, backed by about fifty people and earning her $3,000, and self-published. Afterwards, she published a few sequels and won the Hugo award for best series. This story is almost more exciting than the plot of the book itself, which follows some ordinary people on a mission to create an artificial wormhole connecting one part of the galaxy to another. If you hadn’t guessed, it’s a long way to get to the part of the galaxy they need to connect, so the book mostly consists of random events happening to ordinary people over a very long space journey.
So why do I love it?
The people are ordinary, but not ordinary like you would see in the grocery store. They’re ordinary members of extraordinary extraterrestrial species. There’s the blue ape species, the only one who can understand how space works inside a wormhole, that has built its whole culture around a mind-affecting virus. There’s the six-legged doctor-chef (named “Doctor Chef”) of a people undergoing a slow, intentional species-wide suicide. There’s the space lizard who hates ice cream because her mouth stops working when it touches the cold and whose views on sex and motherhood might one day get this book banned from schools. There’s a dwarf in love with a computer, too. Maybe not every person is ordinary.
This book is about the relationships between these characters, particularly how their respective species have molded their worldviews and how these worldviews interact. Largely, these relationships are positive and as the book goes on even the few that are negative get smoothed out when push comes to shove and someone is forced into an unexpected act of kindness. There is an action climax which I won’t spoil, but the emotional climax comes from something that in any other space opera would be considered utterly mundane – all the members of the Wayfarer wormhole tunneling spaceship sitting down together to dinner.
Honestly, there have been times in my life when I’ve felt rather like a Corbin or an Ohan myself, and when they joined everyone else at that table, I can’t say it didn’t tug at these stiff old heart strings just a little bit.