It’s no secret that our critical faculties and primordial pleasure centers don’t always align. Had I forgotten it, though, Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet would have served as a ready reminder. Chambers work follows the tight-knit, blue-collar crew of a wormhole tunneller through a series of inter-stellar escapades and inter-personal dramas. The book is almost comically juvenile—something I say not as derision, but as description. Juvenile need not be just YA stand-in. Here it denotes a certain tonal mode that contemporary sf has cornered the market on: an overriding impulse towards psychological blandness, nonetheless glazed in the faux sheen of levity, depth, and interiority, and delivered with a prose style I might describe as ‘snarknerd’.* The desired mid-read audience response might go something like oh look at this big messed-up loving family and sure they’re kooky but they’re also competent and sure they work hard but they also play hard and sure they all look different on the outside — so many different aliens! — but they’re always gonna stick together and look out for each other no matter what this craaazy universe throws their way because there will always be more uniting than dividing them.
The characters in Angry Planet are therefore painted as uniformly good, well-intentioned, and full of “humor” (as either the eager jokestress or happily passive joke recipient [Kizzy here, or the dude from The Martian, if you’re looking for its nadir]). It’s funny because they’re laughing, right? Preference is preference, but for those allergic to such things, the cumulative effect can begin to resemble nails on chalkboard after awhile.
Beyond characterization, the juvenile stance is likewise evident in even the “problems” facing the crew. At one point, their beloved AI dies. Actually, it only kind of “dies”, for it is to be quickly resurrected. The distinction is telling, as it epitomizes the book’s reluctance to ever point directly at a negative without leaving grounds for escape, for letting our emotions off lightly. An additional example: Ohan, member of an alien species whose particular skill is navigation, has the ability to “see through subspace” on account of possessing a virus prized by their kind, even though it kills them eventually. There are nonetheless members of Ohan’s species who have rebelled against the self-destructive strictures of their society, foreswearing the imposition of sickness and early death to live without the virus—to live, as they see it, as individuals with self-will. Ohan thus seems to be confronted with a dilemma: forego special ability and live, or keep it and die. Boilerplate space opera intrigue, sure, but a promising platform upon which something more interesting can be built. As we learn not soon after this, however, it turns out that once the virus is removed – and the host cured and made “individual” – the species can still see through subspace! Therefore, Ohan — if he decides to get rid of the bug that is actively killing him and not providing any countervailing benefit — can stay on the ship and hang out ever more with his quirky group of familyfriends. Yay! Not quite the dilemma, I guess.
What is more, Chambers’s future society is explicitly constructed as capitalist—indeed, a hefty payday is the motivating force behind much of the action. One of the heroes of the book is the captain, and we’re given little reason to assume that he — likewise the owner of the ship — thinks outside the parameters of these profit-driven structures. He is nonetheless fixated on nothing but his crew, for whom he has only and always love, concern, magnanimity, and generosity. This is not how a capitalist thinks. That dewy-eyed bonhomie was not so much annoying as you read, as it was indicative of the cloying vision behind the work, in which writing the death of one of your creations seems a task too terrible to contemplate. The Main Point To Convey proceeds from these priors—namely, that the ship was a family united by mutual love.
And the strange thing is, it all starts to work on you. Maybe it’s not the voice exactly, but Chambers has tossed so many ingredients into this sfnal stew, that, more often than not, a flavor to your liking eventually rises to the surface. She has a felicity with the smooth delivery of classic space opera tropes. The book operates like an algorithm, eventually satisfying any number of sfnal kinks, from exo-linguistics and exo-biology or picaresque adventures and quick action set pieces. You could say I’m conflicted.
* A relative of the ‘swearnerd’ – think of the person who says stuff like ‘fartnozzle’ or something – sadly also over-represented in sf.