In an award list excitingly full of debuts, Becky Chambers’s “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” found itself on the Bailey’s Women’s Prize longlist and, consequently, on my to-be-read stack for this spring. In this, the lone science fiction nominee, Becky Chambers has created a dystopian space world. Humans have long been forced to abandon the Earth after its inevitable destruction and now are a minor player in a world of sapient species who must learn to cooperate and coexist.
The main characters of this adventure are the crew members of the long haul ship Wayfarer – a crew of 5 humans and 3 individual representatives from various non-human, “alien” species. This multi-species crew plays at being a model of tolerance and cultural sensitivity while hurtling through space, encountering numerous alien life forms, and facing the inevitable calamities needed to advance the plot.
I am a committed finisher. I read books in their entirety 99% of the time, even if I am agonizing. I think my need to finish is partly a respect-for-the-writer thing, partly a good-little-student thing, and partly a finish-what-you-start thing. Whatever my reasoning, I am especially committed to finishing books that I have assigned myself as part of this Year of Reading Women. Among that evolving list has always been whatever works appear on the Bailey’s Women’s Prize long list. Can you see where this is going?
I did it. I read this book in its entirety, paid attention, even annotated a few quotes. I know how it got on my reading list, but I have no idea how it ended up among the Bailey’s nominees. To me, this book was the script for a movie I would only happen across after Mystery Science Theater 3000 had gotten their hilarious hands on it. It was trite, simplistic, and predictable. The writing was awfully pedestrian and it seemed that more effort went into making up words and proper nouns than in constructing good narrative.
The only place where I thought this work succeeded was in its heavy-handed efforts to demonstrate universality and commonality across species, cultures, and worlds. At least this message was consistent and one I appreciated, and it was the source of a few clever lines:
‘Ninety percent of all problems are cause by people being assholes.’
‘What causes the other ten percent?’ …
And the more egalitarian:
“‘But every sapient species has a long, messy history of powers that rise and fall. The people we remember are the ones who decided how our maps would be drawn. Nobody remembers who built the roads.'”
There were also some delightful quips damning humans and good-intentions:
“I am the end product of a few very stupid, well-intentioned people who thought it would be a great idea to redefine Humanity”
“I want to smack every single one of them around until they realize how needlessly complicated they make their families and their social lives and their – their everything.”
“[O]ne of those organizations that had their hearts in the right place but their heads firmly up their asses.”
Despite the opinions of the Bailey’s judges, who I believe to be astute critics and respectable readers, this book missed the mark for me. I would be surprised if it is remembered.