Rosemary Harper wakes up in a pod travelling through open space to begin a new job under a new identity – she’s bribed a government official for the latter. The job is on the Wayfarer, captained by Ashby. Rosemary’s going to be a clerk on his ship which builds wormholes in space: ‘the intergalactic passageways that ran through the Galactic Commons’.
The Wayfarer’s crew consists of Corbin, human, ‘a talented algaeist and a complete asshole’; Jenks and Kizzy, both humans and the ship’s techs; Sissix, an Aandrisk and the pilot; Dr Chef, a Grum and the cook and medic; Ohan, a Sianat Pair and a Navigator; Lovey, a sentient AI and the ship’s communication interface.
The novel’s set far in the future, long after humans have taken up residence on other planets:
The majority of living Humans were descended from the Exodus Fleet, which had sailed far beyond the reaches of their ancestral sun. Many, like Ashby, had been born within the very same homesteaders that had belonged to the original Earthen refugees. His tight black curls and amber skin were the result of generations of mingling and mixing aboard the giant ships. Most Humans, whether space born or colony kids, shared that nationless Exodan blend.
Just after Rosemary arrives on the Wayfarer, Ashby’s told to ‘watch out for some interesting work coming down the line’. The job turns out to be creating a wormhole between Hedra Ka, home of the Toremi, back to Central Space. The job pays well as one of the Toremi clans has just been granted Galactic Commons membership. This hasn’t happened before as the clans ‘came across as vicious and incomprehensible […] they had been industriously killing each other for decades’.
Most of the book is taken up by the journey to Hedra Ka and the preparation needed for the job. Along the way, we discover Rosemary’s secret, learn an incredible amount about the individuals in the crew, find out about life in the future and witness several inter-species relationships.
The novel’s about relationships – familial, romantic and friendly. Chambers has fun considering what it means to be human and where our failings lie:
‘Do you ever get tired of Humans?[…]I’m definitely tired of them today,’ Sissix said, laying her head back. ‘I’m tired of their fleshy faces. I’m tired of their smooth fingertips. I’m tired of how they pronounce their Rs. I’m tired of their inability to smell anything. I’m tired of how clingy they get around kids that don’t even belong to them. I’m tired of how neurotic they are about being naked. I want to smack every single one of them around until they realise how needlessly complicated they make their families and their social lives and their – their everything.’
Dr Chef nodded. ‘You love them and you understand them, but sometimes you wish they – and me and Ohan, too, I’m sure – could be more like ordinary people.’
Chambers also uses her cast of characters to explore gender, pronouns, bodies, politics and religion without ever losing sight of the story or dropping the pace of the plot.
When the Bailey’s Prize longlist was first announced, there were two books I didn’t think I’d enjoy at all: one was Geraldine Brooks’ The Secret Chord, the other was The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. (I might be a Doctor Who fan, but I read very little Science Fiction.) I was delighted to be proved completely wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed this book from the first page to the last. It’s well-paced with plenty of twists and turns, some of which I didn’t see coming at all; the characters are fascinating and their relationships intriguing, while the themes explore many concerns affecting current society. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a cracking read and I’ll be in the queue for a copy of the sequel later this year.
Thanks to Hodder for the review copy.