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Wrong Train, Right Time ([personal profile] wrongtrainrighttime) wrote2017-02-06 09:42 pm

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Chambers, Becky. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. HarperCollins Publisher, 2014. Finished 1/31/2017.

The word about this novel that keeps coming to mind is didactic.

It's pretty clear that Chambers really thought through all the major alien species in this book, and I'm definitely pleased by the thought she put into creating, not just interesting aliens, but interesting societies and histories for those aliens to inhabit and come from. But the flip side to that is that this book feels like it's more about showcasing the exciting world she's thought up rather than telling a story. It feels like it flows from set piece to set piece, each one carefully designed to illuminate some aspect of some alien culture in way that feels, well, didactic. There's a thoroughness to the edge cases presented that feels too deliberate to simply be where the narrative is taking the reader.

This is not to say that the narrative is bad. Objectively speaking, not much that happens--which is perhaps where the set piece feeling comes in--but there's a good sense of momentum nonetheless.

I guess the best way to put my reaction is: there are seams between the exposition set pieces and the bits of moving narrative, and those seams are very visible. This book is definitely a solid first effort, but its structure is definitely rough around the edges.

I want to go back to the world-building because, criticism aside, I really loved how Chambers approached her world-building. Rather soberingly, there's a strong theme throughout the novel that what we call "civilization" is inextricably tied to warfare. All the major species in this series engaged in terrible wars at some point, against themselves and against other species. For what's a relatively light-hearted read, it's a grim way of looking at and understanding the development of society. War is a major theme in several of the characters' lives. The consequences of old wars, the implications of new and current wars--all of these form the background of their lives and inform who these people are.

And yet, for all that, this novel is also deeply interested in the ways people can come together, at least on an interpersonal level. Relationships are undeniably the prime driver of the book's conflict and developments. Platonic, romantic, sexual: this novel is about how people get along, how they navigate the clash of different societies. It's about the ties that bind us to each other, even if they're sometimes different ties from what we, humans, are used to. This would not work if the cast and character work were not strong -- and they absolutely are. The core cast is excellent and so are their various relationships with each other and their secondary cast.

For some reason, I went into this book expecting a lot more humor than I got. As I mentioned above, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is definitely a light-hearted read, but I didn't find it laugh-out-loud funny. Then again, I rarely laugh out loud at any book, even genuinely funny ones.

Looking at the author's website, I see that there's a standalone sequel following up on one of the late-book plot threads, but. Hmm. I can't say that I feel very moved to pick it up, perhaps because the plot thread happened so late in the book that I don't have any real investment in seeing where it goes. Perhaps one of the later sequels, if there are any, will be more to my taste. I definitely hope so.