The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

It has taken me some time to put my finger on the problem I had with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, but let me say before I start on that, I liked The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. It’s hard not to like a book that wears its heart on its sleeve the way this one does, dripping earnestness and longing to do the right thing from every page.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

Ashby Santoso is the captain of the Wayfarer, which bores holes in space to permit rapid travel between far-distant planets. In this world, humans are a minor and unimportant species, so the crew of the Wayfarer is people by aliens and humans alike. When Rosemary Harper joins the crew as a clerk, trying to escape a painful past, she doesn’t expect to be signing on for a year’s journey through deep space to a little-known territory held by mysterious and warlike aliens.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet has garnered many comparisons to Firefly, and it’s a good comparison, but this book lacks the energy and humor of its television sorta-counterpart. Part of this is because it’s kinda like, Conscientious Tumblr in book form. If I had to summarize every conversation about tolerance and alien life that happened over the course of this book, I would do it thusly:

First character: I have used a gender-neutral pronoun to describe you, second character, because one does not know what pronouns a new person uses until one inquires.

Second character: Actually, you still did it wrong!

First character: Because cultural sensitivity is very important to me, I am horribly embarrassed by my mistake.

Second character: Don’t be! What matters is that you meant well and that you’ll do better next time.

First character: Sometimes cultural differences are hard, but I’m glad we could talk through it.

Which, I mean, there are far worse sins that a book can commit than an excess of courtesy, and on one level, it’s nice to see a book in which all the characters are really committed to not being prejudiced assholes. The problem, at least for me, is that none of them have any progress to make on the prejudiced-asshole front. Everyone is best friends. Actually more like family. Even the one character who occasionally says a racist word learns a Valuable Lesson by the end.

It’s all just curiously bloodless. For a book that’s so heavily focused on character, this one didn’t end up making me fall in love with anybody. I didn’t just want to know their public faces; I wanted to know their flaws. But they’re so hellbent on being respectful that there isn’t much space for anything else. Any time there might be an interpersonal conflict, they swiftly resolve it using only their words and general auras of thoughtfulness. It’s hard to find room for growth when everybody is so extraordinarily mature to begin with.

An illustrated representation of the level of courtesy in this book.

IS THIS CHURLISH OF ME THAT IS NOT A RHETORICAL QUESTION

  • Lisa

    Were there adventures beyond the obsessive courtesy, or was that pretty much the whole story? If so, I will pass!

    • No, no! I’ve misrepresented it! There were plenty of space adventures ALSO. It’s just that the interpersonal stuff, which was happening in between the various space adventures, was so extremely courteous that I sometimes was like “ugh let’s kill some aliens already.” :p

      • Lisa

        I figured there had to be, but I was also picturing an entire voyage of earnest sharing times – and picturing Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein 🙂

  • Ana @ things mean a lot

    lol, tumblr wrote a book. I’m reading this at the moment and I’m really enjoying it so far, but I’m not far enough into it to be able to tell whether I agree with you. I shall let you know!

    • Yes, do! I would be interested to hear your thoughts. They are almost certain to be more charitable and well-considered than mine.

  • Ash

    ‘Conscientious Tumblr in book form’ ahahaha. This is a very entertaining churlish review, if that helps? (It feels more insightful/incisive rather than churlish, also) I wanted to read it because I love the title but the bloodlessness sounds a bit tedious. Makes me wonder if isn’t better to try and possibly fail at creating Problematic characters instead of aiming for characters that ultimately become non-Problematic though a Valuable Lesson. Although I guess the issue isn’t split quite so evenly because there are other ways to become non-Problematic outside the text while still being a flawed character within the text. ALTHOUGH. Even if you’re a Problematic character outside the text can you still be loved, etc. Anyway, just to say that I loved the review because of all the thinking it made me do.

    • Aw, thank you! I DO still recommend the book, just with the caveat that it’s not exactly overflowing with conflict. :p

  • Jackie Bailey

    This is the one book from the Baileys list that grabbed my attention so your review has really helped me.I love your fake conversation! I don’t think it is for me!

  • Alex (Sleepless Reader)

    I enjoyed it but wasn’t as obsessed as I actually hope I;d be. Mostly because there’s lack of… tension? A good dose of humor wouldn’t go amiss either. Also, I wouldn’t want to be on a dangerous mission under Santoso, he didn’t struck me as having the leadership skills needed to lead a team in dangerous situations.

    • YES oh my gosh, I am glad you brought this up about Santoso because YES. I would not feel confident in his leadership skills in a crisis situation. When there was a crisis, things worked out fine because his crew was all hands on deck, but like — yeah. He’s no Mal Reynolds.

  • I never thought about how boring it could potentially be to read about characters that actually did everything I want people to do in real life 😉 But it makes sense…I tend to like traditionally “unlikable” characters as long as they’re interesting and not used in icky ways.

    • I guess that I want characters to behave the way I want people in real life to behave, but maybe, like, for them to learn to behave that way? And I think also, even kind and well-intentioned people are not kind and well-intentioned all the time. These people were just nonstop kind to each other, and I didn’t buy it. Office drama is real. Especially if you were trapped with all your coworkers on a small space vessel for over a year.

  • I read this, but can’t find that I reviewed it! I agree that there was an excess of political/social correctness and less action than I usually like, but I did enjoy it! I remember thinking the conclusion was not satisfying. It felt more like “a day in the life” sort of thing without a definite conclusion.

    • I did too! I enjoyed it. Even though I’m not usually a huge “day in the life” book person, I enjoyed this one a lot. I’m afraid my review skewed more negative than I really felt about the book. I swear I liked it, hahahaha.

  • Alice

    THAT WHAT IS NOT A RHETORICAL QUESTION

    Also I love that cartoon so much. So much, Jenny.

    • Hahahaha, no, “is it churlish of me” was a non-rhetorical question, I didn’t use punctuation because I was upset about maybe being churlish. Also it does not surprise me at all that you love that cartoon.

  • So, I’m always whining to my wife that I want gentle books in which people are kind to each other, etc. but you described what should be my dream novel and you’re right — it does sound bloodless. And excessively … I don’t know, conscientious, in an unfun way. I do love fiction that models a world that can be, but it has to be a great story and well executed and this one sounds a little clumsy… Thanks for the honest review.

    • Yes! I know! I feel like I got what I thought I wanted and it was all wrong! BUT it really is a super sweet book, and I do still recommend it. Just don’t necessarily expect anyone to be mad at anyone for longer than about two pages.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    I loved the book and loved that it was about people who were actually nice, even the not nice guy. I didn’t find the lack of events or tension dull at all. I wanted to join the crew 🙂 But hey, if you like people being mean to each other… whatever floats your boat! 😀

    • I don’t! I swear I don’t like people being mean to each other! I just think when the same group of ten (or however many?) people are stuck on a smallish ship together for a full year, conflicts are going to arise. That’s just what happens! It happens in offices where people have enormous breaks from each other. And in this book, absolutely the only real interpersonal conflicts were between the crabby algae guy and the lizard lady.

      • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

        My workplace is filled with nothing but peace and harmony so I have no idea what you are talking about! *big snorting laugh* I see your point. Just let me live in a happy fantasy world for bit. It is so nice there…

  • Jenny

    Ugh! Sounds annoying.

    • It was. But the book as a whole was really sweet and earnest. I didn’t not like it, I just wished there had been a bit more conflict.

  • Kim Aippersbach

    But the title is so awesome . . .

    • No, the book is good! It is, it’s a lot of fun! It was just too courteous for me to give it my fullest endorsement.

  • Juhi

    not reading this till I read the book!! though this came in my line of sight: It was just too courteous for me to give it my fullest endorsement.

    and now I’m even more eager for the hold to come through!

  • Maureen E

    HMMM, this is so interesting to me because I feel like in a certain mood I could find it very soothing. And I do love characters who try really hard. But I also love characters who try really hard DESPITE MESSING UP, so I suspect in the end I would probably feel pretty much the same.

  • Well, it sounds like characters who are too polite are not quite believable, are they? We can’t relate to them because we know that no one in real life is that polite all the time. People are flawed, which is why we like reading about flawed characters. Perfect characters are boring. I think you discovered that first hand.

  • Haha, this sounds a bit over the top. I love when authors write worlds where people’s self-identified gender with such respect, because I think it gives us a vision of something to aspire to. But if that’s all this book does, it seems like it would get monotonous.

  • A story needs some sort of conflict to be interesting and move forward, sooo…. No, not churlish.

  • Aonghus Fallon

    Your piece reminded me of Star Trek – both the original series and STTNG. The original was three guys perpetually squabbling. In Star Trek: the Next Generation’ everybody got along just fine, which was kind of dull. Maybe ‘The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet’ might have been better if everybody was consistently polite to one another while also trying to contain their own prejudices – ie a bit more like real life? One plus being that changes to the existing storyline (in terms of outcomes) would have been pretty minimal. The characters would still *behave* in the same way.

  • Jeanne

    I want to read this one, but feel like you’ve kept me from expecting too much–the title, even, promises more humor than the book evidently delivers.

    • Last night I finished reading this, very late, and I cried when Lovelace died. So the excessive politeness didn’t make the characters seem less real to me, with the possible exception of Ashby, who we don’t really get to know.

  • I was just thinking that I had heard about this one recently and then you mentioned FireFly and that’s it! Someone compared this book to Firefly and I have been meaning to read this one. I find it so hard to like characters who are overly nice. Maybe because they generally feel fake and unrealistic.

  • Hahaha great now I won’t be able to read this one without laughing at all the courteousness 😀 I did hope for Pluto but deep space travel sounds awesome as well, I’ll take it.

  • Alley

    It feels mean to complain about it cos I mean, in real life I want people to be super nice and courteous but this sounds so boring. Which aliens and far away space travel, that very much should NOT be boring. So, I guess. That is sort of impressive?

  • Katy

    So this is actually the problem I have with Jessica Jones – that it models the kind of behavior it wants to see to the point where I feel like it’s checking off talking points rather than letting the characters develop in an organic way. I started getting sick of all the GIFs of Jessica and Trish saying perfect, bad-ass feminist things, because it’s not hard to tell a toxic dude to stay away from you when he’s literally a crazy murderer, and making feminist decisions is usually more nuanced than that. I wish it were more like Gaudy Night, where literally every character in the book is a feminist except for the actual murderer, but they still have to think about how to be feminist, and they all have different interests and motivations, and sometimes they make questionable decisions.

  • Charlie (The Worm Hole)

    Oh dear, this reminds of a book I never finished some years ago. It was a historical fantasy that did something similar, and it just silly because the message, as such, was trying to get fantasy readers to like and accept the idea of elves and dwarfs and trolls… I’ll stick with Firefly.