As she woke up in the pod, she remembered three things. First, she was travelling through open space. Second, she was about to start a new job, one she could not screw up. Third, she had bribed a government official into giving her a new identity file.
None of this information was new, but it wasn’t pleasant to wake up to.
She wasn’t supposed to be awake yet, not for another day at least, but that was what you got for booking cheap transport. Cheap transport meant a cheap pod flying on cheap fuel, and cheap drugs to knock you out. She had flickered into consciousness several times since launch — surfacing in confusion, falling back just as she’d gotten a grasp on things. The pod was dark, and there were no navigational screens. There was no way to tell how much time had passed between each waking, or how far she’d travelled, or if she’d even been travelling at all. The thought made her anxious, and sick.
Having bribed her way to a new identity, Rosemary takes a job on the Wayfarer to escape the shadows of her past. She’s a qualified clerk and the work itself should be straightforward, but she’s never lived in space before, and moving onto a tunnelling ship is a baptism of fire, as the ship punches through space-time to create stable wormholes.
The crew of the Wayfarer are an unusual bunch, incorporating several species of sapients. The majority are human: Ashby the captain; cheerful techs Kizzy and Jenks; grumpy algae specialist Corbin. But pilot Sissix is an Aandrisk, feathered and scaled, part of a sociable, highly tactile race who usually live in groups and raise their young communally. Dr Chef, who has dual roles as ship’s doctor and chef, is Grum: a near-extinct species, members of which transition from female to male to neuter as they age. The ship’s AI, Lovey, is not only intelligent but self-aware and emotional. And Ohan is a Sianat Pair, infected with a virus that gives them a sense of plural identity, along with the ability to visualise the complex mathematics of space-time navigation. This range of species gives the opportunity for Chambers to explore gender and identity issues without being tied to current human norms. Watching the crew members interact was a positive joy, and the point of view also rotates through almost everyone at some stage.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a very unusual book. I was about half way through when it occurred to me to wonder what manner of book I was reading: it wasn’t quite like anything I’d read before. I was very much enjoying myself, getting to know the crew, but I was waiting for some kind of plot to emerge. I’d assumed that Rosemary’s secret would prove to be pivotal but [spoiler alert!] when it comes out and she tells the crew, everyone just sort of shrugs and carries on. Other critical incidents are dispatched with similar brevity, throughout the story. It’s as if Chambers is determined for readers to settle back and enjoy the ride without any of the narrative cues that would usually hint at where you are and where you’re going. Rosemary’s observations from the very first page, quoted above, feel somewhat apt: page numbers aside, there are simply no clues. Once you learn to relax and stop worrying about plot development, though, it is an interesting — and often touching — journey.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is currently available in paperback and ebook formats, with a new hardback edition published next month.