Lost in P.C. Space:
A Review of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet: Wayfarers 1
A recognized and popular subgenre of science fiction is the so-called “space opera,” which has the melodrama, grandiose action, and sweeping romance typical of a classical opera. The difference is the environment is set in space or another world, the tone is characteristically optimistic, and there is no singing. This subgenre started off on the radio in the 1940s as a take on the “soap opera,” a term which arose thanks to sponsoring from soap opera companies and detergent ads. Space opera, meanwhile, has come to represent a spectrum that includes Star Wars and The Foundation series, plus even darker and more pessimistic works like the critically acclaimed Ender’s Game, as well as Becky Chambers’ award-winning 2015 novel The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet: Wayfarers.
Wayfarers is indisputably a space opera and has many strengths. If radio space operas were still popular, Wayfarers would play out beautifully. There is fluidity to the writing and each character on the Wayfarer ship acts as a literary portal into the nature of their individual home worlds. For instance, the promiscuity of the lizard-like Sissix stems from the Aandrisk culture’s complicated family structures and the lack of virtually any concept of personal space. Ohan, the Sianat navigator, is reclusive and deeply introspective due to a virus that alters the Sianat brain structure, and so on for the rest of the crew. There are many females in non-traditional roles sprinkled throughout, such as Kizzy, the crew’s female mechanic. This character allows Chambers to give descriptive detail of how wormholes are created and provide believable details about the inner workings of the ship.
Feminism along with other hot-topic social issues of today are placed in the distant future, where they feel universal, both literally and metaphorically. The crew is a rather ordinary team on an extraordinary mission to build a wormhole through sub-space. Perhaps they are not ordinary in their time —being a chimera of alien species — but all have their similarity to alien crewmates from almost any sci fi space ship crew and seem all-too-familiar: the charming captain, the supportive first mate, the personable cook, the knowledgeable and social mechanic(s), and the sensible navigator. However, Chambers succeeds in making those characters seem more relatable. This is because almost every group with some present day social relevance, such as LGBTQ and people with dwarfism, have their allegories and are represented. This brings her story about space exploration down to earth, so to speak, but also into the fog of contemporary issues relating to political correctness. It is conceptually interesting and would reveal itself as a great science fiction for a youth or a teen, but this is not true for a reader who has been immersed in the science fiction genre for years. Such readers will find it to be a patchwork of melodramas sewn together by a sanguine narrative, designed to be titillating, but not insightful, much like a television soap opera.
As in soap operas, character development does not play a major role and this makes the relationships feel loose and free of tension. The most outstanding example is the relationship between the lead character Rosemary (a human clerk) and Sissix. Rosemary clearly has admiration for Sissix from the beginning, but the relationship takes an unexpected turn when this admiration turns sexual. The reason the change feels unexpected is because up until that point there is no indication that it was anything but platonic. There are times when Rosemary observes Sissix’s beauty and another point where she feels compassion for the lack of intimacy the crew provide to Sissix, but we are never shown how the admiration moves or changes Rosemary. As a result, when she shows up to Sissix’s room with a low cut blouse and wearing perfume, her advance seems capricious. Furthermore, as Sissix is both alien and female, the idea of exploring love between her and Rosemary is too dark and nebulous for the otherwise cheerful narrative to tackle; such a thorough examination of seemingly homosexual bestiality feels relatively gratuitous. An antagonistic tension is almost provided by their shipmate Corbin, who maintains the algae in the lower deck of the ship. But Chambers confines him to the metaphorical basement, out of site and out of mind for nearly the entire trip where he can do no harm.
Pleasantness is a constant in this story as static characters mine their way both through sub-space and a straightforward plot. Chambers’ speculations into our space-future are insightful and even inventive, but those too are absorbed, like jelly beans in Jello, by bubbly and politically-correct banter. Still, the tone of the story is heart-warming. It accepts all aliens for who they are and allows everyone to find their place. Friendships come and go and it titillates with possibilities of inter-species erotica. To be fully enjoyed, however, certain missing elements such as character development, intriguing plot, and an antagonist have to be overlooked. Nevertheless, it has found its audience, perhaps because it offers escapism to a foreign yet non-threatening place, like a guided-tour through a tourist rainforest. The inventiveness and light-heartedness she brings make for easy reading, and this possibly places it slightly above average for a science fiction novel. There are, unfortunately, vital elements that are absent. When compared to such modern classics in its genre such as Ender’s Game, Wayfarers is dim in contrast, shedding but a pale light.
Reviewed by Stephanie Varga