Wayfarer and her crew

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

I loved this sci-fi book. For a self-pub, it’s surprisingly well written: no grammar glitches, no typos. The writing flows smoothly and beautifully, and the story is wonderful, if episodic. Some episodes are happy, almost sugary. Others are full of danger and challenge for one or more of the crew of the spaceship Wayfarer. The ship is not a battle cruiser; it is an unarmed working vessel, something of a gigantic cosmic jackhammer. It drills wormholes in space. Accordingly, there are no bloody battles in this story, no wars, and lots of quiet, subtle humor. But the biggest draws of this novel are world building and characters.


The world is fascinating, full of alien races, mind-boggling technology, and complex politics. Unlike most sci-fi novels I’ve read, this one is not human-centric. Humans are not a big part of this world, nor are they important. They are just a minor race who destroyed their own home planet centuries ago. Because of their uncontrolled procreation and constant warfare, Earth is now an inhabitable world, and humans survive either on small colonies or in space on huge colony ships. Surprisingly (at least it is a surprise for me), most of the humankind have learned their lesson. Their mainstream philosophy in the book is pacifism. Unfortunately, not everyone is a pacifist in this world. There are still violence, intolerance, space pirates, and murderous religious fanatics. We meet some of them during the course of the novel, while we spend time with the Wayfarer and her mixed, interspecies crew, as they coast along the galaxy on the way to a new job.  

The crew is this novel’s loving focus. As its members deal with one crisis after another, we learn about them, their personal demons and small triumphs. We learn about Captain Ashby’s forbidden romance with a beautiful alien woman. We learn about the young clerk Rosemary and her family tragedy. We learn about the computer tech Jenks’ affection for his ship’s AI. (How lonely one should be to fall in love with a computer.) We also learn about the strength of various religious and cultural believes, to the point where one is ready to die, or kill, to preserve his, hers, or its faith.

The theme of fanaticism, the fanatics themselves, and the others’ reactions to them is one of the central themes of the novel. Should we accept martyrdom of those willing to die for their principles or should we save them despite themselves? Should we trade with the fanatics despite their intolerant philosophies or shun them, guard our borders, and let them kill each other out. The author doesn’t insist on one clear answer, but she made you think.    

She also preaches, trying to get her own opinion across, and her preaching is one of the weaker aspects of the book. Another one is too many POVs. As the number of pages in the book is limited, the more POV characters we have, the less time we can spend in each character’s head. It’s a trade-off: a panoramic view in exchange for an in-depth exploration of one or two lead characters. Nobody is a lead character here, they are all equally secondary. Each has his or her own story arc, but all those arcs are short and shallow. It’s a pity, really. I wouldn’t mind learning more about Ashby. Or Rosemary. Or some of the others.

Despite those two flaws, the story itself is charming and light, even a bit fluffy. It reads easily and fast, but the delight of reading was interrupted a couple times by chunks of pages in italics: personal messages, lessons, transmissions, etc. I understand the author’s drive for a variety in formats, but all those inserts are distracting and don’t add much to the story. The information they convey could be condensed into two lines of summary, without the reader having to wade through pages of dense italicized texts and wondering what it was about.

Overall, I enjoyed the story. If it didn’t have the problems I mentioned above, I might’ve given it 5 stars.