The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

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

The Long Way to Doing the Same Thing


Given the gulf between fan and critical reactions, it seems every reader has taken the short way to their respective happy or angry position on this book, including me. Fans are won over by the representation of gender and sexuality, the nonviolent message, and the cooperative spirit among the over-the-top personalities onboard. Critics find fault with the superficiality and timidity of these themes, its hand-wavey naivete with potential conflict, and its unwillingness to engage with the more deeply embedded problematic components of what's become conventional television sit-com-drama space opera. "It's fluffy!" fans praise/critics complain.

So, we're all in agreement.

But I side with the critics: the shallow depiction of what is billed as progressive SF is less than satisfying. While much of the novel is concerned with interaction and acceptance, there are moments when we are taken just to the brink of character complexity (Ohan's deathwish, Jenks' virtual romance, Lovie's reboot, Rosemary's and Sissix's interspecies sex play) only to shuffle backward quickly, usually to go to have dinner with Chef. This kind of retreat from the most interesting dramatic moments of the story signifies an author who is not confident with depicting anything beyond talking and eating and narrator-dumped backstories. This is fine for fluffy space opera drama, but is that enough to qualify for a prestigious book award?

However, the further away I get from this novel, the less bothered I am by its superficiality than I am by its traditionality. How does a novel of such apparent openness get to be so boxy and suffocating? Why include a traditionally passive feminine heroine who serves as secretary to the Big Guy? Why include the oppressive sit-com/space opera premise of the Big, Happy Family, where cooperation is key, hierarchy is stable, and personality conflicts can be solved over an exotic space dinner. Ultimately, it comes down to one main thing, which is, I think, as superficial a complaint as the book itself: I have already seen something like this many, many times before. Not only is it an almost character-for-character match with Farscape, the arcs and cadences of the story feel as familiar and nonthreatening as an air mattress in a zero-G chamber. Despite being hailed for its progressive casting and interrelational depictions, The Long Way is as traditional as space operas go, reinforcing traditional space opera structures along the lines of power, gender, personality, and storytelling. The crew is cooperative. The crew is diverse. The crew supports the captain. The captain is a sturdy fellow. And Rosemary (like, god, how many Golden Age SF novels?) is the newbie secretary who is subservient to the crew's needs: she reinforces the captain's stature, Dr. Chef's pride, Kizzy's belongingness, and Sissix's sex life.

I mean, I get it. You can't tear me away from my ST:TNG nostalgia, no matter how problematic it is. If you're are new to this type of story, enjoy. I need something different.

--Unless... it's satire. Consider those few moments of oddness: why on earth a tunneling ship would suddenly gain universal prestige for hiring an administrative assistant, or when the captain says, "I worry about more than just Captain things sometimes" and no one rolls their eyes, or when Rosemary (I think) pulls the ultimate As You Know Bob with "I could use a refresher course," or when the entire crew watches poor Ohan succumb to atrophy and illness while offering no support or sick days, and then forced to remain alive when Ohan decides their sick of this shit and would prefer to kick the bucket. Is this book an attempt at some very subtle, yet critical, humor about the subgenre? Is this why Chambers chose to place Rosemary in the role of traditional passive subservience-- not to reinforce the traditional female role on a spacecraft, but to highlight the faults of such a story? And if that's the case, perhaps we can chalk up the overkill with canned dialogue, food descriptions, and interrupty backstories to a kind of mockery. If so, then The Long Way may very well deserve an award, but I'm not willing to read it again to test this theory because I. just. can. NOT. with. Kizzy.