This book is all about people learning to get along with other people, and the fact that it doesn’t always work out (and your ship almost gets blown up as a consequence). However, when it does work out, it can be beautiful.
This seems like a strange way to describe a book with a sci-fi premise, set far in the future when humans have been forced to leave Earth and sail for the stars, in a galaxy governed by an intergalactic parliament founded by several alien races, and focusing on the travels of a space ship home to a multispecies crew. But the impression left by this book is not wholly typical of the genre of a group of misfits on a spaceship (see: Firefly, Cowboy Bebop and Tales of the Ketty Jay to name a few), which are largely action and adventure driven as the group is pitted against a dangerous adversary and must find a way to triumph.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet has a slightly different tone, as there is no clear villain to defeat, and for the most part, the protagonists feel more like ordinary people rather than action heroes (or morally ambiguous rakish anti-heroes), dealing with familiar issues like overcoming cultural barriers, just on a different scale than we are used to.
The book tells the story of the crew of the Wayfarer, a vessel hired by various contractors to bore tunnels through space, including the human captain Ashby Santoso, the Grum cook/doctor Dr Chef, the Aandrisk pilot Sissix, and the newly hired clerk with a dark secret, Rosemary Harper. In fact, it slowly emerges over the course of their year long voyage to the titular planet that all of the crew have some sort of secret, from an unfulfilled desire to a hidden past. The distinct thing about this book, however, is the manner in which these secrets are dealt with.
At one point, one of the characters explains to another exactly why they should share their secret with the rest of the crew; it is the only way to move on. Through sharing stories with each other, each person is helped and comforted to an extent, and is able to make personal progress. There is a strong theme of each individual being in charge of what they want to make of their lives, but making connections with others being a vital part of that.
One thing I love about books set far in the future is their optimism, which certainly applies to this book, as issues like racism and sexism and homophobia have ceased to be an issue due to the mixing of humanity in the exodus from earth and their decision to pull together for the sake of survival. However, there is still interesting commentary on dealing with these issues and the process of learning to cooperate through the new issues raised by space travel and technology- interspecies relations are still tense and relationships between members of different species highly frowned upon, and the debate around the status of sentient AI’s in society and their rights. Considering the ramifications of artificial intelligence is a staple of science fiction, but its treatment in this book and the parallels with various human rights movements makes it freshly engaging. The multispecies crew of the Wayfarer naturally provides a microcosmic environment to demonstrate these tensions and the progression of attitudes, and by the end of the book even I was passionately convinced of AI rights.
All of this sounds quite heavy going, but the brilliance of this book is that all of these elements appear to grow out of the world that has been created quite organically, and most importantly, are treated with a sense of humour. You really grow to love these characters, even the most seemingly unlikable ones, and you believe in their relationships. I would highly recommend this book, even if you are not typically a fan of the sci-fi genre, as it contains important insights into our society and humanity. Sorry, sentient beings.
The series I mentioned (and are well worth checking out):
Firefly: a short lived television series originally aired on Fox in the US, about a motley crew of space cowboys doing various jobs (not all strictly legal).
Cowboy Bebop: a Japanese anime television series first aired 1998-2003, about an even more motley crew of space bounty hunters. Known for being one of the best animes of all time due to its complex and sophisticated themes and distinct style.
Tales of the Ketty Jay: a series of books by Chris Wooding about a motley group of steampunk (plot twist!) pirates on an airship.