Sometimes I get surprised by authors at the early end of their career. Imperfections can be easily forgiven, especially for a new writer with something new to say or a different approach to something old.
Becky Chambers’ debut novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet doesn’t really tell a new story. It’s something of a re-imagined Firefly. But with a nicer, less Western edge. It doesn’t really tell it in a new way: my impression is that this is a novelization of a half-dozen television shows. But tv is the way many people receive their fiction these days. So if authors like Ms Chambers and James S. A. Corey send out their fiction with the genes of the medium, maybe it’s a sign of the times.
Ms Chambers is also settling in with a writer’s voice in this book. Some descriptions were quite good, and others groping to find a way. Future fiction will be better, I think.
Don’t get me wrong about The Long Way … I would really watch a tv series Becky Chambers was writing. And I will likely pick up her second book. I recommend this novel for one superlative thing: characterization. There’s a lot of peripheral goings-on in this book. Like the Harry Potter books, it does invite the reader in to get to know the characters and their motivations. But also like Potter, it lengthens the narrative for people who might want a straight arrow through the main plot to the final resolution.
For those who like the side details, there are three inter-species love affairs going on. They are explored more for the differences between human and non-human cultures. I haven’t seen that handled as well in other science fiction. These relationships are presented with more tenderness than graphic depictions of sex.
Otherwise, some old things: human beings are an upstart race in a galaxy populated by aliens. Somehow, most humans have suppressed the urge to violence. But not all of the galaxy is in agreement with this approach. How do the non-violent survive in a setting in which the violent rule? That question has been explored often in fiction, but rarely in science fiction.
Can I make a comment about publishers? The UK edition of this book, imaged above, is way better than the US release, which I won’t even link.
Kij Johnson: another woman author I admire. Her 2012 novella “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” is simply outstanding, a well-deserved multiple-award winner. Even though the Lovecraft backstory was unknown to me, I found her latest, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe to circle the same orbit.
This novella is solidly fantasy. It is, as the title reveals, a quest story. Vellitt Boe is a middle-aged professor whose prized student has run away from college. What starts off as a journey planned for a few days, drags on into a months-long journey. The reader wonders, why does an academic abandon all her other students, and a chunk of her career, to chase after a young woman who has run off with a man? There are reasons, very serious ones. There are also harrowing adventures and an underdog escape from death. How does it all resolve? Quickly, somewhat surprisingly, and if you like melancholy, satisfyingly.
These two books are a contrast. The former is well-characterized and not totally disciplined. The latter is compact like an expert hiker’s backpack, but no less attentive to its characters and their backstory. One is penned by an author at the height of her craft, and the other has some way to go, still.
Both works left me thinking. Which is what good fantasy or science fiction is supposed to do.