“That’s such an incredibly organic bias, the idea that your squishy physical existence is some sort of pinnacle that all programs aspire to.”
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is one of those rare SF novels that manages to garner attention outside the SFF sphere. Originally crowd-funded and self-published, the novel sold rather well and was picked up and republished by Hodder last year. It was even longlisted for the Baileys prize this year. And the SFF community has, of course, been shouting its head off about it.
The novel follows the adventures of the Wayfarer and its mixed human and alien crew. The Wayfarer is a tunnelling ship, creating wormholes through space to allow the citizens of the Galactic Commons (GC), a kind of galactic EU, to travel between planets without having to use lightspeed. (In a nice touch, Chambers explains that although FTL is possible, its social effects aren’t worth the ease of travelling.) The crew of the Wayfarer have just taken on a new job, one of the biggest contracts handed out for years: as the GC prepares to welcome a new and warlike alien race called the Toremi into its ranks, a tunnel from the Toremi’s home (the titular small angry planet) to GC space is needed. The only catch is that the crew of the Wayfarer have to travel there the long way round, on a year-long journey through space.
It’s fairly easy to see why it’s so accessible to non-SFF fans (although Heat, incredibly, called this set-up a “tricky concept”): despite this classic premise, the novel is far more interested in its characters than its plot. As a result, the narrative is highly episodic, dealing with the various encounters of the Wayfarer‘s journey, revealing with every little event something new about its crew and, as a result, expanding and lending depths to its world.
The important thing here is that every one of the Wayfarer‘s crew – which includes three aliens, an AI, a clone, a gay woman, a polyamorous woman, a non-neurotypical person who identities as “they”, a transgender person and a man suffering from mutism – feels like a fully-realised individual with their own backgrounds and assumptions and ways of viewing the world, and the novel allows us to sympathise with every one of them – even the thoroughly unpleasant and vaguely racist Corbyn has a back story which treats him as a victim of discrimination without condoning further discrimination as a reaction to it. Of the three main romantic relationships in the novel, only one could be considered anything close to conventional – and that involves a human-alien pairing. Another has an engineer in love with his ship’s AI, a being without an organic body; the third sees a human woman sleeping with a polyamorous lizard lady (I imagine her as a Silurian) who she’s attracted to but isn’t in love with. (Facebook would call this relationship “complicated”.) Like all good SF, Small Angry Planet pushes at the edges of what we consider “normal” experience to be (should a sentient AI receive the same rights as an organic being? should a clone? and why not?).
It’s at this point that Chambers’ depiction of government and of officialdom comes into play. Unlike, again, the vast majority of classic SF, Small Angry Planet is cautiously optimistic about the effects of government. The beginning of the novel sees the arrival of Rosemary Harper on board the Wayfarer, hired to help the ship’s captain Ashby get higher-profile jobs. She’s a clerk; her job is to navigate paperwork and ensure that the crew abide by appropriate laws, and it’s her knowledge and her expertise that gets them out of a number of scrapes. When the ship is held hostage by desperate space aliens her knowledge of their culture minimises Ashby’s losses. When the aforementioned Corbyn is arrested, her research turns up a loophole in the Galactic laws which can get him out again. Throughout the novel, the GC and its various processes are generally seen as enablers of mutual benefit: joining the GC as a junior race has been the only thing that has allowed humanity’s survival.
So it’s a shock, then, against this background of positivity, when galactic law seems unequivocally to fail. A tragedy occurs at the end of the novel which is indirectly caused by a discriminatory law preventing AIs from inhabiting organic bodies. The message seems clear: discrimination is institutional, and the responsibility for equality and cooperation lies with legislative bodies. It’s rare to find an SFF novel which engages with this idea quite so wholeheartedly.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet feels, then, strangely (and coincidentally, given that it was first self-published way back in 2010) timely, given the imminent referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. Its strength does lie in its engagement with due process, with paperwork and administration and legislation and governance, as an alternative to SFnal violence and lawlessness (*cough* Firefly *cough*), and in the way it does so without being, well, boring. Heavily plotted it is not. But humane, comforting, optimistic? Yes.