Every year, the Clarke award short list represents an opportunity to reflect on what this award means, and what it seeks to accomplish. Those questions gain an added importance in 2016, in which the Clarke celebrates its thirtieth anniversary. For the award’s organizers, that event has been taken as an opportunity to shake up its schedule, the better to celebrate the award and give more people a chance to become acquainted with it. Instead of the usual four to six weeks between the announcement of the short list and the winner, we’ve had a leisurely four months to read and reflect on this year's nominees.
Whether intentionally or not, this has had the effect of placing the Clarke in direct contention with this year's Hugo awards. The short list was announced the day after the Hugo nominees. The winner will be revealed four days after this year's Hugo award ceremony. From a PR perspective, this is a canny choice. The Hugo has been plagued by politicized ballot-stuffing for several years. Immersed in the US culture wars, it has seen its nomination lists marred by barely-readable dross whose sole recommendation is a supposed adherence to right-wing orthodoxy (and more often, having been written by friends or fellow travelers of the right-wing troll trying to tear the award down). When this year's Hugo nominations were announced, and it became clear that the Rabid Puppies had once again managed to get their paws all over the ballot, many pointed to the Clarke as a sane alternative.
When you look at—and, more importantly, read—the respective nominees on both awards' novel short lists, however, a more complex picture emerges. The three non-puppy nominees on the Hugo best novel ballot are, each in their own way, original and thought-provoking. Naomi Novik's Uprooted (though a fantasy novel, and thus not eligible for the Clarke) is a clever fairy tale retelling with an intriguing Eastern European setting, and touches of Diana Wynne Jones. Ann Leckie's Ancillary Mercy, though falling short of the two previous volumes in the Imperial Radch trilogy, still carries over many of their most interesting qualities, including the intermingling of space opera and the novel of manners. Finally, N. K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season is easily the finest science fiction novel of the last few years, one that effortlessly mixes elements of several genres into a challenging world and premise, and combines them with a haunting personal story of oppression and abuse. (Jemisin's absence from this year's Clarke short list is only forgivable because The Fifth Season did not have a paperback release in the UK in 2015, and thus was not eligible. One can only hope that next year's jury will not make the error of omitting it from their short list.)
In comparison with these three very different, very exciting novels, the Clarke short list pales. In fact, it pales by almost any standard. The problem is not that the 2016 Clarke short list is bad—that might almost be entertaining. The problem is that it is bland. That even the good books on it feel like afterthoughts, lesser efforts by authors who can and have done better. That the bad books on it don't even have the recommendation of doing something different or original, or of exploring their tropes in a way that hasn't been done by so many books before them. Even the obligatory mainstream choice—usually the place where you can rely on the Clarke to go gonzo and drive SF purists bananas—turns out to be, when it comes down to it, a fairly conventional potboiler. It's hard not to conclude that the Hugo voters, even hobbled by the interference of the Rabid Puppies, did a better job recognizing excellence and new ideas in the field of SF than the Clarke jury, who are not only unencumbered by such interference, but actively encouraged to seek these qualities out.
What this brings us back to—especially on this anniversary year, especially in light of such a lackluster short list, and especially given the comparisons that the award's organizers are begging with a popular vote award like the Hugo—is the perennial question raised by the Clarke: what is this award for? What is it trying to accomplish? What is it trying to say? To me, the Clarke has always been about pushing the envelope. It strives to recognize excellence, yes, but it's also willing to look for it in unusual places and unexpected guises. It's an award that seeks not only to recognize accomplishment in science fiction, but to expand our understanding of what science fiction is and what it can do. It has not managed that task this year. It's hard to look at this year's short list—and even more than that, at this year's submission list, which includes such novels as Leckie's Ancillary Mercy, Elizabeth Knox's Wake, Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora, and Justina Robson's Glorious Angels, all of which were passed over in favor of lesser, and less original, fare—and not conclude that the message of this year's short list is conventionality, familiarity, and the retreading of very familiar ground. That is not the Clarke as I would like it to be, and certainly not how the award should be presenting itself as it seeks to celebrate thirty years of accomplishment.
Since I've made such barnstorming pronouncements about this short list, let's start our examination of the actual books with one that turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Or, well, half a surprise. Adrian Tchaikovsky's Children of Time has a complex premise that takes some time to lay out. In the distant future, humanity is a vast spacefaring empire with fantastical technological capabilities, including the ability to terraform planets. To Doctor Avrana Kern, this ability is merely a stepping-stone to what she sees as humanity's (or rather, her own) true destiny, the uplift of other species. Having terraformed a planet to her specifications, Kern plans to release a population of monkeys onto it, along with a virus that will accelerate their evolution and encourage them to develop greater intelligence and form cooperative societies that will eventually lead them into space.
Before Kern's plan can be brought to fruition, however, factional disputes back in the solar system—founded mainly on the question of whether plans such as hers are a logical next step or an abominable arrogation of nature's role—break out into war, and her project is sabotaged. The monkeys who would have been the first generation of a new species are killed, and the virus is released onto a planet with no one to receive it. Kern herself is the sole survivor of the destruction of her research station, and as a last resort, she uploads herself into the mainframe of the small pod which had been intended as a monitor of the monkeys' evolution. She places herself in stasis, and is thus unaware of the fact that the virus has had an unintended effect, unleashing its uplifting properties on the planet's population of insects, particularly a species of spider called Portia labiata.
There are, at the outset, some obvious problems with this premise, and the fact that its complexity requires Tchaikovsky to spend so much time laying it out only throws these problems into sharper relief. The question of whether to uplift animal species strikes me as the sort of issue on which reasonable people might disagree, so the fact that Tchaikovsky chooses to paint all objectors to Kern's project as religious zealots who will resort to terrorism, and finally all-out, species-destroying war, in protest of it is, to put the kindest spin on it, a case of making things pretty easy for himself. Especially when one considers that Kern's genius apparently didn't extend to making sure that her virus would work only on its intended target, which seems like a fairly basic consideration.
Nevertheless, several thousand years pass, during which the remnants of humanity's genocidal war over the burning question of whether we should create super-intelligent monkeys slowly claw their way back from the stone age, only to discover that the weapons of mass destruction (deployed, again, over the question of whether we want a monkey who can play chess) used on Earth have irreparably poisoned it. In a last ditch effort, humanity constructs several ark ships and directs them towards various locations where they believe terraformed planets might be waiting. One of these, the Gilgamesh, arrives at Kern's planet, and finds a deranged, half-senile version of Kern, who believes that her experiment is still going on, and that she must protect her planet from what she sees as the unworthy by-blows of a dead species.
It must be said that all this works a lot better in the book than it does in describing it. Tchaikovsky's premise is ridiculous and overcomplicated, and one can't help but feel that Children of Time would have been a lot stronger if he'd simply the started the book where the story he actually wants to tell begins, and left the implausible, convoluted background to be worked out later. Nevertheless, there is enough of interest in the early chapters of Children of Time—chiefly, Kern's monomaniacal, self-aggrandizing internal narrative—to make the story feel psychologically realistic, even if its actual events don't hold up to even a moment's scrutiny.
The story Tchaikovsky actually wants to tell is the interwoven narrative of two societies as they try to find themselves a new home, and a functional way of running it. On the Gilgamesh, our point of view character is Holsten Mason, a "classicist", which in this context means someone who has studied the language and history of pre-collapse humanity, whose job is explain to his crewmates what the remnants of technology they encounter were intended to do. Because his expertise is important but not vital to the ship's day-to-day running, Holsten is a man out of time. He's brought out of stasis periodically to translate or proffer an opinion, but he misses decades and centuries during which the politics and society of the Gilgameshcontort into increasingly deranged configurations. He wakes up to find the ship's captain uploaded into its systems, or a tribe of barely-literate ship-born tribesmen who have formed a cargo cult around him.
On the planet, the narrative skips over hundreds of generations of uplifted Portia labiata, or Portia for short. Each Portia is different, and they perform different functions in spider society as it develops and advances: explorer, warrior, scientist, priest, astronaut. But they all share the fundamental traits of curiosity, adventurousness, and the desire to learn their world and push forward the capabilities of their species. The use of a single name for all these individual spiders helps to create a sense of parallelism between the two plot strands, as if a single individual were tracking the development (in one case) or devolution (in the other case) of their society.
In other words, Children of Time is half a fairly standard space opera story, half Watership Down with giant, super-intelligent spiders, with the added twist that in both of these stories, the civilizations in question are being twisted and shaped by long-dead ancestors. The Portias are, unbeknownst to them, a science experiment, with Kern—first passively, through a radio message designed to spur them to develop rudimentary math, and then actively, through direct interaction with the Portias' leaders—demanding that they develop up a certain technological ladder, and join her in space. Meanwhile, the humans of the Gilgamesh are trapped beneath the weight of history, in awe of a civilization that destroyed itself, but unable to imagine any future path but the one laid out by it.
Holsten's people had thought themselves lucky that someone had built such a convenient flight of steps back up from the dark into the sunlight of civilization. They had never quite come to the realization that those steps led only to that one place.
Who knows what we might have achieved, had we not been so keen to recreate all their follies, he thought now. Could we have saved the Earth? Would we be living there now on our own green planet?
The problem here is that the spider chapters are much more interesting than the space chapters. Partly, this is inevitable—it's much more fun to read about people exploring and learning their world, than it is to read about people mucking about in the dirt of a destroyed one, and lamenting the fact that they have no future. In that sense, this is the point Tchaikovsky is seeking to make. But there is an additional problem that nothing that happens in the Gilgamesh chapters is new. Much of it, in fact, is practically cliché. A generation ship captain who goes mad with the responsibility of shepherding the last remnants of humanity and tries to make himself god? Degraded tribesmen wandering around in the rags of ship's uniforms and worshipping technology they can't understand or maintain? We've all read dozens of books with these tropes, and the fact that the Gilgamesh's whole story is nothing but a giant runaround—in order to avoid a conflict with Kern, they travel to another planet that she promises will suit them, only to find that terraforming there has failed, and that they have to turn around and head back to Kern's world—only further stresses the fact that these chapters are, in many ways, about killing time, allowing the spiders to sufficiently advance so that by the time the Gilgamesh returns to their planet, they and it are evenly matched.
The spider chapters, on the other hand, are a genuine delight. It probably helps that Tchaikovsky's own academic background is in zoology. This is perhaps the reason that he manages to convey a genuine fascination and fondness for these strange-looking (but oddly cute) creatures. The civilization he imagines on Kern's world does not extend merely to spiders—though the Portias are one of the planet's few sentient species, it is a world "in which there is no great divide between the thinkers and the thoughtless, only a long continuum.” The Portias encounter, for example, ants who have been uplifted by the virus, not into sentience, but into ever more complex arrangements that are essentially mindless—a kind of computer, "a vast and flexible difference engine, a self-perfecting machine dedicated to the continuance of itself.” The Portias are, initially, almost overrun by this force, until they learn to wield it, finally managing to create what is essentially an ant-based Turing machine.
Tchaikovsky meticulously charts the technological development of a society that has almost no metallurgy, but vastly complicated chemistry; whose tool-using is almost nonexistent, but who have learned how to enslave other animals to perform extraordinarily complicated functions. Even the virus that gives the Portias their intelligence and drive to explore is something that they learn to use as a tool, "infecting" one another with the knowledge of new skills and scientific advances. Whether or not you find any of this believable—and Tchaikovsky does a good enough job of selling it, even if the physics and engineering probably don't hold up—by the book's end, when the spiders have reached into space by essentially throwing a web over the planet, building space elevators out of spider silk, it's hard not to be enchanted by them, and to root for them in the inevitable conflict with the humans of the Gilgamesh, who now have no place to go.
Another reason to root for the spiders is that reading about the Gilgamesh is so consistently a letdown from the Portias' adventures. It's not just that events on the Gilgamesh are familiar, but that Tchaikovsky feels the need to hammer them in, just to make sure that we don't miss the point. Where the Portia chapters leap nimbly from one complex concept to another, racing through wars, religious disputes, and social upheaval, the Gilgamesh chapters keep circling around the same points over and over again—the fact that the humans aboard the ship are trapped by the past and unable to find a new way of being. Two chapters after Holsten wonders whether his people might have saved the Earth if they hadn't been so in awe of their predecessors, he's back to making the same point.
The more he learned of them, the more he saw them not as spacefaring godlike exemplars, as his culture had originally cast them, but as monsters: clumsy, bickering, shortsighted monsters. Yes, they had developed a technology that was still beyond anything Holsten's people had achieved, but it was just as he had already known: the shining example of the Old Empire had tricked Holsten's entire civilization into the error of mimicry. In trying to be the ancients, they had sealed their own fate—neither to reach those heights, nor any others, doomed instead to a history of mediocrity and envy.
By the end of Children of Time, it feels as if Tchaikovsky is filling up space, as if he were so committed to the format of alternating human and spider chapters that he feels compelled to give us one of each kind, even if he has nothing to do with the humans except retread ideas he's already established ad nauseum, and counteract the glittering originality of the spider chapters with shopworn space opera tropes. To state it simply, Children of Time is too long, and too much of its time is spent telling us things we already knew and repeating ideas we'd already heard.
This makes it particularly unfortunate that the book's ending veers so suddenly into a sentimental, simplistic mode that not only undermines Tchaikovsky's interesting work with the Portias, but makes the time we've spent on the Gilgamesh feel like a waste. Tchaikovsky has set himself up a very interesting dilemma. The Portias are incredibly sympathetic and heroic, and we naturally want them to flourish on a planet that clearly belongs to them. But the humans are supremely pitiable, and we equally naturally do not want the human race to be consigned to oblivion, as they will be if they're not allowed to settle and thrive on the Portias' planet. We want Tchaikovsky to find a way for these two species, these two products of the Old Empire's arrogance and shortsightedness, to coexist.
And yet the solution he finds to this dispute is, much like the premise of the novel, silly and unconvincing. It seems to rely on the assumption that humans, left to their own devices, could never communicate with the Portias because eurgh, spiders. And that once that aversion is overcome through chemical means, all other problems would immediately disappear (it's not as if there's a very long history of humans moving into an area, even one where they've been welcomed, and immediately destroying the local population, whether human or animal). It's an ending that Tchaikovsky clearly intends to be deeply meaningful and transcendent, but instead it just throws into sharper relief the limitations of his worldbuilding and his ideas about humanity.
In the end, Children of Time turns out to be a mix of good and bad, familiar and overused, brilliant and ridiculous. There's a lot here worth celebrating, but not, I think, on the Clarke short list. The ideas that Tchaikovsky brings up here, and the zeal with which he explores them, mark him as an author to watch. It may very well be that his books will end up on the short list again, but Children of Time shouldn't have.
If Children of Time is overlong and overstuffed, then J. P. Smythe's Way Down Dark initially feels refreshingly spare, uncluttered by the repetition of tropes that have grown stale from overuse. The book wears its genre—YA dystopia—proudly on its sleeve, but in its early chapters at least, it is reassuringly willing to barrel through the familiar set-pieces and conventions of this mode. You get this sense right in the opening sentence, in which the heroine, sixteen-year-old Chan, informs us that "After I helped to kill my mother, I had to burn her body.” It's as if Smythe were acknowledging that the core business of this genre is grimly hopeless teenagers committing acts of horrific violence, before getting right down to it.
Chan is a passenger aboard the generation ship Australia, which devolved into violence and anarchy so far back in history that no one even remembers what its destination was or when it's meant to be reached. Most of the ship's living areas have been scavenged for parts from which the inhabitants can fashion tools or, more commonly, weapons, and whole sections of the ship have been taken over by feral gangs or messianic religious orders. Chan's mother was a respected leader and arbiter among the "free" people of Australia, but when she falls ill, she knows that upon her death Chan will be preyed upon by the gangs. Hence the theater of having Chan kill her and burn her body: "The ship understands ritual, because rituals suggest control and control suggests power.” The opening segment, in which Chan manages, through sheer force of will and a bit of stage magic, to convince the "Lows" that her mother's ghost is protecting her, is one of the tensest and most exciting scenes in the book.
Unfortunately, it's all downhill from there.
Well, it's not all bad. To begin with, at least, Smythe does a good job of conveying the dilapidation and shabbiness of the ship. When you live in a place where nothing can ever be new—there are no sources of metal, or cloth, or any other raw materials except what the inhabitants scavenge—and nothing can ever be completely lost, you end up mired in the past. The most evocative expression of this is the idea of The Pit, the place at the bottom of the ship's artificial gravity well where everything goes when it falls down the ship's central column. It's a place for garbage, waste, and even bodies, and it lends a new horror to the concept of a generation ship when you realize that, at least in one that is poorly run, you would spend your life with the smell of your ancestors' discarded garbage rising up from below.
If the Pit feels more like a metaphor than a plausible pitfall of spaceship design, it quickly becomes clear that this is typical of all of Smythe's worldbuilding. He's keen to depict the Australia as a hell, stripped first of its beauty and then of its functionality, and its inhabitants as quickly dehumanized, preying on one another because there is, quite literally, nothing else. But the more Chan shows us of her world, the less sense it makes. Take, for example, the opening scene in which she stares off the Lows after killing her mother. After defeating the Low leader, Chan witnesses one of his seconds take the opportunity of his defeat to claim leadership herself—by, of course, killing her predecessor. The woman then engages in a brutal display of superiority:
I watched her face as she worked the sacrificial knife. Her hand shook, through the pain, I'm sure; but she carried on, determined to get the job done. When she was finished she turned, showing herself off to the rest of the ship, and she beat at her chest with her arm, making the wound bleed more, forcing the welts to open wider.
She revealed herself to us, and we all saw it: the letters REX, etched into her skin, hard and deep. She had killed the last leader and now was carving his name—his title—onto herself.
In the moment, it's extremely affecting. It's only once we get a better look at Australia's society, and particularly at the Lows—who are described, by Chan's stepmother Agatha, as having "abandoned so much of our language, our customs. Our morals"—that one is forced to ask the obvious question: how is it possible that this woman, or her followers, know how to read? Given what we see of Australia, and the lack of public institutions within it, it beggars belief that anyone aboard, even the relatively civilized Chan, would have more than the bare foundations of literacy. And yet Chan happily reads books with no problem, and much of the story's climax relies on her ability to leave written messages for others on the ship.
Or take a later scene, in which Chan visits a marketplace, and is tempted to spend her meager trade goods on pastries:
Outside some berths, there are trays of food fresh out of ovens. I focus on the buns and twirled pastries, made from what they've bought and then recycled. But they're sold at such steep prices that I have only ever tasted anything like them a handful of times, and even then only a quarter . . . a fifth of one. That was years ago, when I was far younger than I am now. I can't even remember the taste, not exactly, but still sometimes wake up craving it, even to this day.
But Chan is, relatively speaking, affluent and privileged. Her mother was a respected figure with territory of her own, and Chan has never starved or wanted for the basics of life. If she can't afford to buy pastries as more than once-in-a-blue-moon luxury, then who are the bakers selling to, and how can they possibly afford to stay in business?
These might seem like nitpicking quibbles, beside the point of the book, which is its overpoweringly bleak tone and Chan's growing determination to do something about her situation. But that is precisely why such sloppiness matters. The books that Way Down Dark is imitating—chiefly The Hunger Games, but also Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy (the third volume of which, Monsters of Men, was nominated for the Clarke in 2011)—placed a profound importance on the coherence and solidity of their worldbuilding. Think, for example, of the careful attention to the details of food, clothing, and weaponry in The Hunger Games. This was not merely an affectation. It was a recognition that without a thorough grounding it its world, YA dystopia quickly comes to seem like nothing more than an exercise in miserablism. A contest to see which author can come up with the most outrageous abuse for his heroine to suffer and triumph over.
This is, of course, exactly what happens in Way Down Dark. Emboldened by her triumph over her predecessor, the new Rex leads the Lows into a takeover of yet more sections of the ship, slaughtering or recruiting everyone that stands in her way. Their mindless destruction eventually imperils everyone aboard the ship, and it's left to Chan, Agatha, and Jonah, the last survivor of a religious order, to try to save as many people as they can. For most of its second half, the book repeats the same beats: the Lows escalate their violence, Chan is told that there's nothing she can do, Chan decides that she can't stand by and do nothing, Chan saves some people, but then everything gets worse. None of it is particularly believable, and especially not the one thing that the entire edifice rests on, Chan herself. It's here that Smythe's eagerness to cut past the boilerplate of his genre and get to the business of outrageous violence works against him, because he's done so little work to build Chan up as a person that her heroism feels like an informed trait. She lacks Katniss's frantic protectiveness, or Todd's frustrated anger, or indeed any defining quality besides not wanting people to be killed, and not being willing to back down when she's told to. But that's not a character, that's a sketch, and one that Smythe has failed to fill in.
Way Down Dark has a twist, but as it's the same twist as every other generation ship story from the last few years it's one that most readers—or, at least, most adult readers who picked this book up, say, because it was nominated for the Clarke—will have gone in expecting, and indeed will probably feel rather annoyed at how long it takes to reveal itself. Nor does this twist do anything to address the book's problems, or even justify its existence. It's a little easier to tolerate the gaping holes in Smythe's worldbuilding when you know what's really going on (though even then, none of the questions I've raised about how Australia functions are answered by what we eventually learn about it), but it doesn't actually do anything to the contours of the story to learn that everything Chan has believed about her world is a lie. The truth turns out to be just as flimsily constructed, the world beyond Australia just as obviously designed for no other task except to further Chan's suffering and heroism.
In the end, we're left to wonder: what is Smythe even trying to do here? YA dystopia hasn't been a hot genre in several years, and even then the proliferation of novels of Way Down Dark's type—ones that replicate the tone of The Hunger Games or Chaos Walking without even approaching the complexity of their characters or world—made the whole genre into a bit of a joke. Why, in the year 2016, do we need another one of these books—especially one that does nothing new with its already extremely limited genre except set it on a generation ship (and even that, I'm fairly certain, has been done before)? It's bad enough to find a book on the Clarke short list that doesn't belong there. With this book, I'm not sure where it belongs at all.
If Way Down Dark's presence on the short list is hard to explain, one can at least point to the way that Becky Chambers's The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet has captured the zeitgeist to explain why this year's judges thought it merited inclusion. But then one has to explain why Chambers's debut—originally self-published, and now appearing under Hodder's imprint—has struck a chord with so many readers, and that, to me, is a more difficult question to answer. Notwithstanding that it's always hard to show up late to a phenomenon that has captured so many people's imagination and try to work out just what its earliest adopters saw in it, Chambers's novel strikes me as unremarkable, and even, in some ways, subpar. A lot of what it tries to do has been done better by other, less heralded authors, and in the end it fails even under its own terms.
Like a lot of recent space opera on page and screen, The Long Way draws heavily on the template established by Joss Whedon's Firefly, which has proven evergreen even though the show that established it was so short-lived. There is, therefore, a well-established and complex interstellar bureaucracy, seen only partially through the eyes of the captain and crew of a lowly freighter, whose mixed personalities and backgrounds clash even as they struggle to survive not just the harshness of space, but the harshness of economic considerations that tend to squeeze out small businessmen. In Chambers's version, the ship, the Wayfarer, is actually a "tunneler," which creates pathways in subspace that allow other ships to travel instantaneously between systems. Captain Ashby Santoros, eager for a hefty payday with which he can purchase upgrades that will allow him to bid on bigger contracts, accepts an assignment that will require his crew to spend the better part of a year in space, making their slow way to the titular planet, where they can plant a subspace gate and tunnel their way home.
Unlike most Firefly-inspired fare, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet takes place in a galaxy in which humans are not the only sentient, space-faring species. In fact, in one of the novel's most interesting touches, humans are refugees in the Galactic Commons, having been forced to leave an environmentally ravaged Earth. Several of the Wayfarer's crewmembers are aliens—chiefly the second-in-command, Sissix, a member of a reptilian species called the Aandrisk—and one of the novel's main concerns is the difficulty, and the importance, of learning to cohabitate and even form a family with people whose worldviews, values, and even biology are so different from our own.
It's a worthy concept, but one that is undermined by many of Chambers's stylistic choices. There is, for example, her unfortunate tendency to infodump in the baldest and most inelegant way possible. Most of The Long Way is told from the point of view of Rosemary, a new crewmember on the Wayfarer whose previously sheltered life has included very little contact with aliens or spacers. But instead of allowing her to discover her world organically (and perhaps make some interesting mistakes along the way), the book has Rosemary function as the readers' walking encyclopedia. Whenever she encounters a species, a place, or a custom that we'd find strange, the third-person narrative immediately fills in the details for us, and if by chance Rosemary is also ignorant, then one of her crewmates is always happy to sit down and explain, for paragraphs on end. The idea, clearly, is to imagine a world in which people are open to learning about new cultures, and members of those cultures are happy to explain them to those who approach them with respect and an open mind. This is laudable, but the good intentions are undermined when no one in the book converses like an actual person.
Another problem is how long it takes Chambers to set up her premise, of the crew's long, isolated journey to plant the far end of their tunnel. It takes nearly a quarter of the book for the Wayfarer to get on its way, and most the chapters before that point are spent in rather laborious introductions of characters and relationships that could just as easily have been done once the journey had begun. As a result, and because most of the chapters that take place during the journey actually depict events that happen off-ship, during the crew's resupply stops, the actual journey to the small, angry planet doesn’t feel that long. It in fact comes as something a shock to realize, when the Wayfarer arrives at its destination, that our characters have spent the better part of a year together, since Chambers has largely skipped over most of the parts of the journey that took place on the ship, when the characters had no one to interact with except each other.
The actual off-ship interludes are extremely variable. The best of the bunch is the one spent on Sissix's home planet (Sissix is, in general, the book's best character and its most successful alien), which allows Ashby and Rosemary to immerse themselves in the full strangeness of Aandrisk social structures. An egg-layer, Sissix finds it inexplicable that humans and other mammals have such an intense emotional attachment to their young, and Ashby and Rosemary are in turn disturbed by the casual way in which Sissix estranges herself from her own children, who are raised by strangers and are not considered people until they grow up and leave the nest. It's a point on which neither side can ever fully understand the other, and it's here that Chambers's argument—that understanding is unnecessary so long as there is acceptance and respect—is most powerfully felt. (It's also in this chapter that Sissix and Rosemary embark on a romantic relationship, which is notable mainly because it's the difference in their species' expectations of romance that is the potential sticking point, not their genders.)
For much of the rest of the novel, however, The Long Way's inclusiveness feels little more than skin deep. Chambers and her characters talk the talk, but they rarely walk the walk, either because she's written them to be a lot less nice than she clearly believes they are, or because the unity that she imagines requires the erasure of most of the cultural differences that make it so difficult to achieve in the real world. In the book's opening scene, Ashby has a tense encounter with Corbin, a crewmember who functions as the book's designated asshole. Fussy, demanding, and inconsiderate, Corbin is also casually racist, dropping mild slurs against Sissix, with whom he frequently clashes, into conversation, and then claiming that they were accidental slips of the tongue. Ashby reprimands Corbin, but secretly this kind of behavior works to his advantage ("truthfully, this was an ideal way for a conversation with Corbin to go. Get him away from the crew, let him vent, wait for him to cross a line, then talk him down while he was feeling penitent"). In the same conversation, we learn that Corbin is subjected to frequent pranks and minor acts of disrespect from the rest of the crew, such as using his toiletries without permission.
In other words, Ashby is tolerating a situation in which one of his employees is frequently racially insensitive to another employee, and instead of doing anything about it, he creates an atmosphere in which low-level bullying and harassment of this person are considered tolerable, a form of payback for his shortcomings. It's a deeply dysfunctional (and, sadly, very familiar) workplace dynamic, but the problem is that Chambers never recognizes it as such, or acknowledges what it says about Ashby, as a leader and a person. When the Corbin situation is finally dealt with, it's in the most melodramatic, self-righteous way possible, as Corbin, who lands in the prison cells of a particularly vicious alien race, is essentially tortured into being a nicer, less racist person.
If the Corbin plot feels like a minor point to get hung up on, being only one strain in the novel's web of relationships and plotlines, it's worth noting what it tells us. The novel insists that the Wayfarer is a happy workplace, and that Ashby is a kind, considerate captain. The Corbin plot suggests otherwise, without any kind of acknowledgement. There are even greater problems with how the book constructs its multispecies society. For all of The Long Way's insistence that it is a story about learning to understand and tolerate different cultures, it's interesting how much of the differences between the species it depicts come down to biology. Sissix is cold-blooded, so she requires the Wayfarer's environmentals to be set to a higher temperature than most other species find comfortable. The ship's doctor-slash-cook has three sets of vocal chords, and it requires concentration for him to get them in alignment so that humans can understand his speech. Ashby's girlfriend, Pei, comes from a species that communicate through changes to their skin tone that also reflect emotions, so she finds human insistence on emotional reserve baffling.
But if you've lived on this planet for any amount of time, you know that biology plays only the smallest role in forging our identity, and in creating the millions of divisions and sub-divisions that humans find it so fun to argue about. All the other elements that go into making us what we are—culture, ethnicity, geography, religion—all these are completely missing from The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. None of the human characters appear to have a cultural or ethnic identity that stretches further back from when the planet or ship they were born on were first colonized or launched. Even worse, none of the aliens appear to have cultural or religious observances, and there are no ethnic divisions within any of the alien races depicted in the book. On the contrary, races that have deep-seated divisions along religious or philosophical lines are treated as inherently diseased, possibly on their way to self-destruction—a key argument of the book is that this is what caused the near-extinction of humanity, and that it's something that had to be overcome before we could be admitted into the Galactic Commons.
To say that this is a troubling statement is putting it mildly. While it's obviously unfair to expect Chambers to have created multiple ethnic groups, languages, and internal divisions for each of her alien species, the fact that she hasn't even tried—and that no one in her story finds it strange that these are missing—fatally undermines the book's argument to be about the quest for unity and understanding. What does unity mean, if in order to achieve it we have to imagine humans who have lost nearly all of their history and cultural identity? What does it mean if it can only be achieved with aliens who are never anything more than the sum of their biological imperatives? The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet stakes out some lofty goals for itself—to dismantle the war-like foundations of space opera, telling a story within the genre that relies on cooperation and understanding. But those words mean nothing if you have to simplify people past any recognition in order to achieve them.
A lot of commentary on The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet treats its decision to tell a science fiction story that is not adventurous or heroic, but simply the tale of people living their lives in the future, as bold or revolutionary. The truth is that Chambers is operating within a small but vibrant tradition of works of this type. The finest of them is, of course, Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang, though other examples include Susan Palwick's Shelter, David Marusek's Counting Heads, and recently, Dexter Palmer's Version Control. Chambers's innovation is in attempting this approach in a space opera setting (though even then, she's preceded by Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312, itself a Clarke nominee in 2013, and going further back, books like Sarah Zettel's Fool's War presage much of what she does in The Long Way, even if their plots are more action-driven). It's a worthy project, one that deserves more nuanced handling than it has received here.
The second part of this review can be found here.