This wonderfully imaginative and quirky novel focuses on the crew of a small working spaceship, the Wayfarer, and their everyday life, relationships, incidents, and conflicts. The crew consists of five Humans of varying origins, alongside representatives of three alien races, and an AI, Lovelace, known as Lovey. Their job is to create (‘punch’) new wormholes for other ships to use afterwards, making new connections between systems. The basic environment of the Wayfarer’s world is a Galactic Commons with several founder races plus a variety of others, which is gradually explained as the novel progresses. The story is well plotted with events occurring at a natural pace, sometimes gently, at other times in bursts of action. The novel was funded through Kickstarter and self-published, but was then picked up and published in the traditional manner by Hodder. It is hard to believe that this is Becky Chambers’ first novel, as it is so well constructed, imaginative, and fluently written.
The book begins with a new crew member, clerk Rosemary Harper, heading towards the ship in a less than adequate individual travel system: "a cheap pod flying on cheap fuel, and cheap drugs to knock you out" (p. 1), drugs which don’t quite work. As she surfaces into consciousness from time to time we are told that she has a new identity, and we discover she is escaping something in her past life, although the details are not revealed until later. When she first arrives, after a less than enthusiastic welcome from one of the crew’s algae expert, Corbin, she meets Sissix, an affectionate reptilian pilot, and two techs: Jenks (whom we soon learn is in love with the AI) and the exuberant Kizzy. The latter has made jelly-fish-patterned curtains for Rosemary’s tiny room, along with bright covers and cushions and a note that says "Welcome Home." To Rosemary, this seems a perfect new start. Such little touches are part of the strength of this warm and engaging book.
The novel is skillfully plotted, and we are led through various aspects of life on and off the spaceship, including creating wormholes, shopping for essentials in a market, and encountering various alien races, belligerent or friendly. When the captain, Ashby, accepts a well-paid job it means a long journey to the "small angry planet" of the title, and this creates issues, stresses, and dangers for the crew, as they interact with each other and cope with both boredom and danger In this way they deal with all that comes their way, revealing more about both their environment and their characters in the process. Whilst it seems a long time into the novel before the title is explained, gradually the plot heads towards a satisfying climax. There is a light touch but still some serious, tense, and sad moments, such as a discussion between two characters of how to cope with the aftermath of a violent incident, and with fear in general.
Conversation in general is natural in this book and people seem real from the start. Whether they are only met briefly on a visited planet, or are part of the crew, most of the novel’s individuals are believable characters with their own quirks, backstories, and in some cases secrets. We buy into three of the crew members discussing the merits of different kinds of soap in a market, or Rosemary visiting Sissix’s home. Characters emerge and relationships develop depth over the course of the book. I enjoyed reading about their differences and disagreements, tracing the uncovering of secrets and the course of love, the crises the crew have to manage, and the emergencies they face. Whether human or alien, including the puzzling Navigator—a Sinat Pair called Ohan who has to be referred to in the plural—I found myself at different times amused by, irritated by, and anxious about the various characters in the book. The only person who could be more fully realized is Ashby Santoso, the captain, perhaps because we rarely see through his eyes, or perhaps because he is drawn without any clear eccentricities or strong characteristics. Regardless, all is told with warmth and humour without ever becoming sentimental—and with an attention to detail which creates a sense of being earthed in reality and makes it easy to suspend disbelief.
Another strength of the novel is that the necessary explanations of background are never laboured: the reader is not, thankfully, bombarded with pages of obscure exposition as to the workings of the ship or the politics of the Galactic Commons. Science, although present, is worn lightly, and is encountered naturally as the plot demands, being explained succinctly, often via conversations between the main characters—sometimes humorous ones. For instance, at one point a short way into the novel, several of the main characters are sitting around in the kitchen area of their spaceship having breakfast. The conversation develops into an explanation of the science of wormholes by the eccentric engineer, Kizzy, for the benefit of the new addition, Rosemary, using porridge, a piece of fruit, and a napkin; meanwhile the cook, a member of an alien race, watches anxiously in case the work surface is spoilt (pp. 66-7).This mixture of science, friendship, humour, and ordinary life in the context of a working spaceship is typical of the book and why it so appealed to me.
Other issues, for instance inter-species racism, are threaded throughout the book, with Corbin being told firmly he is not allowed to call Sissix a "lizard" (p. 9), but taking in more serious, wider implications too. There is also a subtle feminist slant: there are strong female characters, and other little touches, such as the AI being named after Ada Lovelace, or the revelation that it was a woman who first set on Mars. The historical and political environment, including the settling of Mars, is, like the science, convincingly realised and one feels that the writer knows much more than she tells us, as though we only have glimpses of situations. We gradually learn that an Exodan fleet left earth when things became dire, but that other groups of humans stayed in the Sol system. The mixture of history and politics, interspecies warfare, illegal arms deals and diplomacy, is convincing: developments in admitting a new race, the Toremi, to the Galactic Commons necessitates new wormholes connecting their planet to everyone else, and becomes integral to the plot, as the ship takes a long journey in order to create the link. (A rare exception to the natural explanations, however, is the description of this Toremi race. Whilst necessary for the plot, it seemed to be not as smooth as other accounts, but this is a very minor quibble.)
Some of the interaction between the characters takes place in the working environment, or in time off the ship on various stations and planets. There is also, however, a strand of interest in food. Eating and cooking is integrated into the story in a way that is rarely the case in space novels. The kitchen area is in many ways the heart of the ship, an indication that it is home to those who live and work in it. People often gather there, and a mark of integration into the crew comes when people join in meals and conversation. Food is used to flag up personal characteristics and eccentricities: Kizzy is fond of things strongly flavored with chilli, but also has a passion for caffeinated tea, labeling the decanters of tea "Happy Tea (caffeine) and "Boring Tea" (p. 62). One of the aliens, known as Dr Chef as his real name is unpronounceable, is always interested in experimenting with new herbs and foodstuffs; he loves it when people enjoy his food, and is dedicated to making a cup of tea correctly. "There had been no tea on his home planet. Heating water was only for sleeping in, not for drinking. So many wonderful things they had missed out on" (p. 205). Towards the end of the novel, after the turmoil and dangers of the journey, some of the crew are gathered round the table in the kitchen area again, and the captain, "Ashby smiled. He drank his tea and watched his crew. It was enough" (p. 399).
Many standard SF tropes are present, but seen from a quirky angle. This is a full universe, with lots of possible developments, which in another novel could be the main focus, run in parallel. Although only some are fully explored, they provide a rich background and are often key to the plot or the uncovering of a vital part of the history of one of the characters. We encounter, then, issues around AI sentience, the ethics of supplying military hardware to other species, humans who practice enhancement, and other groups who won’t even be vaccinated, as well as diplomacy and politics between species. A nice touch is that in this universe FTL has been discovered but then banned because of logistical and social problems, thus dealing a blow to the plots of many other spacefaring novels. Becky Chambers has been reading her Usula Le Guin!
An obvious question—given that much of the novel is focused on the development of the various characters, the uncovering of secrets, issues of racism, and their response to crises—is whether the story could just as easily have been set amongst a group of humans taking a journey on earth. However, the mixture of Human and aliens, the wider environment, and the science itself, are all integral to the development of plot and character, which is definitely conceived as a whole. Whilst it is hard to do justice in a review to the novel as a whole, the Guardian soundbite on the front just about sums it up: "A quietly profound, humane, tour de force." I would add that the science fiction elements of the story are an essential part of what makes it so successful. A follow up is promised in October 2016 . . . I can’t wait!
Linda Wilson has loved SF and fantasy since childhood and although she is now a professional historian, she still spends rather a lot of time immersed in alternate or future worlds. She lives in Bristol, UK, with her husband and cats.