I was mad when this book ended.
Not because of anything in the book mind, but rather because the book had to end at all. I’m incredibly picky with my sci-fi, what I watch, what I read, what I play, and I fell in love with this book, or rather its characters, enough that the reality of finishing their story, of leaving them made me mad at the world and everything in it.
If this isn’t a testament enough to the book, let’s talk a little bit about it.
1. Looking for High Stakes Action? Then Look Away
Action-packed, adventure, yeah THE LONG WAY doesn’t have much of that, there are moment of tension, there are moments of action yes, but a a novel, the book is more focused on examining the everyday lives of its characters than putting together some supermassive (black hole) plotty story. This reads as a nice change of pace for Sci-fi.
The story essentially follows this one year journey the crew of the Wayfarer takes to a newly accessible region of space, plot coming as almost of an afterthought. The final act of course is relatively eventful, but the bulk of the novel is made up character-focused moments (TV STAR TREK for example), scenes and tales over the more explosive, epic star-warsen adventure (Film STAR TREK for example).
2. The Story
As I said, THE LONG WAY focuses on the small inner workings of the space ship Wayfarer, the crew’s everyday life, relationships, incidents, pasts, secrets and conflicts. He crew is a mish-mash of sapient humans (from differing backgrounds cultures) and ‘alien’ species, as well as the ship’s sentient AI, Lovelace, known as Lovey.
Together, the crew of the Wayfarer is responsible for opening (punching) up new hyperspace lanes (wormholes) between various regions/systems of space. At the beginning of the book, the Wayfarer picks up a big contract; opening up a sub-space tunnel between the GC (sort of like the Galactic United Nations) space and Toremi Ka space. It’s an opportunity that is too good in both money and opportunity to pass up, even if it means working in unstable space.
We’re led through various aspects of life on ship and in this expansive universe, including creating wormholes, shopping planet side in various locations, encountering different races/cultures, both belligerent or friendly. The ‘long journey to a small an angry planet’ itself creates issues, stresses and dangers for the crew, as they interact with each other, cope with danger and boredom all in a way that reveals more about their characters and environment in the process. There is always a lightness of touch to the tone of the novel, with some serious, tense, sad and even philosophical moments, also cultivating in a satisfying and even purposeful ending for the story and crew.
Are there slow moments? Yes, slow but never boring.
3. Our Motley Crew
The crew of the Wayfarer is why I was mad when the book ended I didn’t want to leave them. Especially since learning that the sequel novel A CLOSE AND COMMON ORBIT doesn’t follow the same characters/crew (with only two familiar faces in the bunch), I was a little heartbroken to learn this, which I think stands as a testament to how likeable and enjoyable the Wayfarer crew is.
Refreshingly diverse and distinctive, each character gets some love, some conflict throughout the work, getting his/her/their/xyr time in the spotlight. The gender diversity is something to note in THE LONG WAY which I loved but I’ll go into more below. Chambers through the crew explores an impressive spread of subjects particularly with the novel’s feel-good vibe; subjects such as gender, identity, family, parent/person hood, race, tradition, religion, choice and compromise.
Throughout the novel we learn more and more about the crew. Jenks (the ships technician) and Lovey (the ship’s AI) have fallen in love and the two are trying to buy a robotic kit for Lovey, something which is against galactic law. Sissix, the Wayfarer’s pilot from a feathered reptilian species visits her home world and we learn about her species and where she came from. When Corbin’s arrested, we learn more about his past and his relationship with his estranged father. We learn the terrible war filled and genocidal history of Dr Chef’s world. The world is enriched and expanded by every character and in turn every character is fleshed out and placed within context in their world.
Despite how vast and foreign this may seem, each character is actually remarkably grounded and often times relatable. Interactions and dialogue shift from fun and amusing to heartfelt and touching, such small moments and touches by Chambers, are really a part of this warm and engaging books strength.
In speaking about these characters, we have to note representation. There are characters in THE LONG WAY that upset the gender binary. Some people use xe/xyr or they as pronouns, some change sex throughout their natural lifetime going from female to male to neither and this is natural biology. There is also an expansive cast of queer and PoC characters (with two of my favourite characters Sissix and Rosemary entering a poly/lesbian relationship), there are many androgynous characters, and the universe is filled with people and species and culture that defy strict societal norms here on earth.
In saying this THE LONG WAY has both been ridiculed and praised for its gender diversity.
The water always gets a little murky when you talk about representation in alien species, some feeling offended to be associated with someone ‘alien’ ‘inhuman’ or ‘other’, other’s not minding so much. I’m personally a part of the latter.
THE LONG WAY has great, great characters who are queer, gender and culturally diverse. But I will say that it is probably best to not recommend one of the ships crew members Ohan (the fuzzy, Wookie like navigator) as good representation of being genderneutral/genderqueer. Though they do use they/them pronouns it is revealed later on that they are inhabited by a parasitic symbiote (like STAR GATES Goa'uld) turning them from a singular consciousness to a ‘pair’.
Thoughtful recommendations I think are the best. There are other gender neutral and queer characters in the novel, but non using they/them pronouns in the main Wayfarer crew apart from Ohan.
THE LONG WAY is a good deconstruction of the sci-fi trope ‘look at all the aliens so different from us but they’re still either female or male’. Good, but not perfect and that has to be acknowledged.
5. The Universe
Most of the novels individual characters, both main and brief, are well realised, seeming real people from the start. Characters emerge and relationships develop well, for the most part world building is threaded nicely throughout conversation, context and in story explanation (with only a few slogging examples against this toward the beginning) but each part relays a world that is expansive enough and interesting enough to keep me interested.
Many standard SF tropes appear in the story (it’s hard to escape them at this point) but thy are given enough quirks or approached in enough different angles to not be contrite or predictable.
THE LONG WAY’S universe feels like a full universe, a lived in universe, with many potential developments which any other SF novel would drag into the spotlight. Instead THE LONG WAY explores this world through the characters, never getting bigger, fully explored this allows for a richer, more personal engagement between reader and story. We care about the issue of AI sentience, the ethics of supplying military hardware, cultural sensitivity, humans who practice physical enhancement and other groups who struggle with technology, religion, and the diplomacy and politics between species.
We care because we care about the people involved- something which SF novels in particular tend to lack more-often-than-not.
Ultimately, it is a world I can see myself revisiting, but there will be a bit of a sour tinge if the characters of the Wayfarer themselves aren’t involved.
If any of the above interests you or captures your attention, then read this book. It’s fun, heart-warming, feel-good and fluffy. I think of it with a lot of affection as a lot of thought and love has gone into it’s characters and story. It’s easily my most fun read of 2017 so far. As a fan of sci-fi I give it a thumbs up. An excellent debut by Becky Chambers and a great read cuddled up on a rainy day.