A Fun Approach to Sci-Fi: the long way to a small angry planet by Becky Chambers

As a physicist, it can be hard for me to enjoy science fiction. This isn’t because I have a deep running hatred of Spock, or the teddy-bear aesthetic of the Ewoks gives me the heebie-jeebies. It is because I know that whilst the universe is wild, it has limitations. Just adding the word “quantum” in front of something isn’t going to magically fix all the basic laws of physics your “quantum mini quasi-death ray teleportation engine of doom” will break. Adding more smart- sounding adjectives does not make your piece of work smarter, it just makes you sound kind of pretentious. Quantum is not a catch-all net, and I wish authors would stop treating it like one.

My favourite authors will take an already known theory of the universe and push it in a fun new direction. This is exactly what Chambers has done throughout ‘the long way to a small angry planet’. There is something romantic about quantum mechanics, and I can appreciate the desire to make all these grand metaphors about twisting time or the uncertainty of the future. It’s just such an overly common way of drawing in the reader with grand promises. Those that practice using and calculating these quantum characteristics in their day-to-day lives have a different experience with it. More substance is needed. If you’re going to introduce a new law in the universe that lets your character do something impossible like shrink down to the size of an ant, tell me about the practicalities. What are its limitations? What conditions does it need to function? Those are the things I find most interesting, the details that ground the law in some sort of reality.

My favourite example in the book is how spaceships can travel at such high speeds. Space-time is treated as a sheet, like in those videos you get explaining gravity as a curve in space-time where they put a ball in the middle of a blanket. What if we were then able to pierce this sheet like a needle going through fabric? The spaceship, acting as the needle, can then sew its way across the fabric of space-time, making lots of little jumps to get where they need to go. This is so much more fun than the regular wormhole leap-of- faith, and the book goes into more details of the equipment needed to facilitate such fast movements (the anchors, the biology of the alien pilot, the politics of such wide movement range, all of it). That creativity is exactly what I crave in science fiction, and if you are of a similar mindset then there are many more instances of a fully fleshed out world that lie waiting for you in this book.

I haven’t even started gushing about the characters and theming yet. We follow a likeable young woman named Rosemary who is the new clerk of a wormhole construction ship named theWayfarer. The plot is simple; they need to journey a long way to construct a new wormhole. The true strength of this book lies in the crazy array of characters that are aboard the ship and how relationships develop between them. If you like ‘found family’, this will be perfect for you.

As a woman, the portrayal of such diverse and elaborate female characters is like eating chocolate on the sofa at the end of a long and frustrating day of work. It’s so refreshing to see women living their lives on a cool spaceship, actually interacting with other women on board because there’s more than one of them! For some readers, this wouldn’t be a novelty, but I finally felt seen and appreciated as a woman in STEM. There’s also some great romance and sexuality representation in the novel, though it isn’t a large part of the story in the first book. The sequel, ‘A Closed and Common Orbit’, spends a lot more time expanding upon an LGBT+ romance, if that’s something you look for in your reads.

Overall, this book is a great meeting point of science, creativity, and friendship. So much time is spent developing the themes of finding daily positivity and having respect for one another that the novel leaves you with a warm and serotonin-filled aftertaste. I fully recommend this book to those who want to have a relaxed and happy time – with some added aliens thrown into the mix.

By Annie Layhe

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