Science fiction is an escape from our mundane reality to another shinier, brighter alternate world. There’s a whole universe of unusual aliens to discover. It reflects the times it was written and what the hopes were, or extrapolates based on available data. As well as providing an escape, it can also show us a way forward at the moment.. We go halfway around the universe only to discover ourselves.
The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is science fiction or our times, reflecting the need for listening and understanding between different people and species. It’s a novel that is not so much pre-occupied with massive space battles or exploring the galaxy, but instead focuses on a small group of characters on one ship. What emerges is refreshingly different to the majority of science fiction out there. It also gives us lessons on how to proceed in our world of uncertainty, using aliens and space to talk about our current world situation
Humans are not the center of this world, not even a major player on the galactic level. Our status as the centre of everything is challenged and displaced. Some catastrophe has forced us to leave Earth, though some remain near the planet in orbit. Because of this, all hatred and divisions have become irrelevant. In their race to their stars, humans have lost their war like tendencies and become pacifists. In essence, most of the human race has done the impossible and learnt humility. But it’s not simple. It’s fractured into differing groups. On the ship though, Ashby and Rosemary are opening and inclusive of everyone. Ashby in particular represents the pacifist ideal.
The main emphasis in the book is on tolerance and acceptance of differing views. The crew are all accommodating of each other and their differing needs as species and as people. It’s a wonderful plea for empathy of others differences. Sissix is a reptilian cold blooded alien, and Ashby demands she is never called ‘Lizard’, deeming it a speciesist slur. Corbyn, the ship’s fuel engineer, is the voice of most intolerance, unable to deal with other species. But Chambers allows even him to speak and have a developed story, with issues from his father. The result is a complex, multi- dimensional character. It’s the same for every character within the book. They are all interesting, conflicted characters with their own stories to tell. Chambers asks us to listen to their stories so we can better emphasize with others.
As science fiction, the book is hopeful and optimistic for a better world where everyone is recognised on their merits alone. It’s the most utopian of science fiction and the most necessary in these dark political times as those in power want to divide people based on simple prejudices. As Dr. Chef says to Rosemary:
All you can do, Rosemary- All any of us can do- is to work to be something positive instead. That is a choice that every sapient must make every day of their life. The universe is what we make of it. It’s up to you to decide what part you will play.
The alternative to the optimism is shown in the crew’s dealing with the Toremi Ka. They represent the antithesis of what the crew believe. They are completely intolerant of everyone with a different view and they resort to violence. They are dangerous and are unable to be reasoned with. They are what happens when empathy breaks down, when reason and tolerance is no more.
The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet is a much needed plea for empathy. The crew survive because of their love and positivity for each other, as well as their ability to emphasise with those who are different. It is essential reading in these dark times.