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The Wayfarers Series by Becky Chambers

Werthead

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The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

The crew of the Wayfarer are a tight unit with a complicated history. Rosemary Harper is a newcomer to the vessel, having to find a way of fitting into the crew whilst also avoiding her own past. But all of the crew of the Wayfarer have their secrets and their demons. When the ship accepts a commission to fly all the way to the galactic core (a journey of a year) to build a new hyperspace tunnel, these secrets will come spilling out.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is the debut novel by Becky Chambers and the opening volume in the Wayfarers series. The novel was crowdfunded on Kickstarter in 2012, a result of Chambers not being able to find a publisher for the book, and it has since been a huge success. It was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy Award and Kitschies, and its two sequels and the series overall have been nominated for Hugo Awards.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet opens in a highly familiar manner, with a cast of mistmatched characters living together on a spacecraft being established. From Blake's 7 to Farscape to Firefly to Colin Greenland's Tabitha Jute trilogy to Chris Wooding's Ketty Jay series, this remains a rich and engaging way of establishing character relationships and drama, and here is no different. What is slightly more unusual is the structure. There's relatively little in the way of space heroics or daring-do, with instead the focus being more on character exploration. Through successive episodes, we learn more about each of the characters on the ship: new clerk Rosemary, reptilian navigator Sissix, the medical officer/cook Doc Chef, the navigator Ohan, fun-loving engineers Kizzy and Jenks, buttoned-up algaeist Corbin, ship's AI Lovelace and Captain Ashby.

Despite it's moderate length (just over 400 pages), The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is therefore more of a themed anthology or mosaic novel, a collection of short stories focused on each character with their shared mission (to the titular angry planet) cohering the fragmented narratives into a whole. It's a successful structure, meaning we get to know the crew in great depth before they come together to confront a crisis at their destination.

It's also a refreshingly non-violent space opera. There are moments of jeopardy and danger, but Captain Ashby is a pacifist who doesn't carry weapons on his person or his ship, so they have to think their way out of each situation rather than opening up with guns blazing. It's a more old-skool form of space opera in that sense, with people out-thinking their opponents rather than nuking them.

On the negative side, the chill pace of the novel means the ending explodes almost out of nowhere, with the entire plot wrapped up in near-indecent haste. That's not necessarily a huge problem - the book is very literally all about the journey, not the destination - but the ending of the story does verge on the perfunctory, although the individual character arcs do have satisfying endings. Some may also find it odd that we spend an entire novel building up the characters only to promptly abandon them: the sequels A Closed and Common Orbit and Record of a Spaceborn Few pursue (mostly) different casts of characters in other parts of the galaxy. However, the Wayfarers series is ongoing and we may revisit these characters further down the road.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (****) is a highly entertaining space opera, with a laudable focus on rich characters and a refreshing desire to avoid the cliches of the subgenre. The book's relaxed pace and lack of tension may not be to everyone's liking, but it makes for a different and enjoyable focus to the book.
 

Werthead

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A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

Lovelace, the former AI of the Wayfarer, has been given her own body and is now living undercover as a human on a remote settlement. She is adapting to life as a human by her friend Pepper, who as a former genetically-engineered slave knows a thing or two about having to overcome your past to achieve a greater future. But Pepper also owes someone a debt, one that will take her across the galaxy as a way of fulfilling it.

A Closed and Common Orbit is the second volume of the Wayfarers series, following on from The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. It's not a sequel as such, picking up only on a single dangling plot thread from that book and expanding on several very minor characters, and can be read as a stand-alone novel.

The book is about many things, including friendship, humanity and what it means to be a person. There are human, AI and alien perspectives on this thorny question and on the ethical dilemmas involved. The story unfolds in two distinct threads, a current-day story about Lovelace adjusting to life as her new cover personality, Sidra, and an extensive flashback to Pepper's life as a slave and how she escaped. The story therefore unrolls in two directions simultaneously, backwards and forwards, until the two meet up satisfyingly near the end.

Like The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, this is book is much more concerned with character, relationships and moral quandaries than it is in shooty action. There are a few tense moments and sequences, but the characters are rarely in physical jeopardy. This is a book much more concerned with the characters, their backstories and their motivations and how that impacts on important moral and ethical decisions they have to make going forwards. Both characters having two names - Lovelace/Sidra and Jane/Pepper - is also a nice clue that the characters are going on journeys as their identities shift to deal with the new worlds they find themselves in.

One advantage A Closed and Common Orbit has over its predecessor is that it is primarily and tightly focused on just two characters rather than half a dozen. This means that both characters get a huge amount of development and we become deeply immersed in their lives.

The weakness is that A Closed and Common Orbit is also very much a relaxed, chill novel without much in the way of drama. The decision to move away from space opera cliches like laser gun battles and explosions is laudable, but there are moments where you do feel like it could use a few more stakes. The few tense and dangerous moments that do occur take place in Pepper's flashback, where you already know she's going to be just fine.

A Closed and Common Orbit (****) confirms Becky Chambers' place as the natural heir to Lois McMaster Bujold in writing interesting, innovative science fiction which examines moral and ethical concerns and how they impact on characters, but those looking for action and dramatic events are best-served elsewhere. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
 

dwndrgn

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I enjoyed the first two but the third I couldn't even finish. I can't even say why really. It felt wrong in some way and pointless in another - not pointless in a Quixote kind of way but pointless in a lost in the desert with no direction to go kind of way.
 

Werthead

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Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Several centuries ago, Earth was verging on becoming completely uninhabitable. The survivors fled the planet in a fleet of thirty enormous space arks, the Exodus Fleet, whilst others sought survival in primitive colony domes on Luna, Mars and Titan. Years later, humanity was contacted by the alien alliance known as the Galactic Commons and welcomed as a member, but rather than abandon the Exodus Fleet for a planet, most of its complement remained behind. The remarkable spaceborn civilisation continues to survive in deep space...until a terrible accident makes it clear how tenuous their existence is.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third book in Becky Chambers' Wayfarers series, following on from The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit. It only shares a setting in common with those earlier books and a very tenuous character connection (far moreso than the previous novel), so can be read completely independently of those books.

What it does share is Chambers' enjoyable, laidback writing style, her attention to detail and gift for crafting interesting characters with some depth. Unfortunately, it also shares her tendency to focus on extremely "nice" characters and neglect any kind of over-arcing narrative. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - SF novels which eschew explosions and people running around lots in favour of worldbuilding and atmosphere are all too few - but it does feel like this time we've been invited back to visit the Galactic Commons, only for there not being very much going on when we arrive.

A Closed and Common Orbit worked because of the very tight character focus on just two protagonists and how it explored two timelines in tandem. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet worked because of its exploration of the whole crew of a small ship and how they come together to overcome a series of challenges. Record of a Spaceborn Few doesn't really have the same kind of engine driving it. Instead, it feels like a series of interlocking short stories as we flip between six characters in different parts of the Exodus Fleet. There's a human who's arrived on the Fleet from one of the colony worlds and tries to fit in; a corpse disposal specialist who has a huge amount of respect for the importance of the job in the community; an ageing archivist; an alien visitor keen to learn more about the Fleet; a teenage boy trying to escape the society; and a mother and worker trying to make the best of life in the fleet for her family.

Individually these are interesting stories, which are brought together by a surprising event towards the end of the novel, but beyond that there isn't much connecting them together. The whole point of a Wayfarers novel at this point is reading a slow-paced, well-characterised book lacking the blood and lasers of more familiar space opera, but this one feels so laidback it is bordering on falling asleep, and the book never really comes alive because of it.

Record of a Spaceborn Few (***) is readable and has some interesting characters, but it lacks much of a kind of narrative drive. As an exercise in worldbuilding and establishing more information about the Galactic Commons, it's very good (helped by an appendix), but as a novel it lacks cohesion and tension. It is available now in the UK and USA.
 

Abernovo

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Oddly enough, @Werthead, I found the lack of pace precisely what made me love the third novel. It works for me as a slice of life novel, and the examination of the 'mundane' (I feel) reveals subtle insights of what makes a family, or society. Maybe it's the aspect of the 'found family', the created society, which works for me. I've read (and watched) a few stories with similar themes, although most have been in a contemporary setting.

I also thought the alien studying human society had a nod to Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness about it. Which is another book I enjoyed immensely.

That said, you've put together a well-written and thoughtful review, as always. Horses for courses, etc, in terms of the book. :)
 

Jo Zebedee

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I'm afraid I didn't pick up the sequels - and some of the reasons are close to some of the thoughts on book 3. I found the first a little episodic without the forward momentum to keep me interested. I do think it's great to see Chambers doing so well and to see thoughtful character-led SF out there but this one didn't make me fall in love with it. :(
 

Vertigo

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I'm afraid I didn't pick up the sequels - and some of the reasons are close to some of the thoughts on book 3. I found the first a little episodic without the forward momentum to keep me interested. I do think it's great to see Chambers doing so well and to see thoughtful character-led SF out there but this one didn't make me fall in love with it. :(
You and me both, I'm afraid, Jo!
 
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