Thursday 28 March 2024

Becky Chambers Vs the Assholes

As one much-hyped science fiction series is doing well at the moment, it's time to look at another. Since the publication of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers was published in 2014, her Wayfarer series has attracted its share of admirers and brickbats. There are those who praise the character-oriented focus of the novels over what the usual SF plot devices, and there are critics who criticise it for the lack of originality, the absence of big ideas, and its heavily emphasised good vibes. When the critical reception is divided like this, it's safe to say that the difference is less a case of quality and more one of taste.

Chambers's story is that of the starship Wayfarer. Its mission: to take whatever contracts are available and bore new wormholes in the fabric of spacetime. Its crew: a multi-species melange of misfittery. Ashby, the terminally broke owner of the operation, is offered a megabucks contract to sink a hole in dangerous space run by the war-like Toremi to Galactic Common territory, the Star Trek Federation-esque ... federation. Handily, he's just hired Rosemary, a clerk who can help him navigate the choppy anomalies of interstellar bureaucracy. Because we like cliches in SF, she's running away from a secret past. Also on the ship we have Sissix, a permanently randy Barney-the-friendly-dinosaur alien, Corbin the grumpy algae farmer, Kizzy the motormouth technician, the other technician Jenks (who's in love with Lovey, the Wayfarer's sentient AI), Dr Chef - the medic-cum-chef who is one of the few survivors of a dwindling species, and Ohan. He's a Sianat symbiont pair in which the humanoid(ish) species is deliberately infected by a virus that allows them - and them alone - to navigate the "sublayer" between two points in real space.

Spoilers below.

The adventures of this crew are nothing ground breaking and we're hardly skirting Dangerous Visions territory. Each character has their time in the narrative's sun, dealing with some aspect of their life, their culture, and/or identity-related problems. Apart from the one character who dies, this is low peril to the point of being cosy. And I suppose this was the point. A lot of contemporaneous space opera was about big wars or big reveals. There is none of that in Small Angry Planet, except on the micro level of building and nurturing crew solidarity. Even the isolated awkward character - Corbin - becomes fully part of the group's lovey-dovey culture after Sissix saves him from the unfair discrimination meted out by an officious race of alien lobsters. This makes for just about the most gentle read I've ever encountered in years of reading SF. Every character relationship is a side-story of its own, an opportunity to break down misconceptions, embrace diversity, and find delight in difference. If you want to get a bit Negrian about it, the free play of singularity allows for a more cohesive multitude. Or, to tone down the high falutin', Chambers offers a celebration of liberal identity politics. And ten years on from publication, that is controversial enough for some.

This might be garlic to certain readers of a conservative disposition, but they shouldn't worry too much. The identity politics are resolutely liberal and consistent with assumptions about the way of the world they are comfortable with. But it's not that the so-called Galactic Common is nothing of the sort, being a capitalist society based on markets, waged labour, contract, and state regulation. Nor how the Wayfarer is a small business in which Ashby is the owner and everyone else is an employee - despite its erasure by Chambers's detailed portraits of her creations as a super inclusive spacefaring family. The only compulsion that intrudes on their day-to-day comes from the requirement for paperwork.

What aligns the book firmly with liberalism comes from Chambers's treatment of character-defining adversity. What Rosemary is running from is a wealthy family, but not on account of anything she has done. Her father, despite being one of the wealthiest men on Mars chose to sell illegal weapons to two sides of an especially vicious civil war. What an asshole. The Wayfarer is boarded by Akarakian pirates, an avian-based set of aliens. Ashby is roughed up and they make off with a lot of kit after Rosemary negotiates their release. They confess they attacked because they're desperately poor, (on account of their world having previously been invaded and colonised by another species) but they could have just asked for help instead of robbing them. Assholes. Corbin falls foul of anti-clone laws, and is beaten up by his jailers in detention. Because they're assholes. And then there is the climax of the book. They reach the titular angry planet and we encounter the Toremi for the first time. This race, constantly at war with itself, charges around a circuit of the galactic core shooting up themselves and others because, culturally, they're incredibly dogmatic. Clans are arranged along lines of thought and dissent within is met with death, and from without it's permanent warfare. The GC hope that by allying with one of the clans it will gain access to the resources of the interior. However, at a meeting between the Toremi and GC officials, an individual dissenting Toum takes a dislike to the crew and just as they're about the begin their wormhole punching procedure his ship fires on The Wayfarer, effectively killing Lovey in the process. What an asshole.

This is the flip side to the kumbaya affinity of the crew. They get on because they're not assholes. The threat to their little piece of multi-species heaven is the assholery of others. There is always room for redemption, as we see with Corbin's gratitude to Sissix for saving him, and later when he forcibly cures Ohan of his navigator virus. Structural oppression wouldn't exist if we took a leaf out of Bill and Ted's book and we were all excellent to each other. But ultimately some people are just plain mean and that's it. Chambers is on the terrain of liberal identity politics because what matters above everything is individual character and the behaviours it engenders. A position conservative readers of her work could get on board with, if they can get beyond the play of alien and human difference.

When it comes down to it, Small Angry Planet is a saccharine read that's undemanding, engaging, and heart warming. If it wasn't for the swearing and the lashings of (implied, inter-species) sex it could easily pass as a YA novel suitable for young teens. Though chances are plenty enough of that age bracket have read it anyway. And why not? The book swims with the current of the ever-increasingly dominant social liberalism, but ultimately it's undemanding because it is entirely conformist.

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Jeremy Bee said...

Oof. Brutal. Mostly fair though - it's not my favourite of her books. 2 quick notes about it:

1) Whether you like the book or not, it was one of the earliest of the wave of progressive-leaning SF we've had over the last decade, and its success helped ensure that more of it got published. Mostly agree with the social-liberal analysis, and it can be applied to a lot of the books which came in its wake - but by no means all.

2) Regarding its plot, it is also an early literary example of what I've dubbed Bioware Plotting - that is, where a main arc often runs alongside or is even subsumed by episodic friendship unlocks. Marks a point where the evolving narrative methods of gaming started feeding back into other narrative forms, rather than simply drawing from them.

It's a long time since I read the two immediate sequels, but they're better, as I recall. Still pretty xxsaccharinexx heartwarming, but the second book has a bit more psychological depth, although still very much on the found family kick. The third deals with a primarily noncapitalist society, based around a self-sufficent armada of escapees from Earth, and one of its themes is what happens when a capitalist society with access to tools and methodologies that render some ways of doing things obsolete impinges on a previously independent culture. Also asks the question of what constitutes meaningful work? You may not like the answer the book gives, but it's a rare question in SF (outside of LeGuin, ofc).

The last book is a regression. Avoid.

Been enjoying the SF forays - if you haven't already, consider Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar. I'd advise treating the resident sociologist as an example of high 60s camp, tho.

Jeremy Bee said...

(Should note that the point about Biwoare plotting is pretty widely accepted; Chambers even wrote a review of Mass Effect 3)

Phil said...

Cheers for the comments. The point about Bioware plotting is a good one and didn't occur to me. And why would it? I never play modern video games (or video games of any sort these days, sniff!).

A load of Brunner is on the TBR pile. Which by my reckoning stands at over a thousand books, so it should keep me going for the next 20 years.

Anonymous said...

I really did not like this book for it's treatment of characters who appeared to be on the Autistic Spectrum.

A member of the lizard race is ostracized by the whole race because she doesn't respond to emotional/social cues appropriately.
The clone, who ultra focuses on his work and who appears to have difficulty socialising, is excluded and not made welcome by the ship's crew.
The pilot, who again is ultra focused on their work and does not mix with others, is forcibly, and against their will, given medicine to 'get better'. Yes, I know they would have died without the intervention but this intervention also removed their autistic-seeming traits.

For a book that is trumpeted as being inclusive, these character interactions really stood out to me as being the opposite of inclusive.