Quite a ways back – probably years – my book club read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. I didn’t read it at the time, but I added it to my eventual to read list. I finally picked it up a few months ago, and liked it so much I read the entire quartet – I put the fourth, recently released book on reserve at the library before it was actually out (a good trick I highly recommend!)
This series, particularly the first book, is a little bit of some of the best sci fi franchises, while feeling totally different and new. Humanity has moved out to the stars and joined a galactic alliance of different species (a la Star Trek)…except they’re not significant within that alliance, and are actually regarded as rather secondary citizens compared to the more powerful races in the galaxy. Those races involve a lot of very different, not necessarily bipedal, aliens (a la Star Wars) who, in some books in the series, actually get a lot more screentime than humans do. The first book centers on a slightly ragtag crew of a spaceship just trying to get by (a la Firefly) by punching wormholes through space – it’s a living.
I really enjoyed the worldbuilding concept of this. It’s as if Chambers looked at the TV trope “Humans Are Special” and decided to write a story directly counter to it. That isn’t to say that she’s anti-human somehow, just that there’s a lot of attention paid to very interesting alien cultures, and within this galaxy those aliens (as they would!) consider their own values, culture and morality to be the norm. They’re tolerant of each other though, including of humans, even if humans have this weird attitude about wanting to live in biological groupings and raise their own young. It’s a big galaxy. There’s some action in this first book (and later ones in the series) but it’s a fairly character-centered science fiction series, much more about people (of whatever alien race) and how they relate to and understand each other.
The first book feels like it’s meant to be a TV miniseries, with a series of episodes following the crew of the Wayfarer, on their long journey to a small planet so that they can punch a wormhole back (the science is complicated). They’re a variety of species with a variety of challenges, just trying to get along and make their way through space.
Book 2, A Closed and Common Orbit, centers on Lovelace, an AI trying to figure out what it means to live, more or less, and her friend Pepper, an engineer with a complicated past. The book alternates between Lovey’s story in the present and Pepper’s history. I kept being undecided about which one I was more interested in!
Book 3 is the most human-centered book. Record of a Spaceborn Few focuses on the Exodus Fleet, a fleet of ships that humans used to leave Earth centuries ago, which is now in orbit around a new sun. They’ve created their own culture and sustainable community with no plans ever to land. This one focuses on several different people within the Fleet, each with their own story, whose paths eventually cross.
Book 4 is, by contrast, the least human-focused – we go most of the book without even seeing a human! The Galaxy, and the Ground Within focuses on several aliens stranded at a rest stop for a few days, and how they learn from each other. It’s completely a character study – there’s very little plot or action, just a lot of really, really interesting interaction and cultural exploration between several different aliens. I like stories where people sit around and talk to each other, if they talk about interesting things, so this was great for me.
If you like sci fi that focuses more on culture and psychology than space shoot-outs, I highly, highly recommend this series. One of the most interesting world-buildings I’ve seen, and it’s a very thoughtful, very insightful series.