Saturday 11 May 2019

Wayfarers series, by Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is the start of the Wayfarers series. The setting is in a future in which, having trashed the Earth, what is left of humanity is divided between settlements on Mars, and the huge Exodan fleet cruising a galaxy which is populated by several different space-going races; members of the Galactic Commons, which humanity had joined. The first viewpoint character is Rosemary Harper, a young woman who is fleeing some initially unspecified personal disaster. She joins the crew of the Wayfarer, a somewhat cobbled-together vessel which specialises in creating hyperspace tunnels for use by space ships, drastically shortening the time required to travel between star systems.

The story has that favourite SF theme – an old ship travelling the galaxy with a small but wildly assorted crew including representatives of several different alien races. Apart from the humans (the captain, Ashby Santoso, mech experts Kizzy and Jenks, and Corbin, in charge of the algae fuel supply) there is Sissix the pilot (from the lizard-like Aandrix race), Dr Chef the Grum (a doomed, six-limbed race) and Ohan the navigator, a Sianat pair – a race which was infected by the Whisperer neurovirus which made it able to track an accurate course even in the "sublayer" which had to be traversed until a tunnel was set up on the route. Finally, there is Lovey the AI, who runs the ship for them as the crew direct.

At the start it seems that Rosemary will be the principal character, but in fact she blends in with the crew and the viewpoint keeps hopping around between members of the crew and even the aliens they meet later; sometimes the viewpoint is that of a separate narrator rather than any of the characters. This means that the story loses a certain amount of focus, being more of a collective enterprise.

The story has a leisurely pacing at first, with time-outs taken for occasional infodumps in the form of long conversations between characters, which both fill out their personalities and explore social and ethical issues – a theme running through the novel.

Wayfarer is given the job of creating a new tunnel to a planet which is being fought over by different sections of a violent race. As they approach their goal the tension ramps up and the pace of the action accelerates. The conclusion is an emotional ride, paving the way for the next volume. By the end of the story, the reader has come to like and care for the disparate characters; perhaps oddly, the captain remains the least well-known of the crew, apart from his unusual relationship with a member of a different alien race, the beautiful Aeluon. I enjoyed the ride, and will be buying the next volume in the series – although I do have one belated reservation, as mentioned in the review of Volume 2 below.


The strange thing about The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet which I did not realise until I came to pick up the second volume, A Closed and Common Orbit, is that I had forgotten what it was about within weeks of reading it; I had to read my own review in order to recall it. Even stranger, I read the first forty pages of Volume 2 one evening, and could recall nothing about it in the morning. Now, you may say that my advanced years are catching up with me and I don't doubt that is true; but even so this is a rather extreme example. I'll see if the story makes a greater impact on my memory as the series develops.

Reviewing Volume 2 necessarily involves some spoilers concerning the ending of  Volume 1. Incidentally, the story plunges straight into the action without any hints as to what had happened previously, so anyone who tries to start this series with the second volume will have trouble working out what is going on.

A Closed and Common Orbit is a rather strange sequel, being more like a spin-off, in that the Wayfarer and its crew scarcely get a mention, even though the story does follow-on immediately from the end of the first volume with Lovelace, the rebooted ship AI, being transferred to an artificial body which for all day-to-day purposes can pass as human. This is highly illegal, which leads to a certain frisson, especially as Lovelace (now renamed Sidra) is hard-wired to answer truthfully any questions put to her.

Most of the rest of the novel consists of two threads followed in alternating chapters: one concerns Sidra's attempts to find a place for herself in the multi-species environment of the plant Coriol, where she is being looked after by Pepper (a skilled technician who we met in the first volume); the other follows Pepper's childhood as a cloned scrap-sorter known as Jane 23. Jane escapes from the recycling factory at the age of 10 and spends the next nine years living among piles of scrap which cover this part of a planet. She is aided by the AI (known as Owl) of an abandoned shuttle craft which becomes her home. Eventually Jane escapes the planet in the repaired shuttle, and becomes Pepper (not a spoiler, this is signalled at the start).

It has to be said that there isn't a great deal of action going on. Jane 23's existence among the scrap-heaps is certainly memorable, largely as a result of a substantial part of the book being devoted to describing it in great detail. Meanwhile, Sidra's own existential issues as she struggles to "find herself" do rather resemble a typical teenager's experience, down to the fits and sulks which seem inappropriate for an AI.  As with the first, the second volume has various social/ethical issues scattered through it, giving an impression that the author is plugging her personal views. The most memorable concerns the child-rearing practices of the advanced Aeluons, who regard this task as far too important to leave to amateurs who have other things to do, so their babies are handed over to full-time professionally-qualified child-rearers.

The story was interesting enough to hold my attention even though it was really not what I expected of a sequel. Although somewhat lukewarm about the development of the series, I would probably have bought the third volume Record of a Spaceborn Few (this completist habit is hard to break!) but I have been tipped off that it involves yet another set of new characters and is rather disappointing, so I'm unlikely to be reading it.