You guys, I really, really liked this book. Let’s start off there. It combines what I loved in the first parts of The Expanse series with Star Trek, stirs in the best bits of Firefly, and then adds a bunch of its own stuff. It’s very good. If that’s all you need to get you started, then go forthwith and devour at the next available opportunity.
But I can’t get away with that little of a review, and I don’t really want to anyway, so onward. We start with Rosemary Harper, a Mars-born human woman fleeing her past by signing on as a clerk on a long-haul tunneling ship with a multi-species crew called the Wayfarer. Tunneling ships basically construct wormholes, the physics of which are explained a bit but not enough to make your head wobble. Once aboard we meet the rest of the crew, which are comprised of four other Humans, one Aandrisk, a Grum, a Sianat Pair, and a sentient AI. Through Rosemary’s interactions with the crew and the crew’s interactions with each other, you slowly become aware of what happened to Earth and Humans and also the nature of the bonds and relationships between the galaxy’s many inhabitants, as well as how the other societies function among themselves.
I called this book a more approachable Expanse when I was talking about it with someone, because even though there are many more species and worlds and governments involved, Chambers seems to introduce and balance them all with a deft enough hand that you never feel like you’re reading a comparative government textbook. Sissix, the gregarious Aandrisk pilot, introduces Rosemary and us to her culture, and it feels as natural as visiting a roommate’s family over a holiday weekend. Dr. Chef, the Grum medic and cook, occasionally explains bits and pieces of his history in between cooking meals and brewing cups of tea. You never feel hit over the head with exposition or explanatory text; you learn through conversations among friends or experiences the characters have.
And up front, let me say I really like Leviathan Wakes a lot. But the parts of it I loved the most were the parts on the Rocinante. I just love a good ship story, whether it’s on the ocean or in space. So The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet‘s real strength here is keeping the story with the crew. They become your family as they adopt Rosemary and continue to adjust to each other during the events of the book, which I’m not going to spoil so you’ll just have to read it. But if you fell in love with the crew of Serenity, then it’s going to be real easy to do the same here. Not because there are exact analogues (although Kizzy is pretty close to Kaylee and that is never a bad thing because Kaylee is the best), but because everyone is just so real and weird and fantastic and themselves. Hell, by the end I even kind of liked Corbin.
AND! Glory be, there is some lovely and not all overdone stuff woven throughout about gender and colonialism and sexual preferences and race and bigotry and things that you would absolutely expect to deal with in a universe populated with this many species who have tenuous diplomatic ties at best sometimes. And good lord Humans are sometimes very bad at getting it. But sometimes Humans are pretty okay at getting it. We’re a mixed bag! Like everybody else!
My one minor quibble is that there’s maybe not a whole heck of a lot that happens in this book — it’s not quite as actiony as Leviathan Wakes. But goodness does it create a world and introduce some people I’d love to spend time with, and I almost prefer that. Because when the action does happen, you have an invested stake. You care about each one of these characters and what they mean to each other. For me, action can happen whenever, but you can’t necessarily go back and make me care about who it happens to. So Chambers gets the important part right here. The set pieces can come later.
So yes, obviously, I’m going to read the other two books in the series, after I get through a couple more I’ve got currently either in my loans or on hold (thank you, decent library ebook selection). I don’t know if this would be an eventual purchase, because it is kind of long and I might never get around to re-reading it. But this is definitely way up there as far as sci-fi goes.
A Note!: My definition of hard sci-fi is obviously not going to be as strict as someone with an actual education or deep knowledge of science. I have an amateur’s knowledge of some diseases and a passing familiarity with some of the broader concepts, but most of my scientific education was gained in high school or from when TV still showed semi-educational content and not a series of continuous Dunning-Kruger experiments. If the science in a story is goofy enough for me to go, “Erm, I don’t think that’s how that works at all…” then that is likely not hard sci-fi. I am a literature major so if I’m having to suspend my scientific disbelief, then we’re not treading very credible ground. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I won’t call it hard sci-fi. However, if it seems like the science is pretty reasonable throughout and there’s nothing causing me to go, “Oh, so space magic. Okay,” then we’re getting there. If effort is made to explain various concepts and those explanations seem fairly plausible, then I’m going to go ahead and call it hard sci-fi. But you are free to disagree with me on that.