Chambers, Becky. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.

NY: HarperCollins, 2015.

This extremely inventive and beautifully written debut space opera is the most fun I’ve had in some time. The setting is some centuries in the future, when mankind has pretty much ruined Earth and the majority of our species now spend their lives in huge refugee “homestead ships,” the Exodus Fleet, wandering between the stars. The more well-off survivors abandoned the planet early and escaped to Mars, which is now the human center of the Solar System.

Fortunately for us, there are a vast number of alien races in the galaxy and many of them have joined together to form the Galactic Commons, in which humans have now been accepted, though as one of its least influential members.

Rosemary Harper comes from a wealthy and privileged Martian family but she’s fled her home, taken a new name (don’t worry, you’ll find out what drove her to it), and found work as ship’s clerk on the wormhole-tunneling vessel Wayfarer, captained by Ashby Santoso, one of the sanest and most likable fictional characters you’re likely to meet. Building wormholes through hyperspace, it turns out, is not a glamorous profession, especially on the small scale her new ship is restricted to, but Rosemary can’t be choosy. Happily, her skills are genuinely needed, the Captain being terrible with reports and formwork, and the rest of the crew is equally welcoming. There’s Kizzy Shao, the mech tech, who is a hoot and a half, but is also dedicated to her ship and very brave when she has to be. And there’s her computer tech colleague, the diminutive Jenks, who has a very deep emotional relationship with Lovey, the ship’s AI installation. Sissix, the ship’s pilot, is a female Aandrisk, a species with a complicated family structure. She’s coldblooded and reptilian but a very nice person. “Dr. Chef,” who is both the medical officer and the ship’s cook, is about as alien as it’s possible to be — except for the Navigator, who is actually a Sianat Pair capable of doing subspace math in “their” head. And then there’s Corbin, the algae expert. who grows Wayfarer’s fuel. Human, sort of, and good at his job, but a p.i.t.a. otherwise.

We follow Rosemary as she settles into her new life “out in the open” of deep space, as she becomes acquainted with her new shipmates, and learns what tunneling is all about, and visits a variety of new worlds. And then Wayfarer has a chance at a lucrative government contract to build a wormhole to a newly allied species, the profits from which could enable the ship to be upgraded to a whole new level of contract work. But it isn’t going to be an easy job. It may not even be a survivable job.

The neat thing about this book is all the new ideas the author crams into nearly every page. There are plenty of recognizable SF tropes, but every one of them has been given a new spin. Like the crew’s dependence on bugs as a food source. “Insects were cheap, rich in protein, and easy to cultivate in cramped rooms, which made them an ideal food for spacers.” And while the characters are pretty quirky, there’s also considerable depth to their interrelationships. There’s no indication of a possible sequel but I certainly hope Chambers is considering it.

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