Lengthy review of the “Wayfarer” SF series by Becky Chambers

In December 2020 I reviewed my Books of the Year here: https://www.penelopewallace.com/books-2020/  giving the award for Most Enjoyable Read to Becky Chambers’ “The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.” I have now just completed the Wayfarers tetralogy of which that was the first.

Despite the impression I may create, I don’t actually read a huge amount of science fiction, but the basic Chambers premise of a (fairly) benevolent inter-galactic society of various intelligent creatures is not uncommon. See Star Trek and the works of Sheri S Tepper or Ursula K le Guin, for starters.

In Chambers’ fiction, Humans are newcomers to the Galactic Commons (GC.) Having trashed Earth, most of the human race was forced to manufacture enormous spaceships out of their cities, and set out into the void in the hope of finding somewhere to live. Sometime later, the so-called Exodus Fleet was discovered by the Aeluon race, and humanity was accorded refugee status by the GC. Maybe half a century later they/we were allowed membership of the governing elite, along with Aeluons, Aandrisks, Harmagians, Laru, Quelin, and possibly several other races. This status also applied to the descendants of the (richer) humans who stayed in the Solar System and at the time of the stories tend to have paler skins, and live mostly on Mars.

Like the “Tales from Ragaris,” the four books can be read independently, and few of the characters recur. Unlike the Tales, there’s a fairly short timeline from series start to finish.

Book 1, “The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet”, should probably be read first. The Wayfarer spaceship is a commercial vessel that applies for contracts to tunnel through space (creating hyperspace bypasses, perhaps, although they’re not called this. Becky Chambers seems to be familiar with the works of Douglas Adams – and Le Guin, for that matter.) The book tells of a long commute to carry out a particularly lucrative contract, and the adventures and interactions of the crew, most but not all of whom are Human, along the way.

Book 2, “A Closed and Common Orbit”, takes two minor characters from book 1, a Human clone and an Artificial Intelligence now housed in a humanoid body, and tells their adventures, including the clone’s harrowing backstory.

Book 3, “Record of a Spaceborn Few”, is a few months in the life of inhabitants one of the enormous spaceships of the Exodan Fleet, wondering if the Fleet still has a purpose post-rescue, and how its inhabitants should relate to visitors.

Book 4, “The Galaxy, and the Ground Within”, brings together five people, none of them Human, forced to spend rather more time together than they planned at the intergalactic equivalent of a motorway service station. One of them is a minor character from Book 1.

Yes, the titles are distinctly odd.

You may or may find this summary enticing. Some do not. When I looked the series up on the site Goodreads. I was amused to find that there were very few comments in between “These books are so wonderful, I love them, five stars” and “These books are absolutely awful, one star.” One star or five stars.

The people who give them one star tend to have two criticisms.

The first is Plot, Lack Of.

Books 3 and 4, in particular, have storylines that could be summed up fairly briefly: in fact, I’ve basically done so above. “The Long Way…” doesn’t so much have a plot as a string of episodes within an overall arc, and one critic complained of a lack of stakes. “Space pirates attack… easily resolved. Crew member arbitrarily arrested… easily resolved. Mines found aboard ship… easily resolved.” Because it’s not the drama but the people and their cultures in whom the author is interested.

(The Aeluon race, for example… are graceful scaled bipeds who do not naturally hear sound or talk, but communicate through varying the colours displayed on their faces. Since meeting other races, they’ve implanted talkboxes, and adapted to speech. Female Aeluons produce eggs once or twice in their lives; they then go to a publicly-financed creche for a month or so of pampering and sex before the now fertilised egg is left to be cared for, and the child brought up, by a group of highly-qualified “fathers.” Relationships with members of other species are frowned on, so guess who is having a secret affair with a Human?)

Chambers is primarily interested in exploring her characters’ widely different cultures, histories, lifespans and anatomies – seeing how, and whether, they can get on; and working out how this might work in terms of culture and intergalactic law. And although it’s fair to say that more characters are Human than any other species, it’s plain that each species has space for just as much personal individuality as any other. (Well, except the Toremi…)

The characters do have adventures, but they also spend a lot of their time chatting about cultural differences, spending money on trivialities, teasing each other, and eating snacks or dessert.

There is a lot of dessert. “You certainly didn’t skimp on the sugar,” one character says towards the end of the fourth book, and this may well be an author’s in-joke, because the other main complaint on Goodreads are that the books are… well, too sweet.

Everyone (almost) is nice! Everyone spends ages being kind to each other! Even the slightly less nice ones are on the whole basically decent!

I feel that the modern trend in speculative fiction is not sweet. There is a subgenre called grimdark, perhaps invented by George RR Martin (“Game of Thrones”) and continued by Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence. They write intelligent, complicated, dramatic stories, some of which I’ve read with great enjoyment, in which any dessert is quite likely to be laced with poison, and any kindly offer should be scrutinised very very carefully.

(It’s possible, before you say it, that I haven’t read widely enough to justify such a sweeping assertion, and I also admit that science fiction and fantasy are not the same thing.)

I will accept that some of Chambers’ merry chitchat goes on a tiny bit too long. But on the whole I love it.

And the sweetness is not quite unalloyed. These are small-scale stories, not epics. We meet characters going about their normal lives, on the whole. The GC is fairly benevolent and well-meaning. But it’s made plain that there is bad stuff out there: there exists a planet, possibly not part of the GC system, where children are cloned en masse to be child labour. Jane 27 escapes, but the other Janes don’t. Similarly, the historic injustice done to the Akarak species does not seem likely to be remedied any time soon. These things are pointed out, but not dwelt on.

Secondly, Chambers is not a Christian writer. She lives in California, and one is not surprised. Very few of the numerous cultures she has invented have a traditional 20th century human view of marriage and family. The books are humanist, and assume there is no life after death.

This means that despite the sweetness, the character deaths that do occur are devastating.

As you can tell, I love these books, but alas, Chambers is now writing other things, and the Wayfarer series will stop at four.

Love from the PPI Blogger

PS I’m now aiming to post monthly… 

1 Comment
  • Stephen Hall

    22nd September 2022 at 12:11 pm Reply

    I have now read The Long Way to an Angry Planet, and enjoyed it. I think you’ve covered the most obvious review points above. Two other things that struck me were:
    (1) that all the species appeared equally intelligent and (broadly) able – how likely is this? I’d recommend Consider Phlebus by Iain M Banks in which the human (and AI) based ‘Culture’ declare unprovoked war (for an interesting reason) on a clearly more intelligent and stronger species, and in which that other species share their planet with another clearly less intelligent but sentient species. Interesting dynamics to explore in all this, which TLWTAAP doesn’t try to do.
    (2) I assumed at the start the angry planet would turn out to be Earth. When this proved not to be the case, I assumed it would be a metaphor for Earth. But I’m not sure it was that either. Not a criticism, just an observation of how my preconceptions were overturned.

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