The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is the kind of book that I want to read more of. While big conflicts are quite possible at some point of our lives or the other, isn’t it the day to day, moment-to-moment choices that really make up the bulk of our lives?

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is what I call a quiet story for all that it’s set in space and is a science-fiction. It doesn’t really have any main protagonists but instead is about a whole ensemble of characters, namely the crew of the ship Wayfarer. The captain and the crew have, what I guess must be, one of the most boring jobs in the galaxy.

The story starts with the induction of a new crew member, a human, into the Wayfarer’s crew. Rosemary has never been out in the vast openness before and this nicely sets things up for the reader, alongside Rosemary, to get to know about the space that this story is set in, the history of this space, and the species that populate this space.

the long way to a small angry planetThe structure is episodic with each chapter focusing on a specific crew member. I’ve got to say that I really enjoyed Chambers’ imagining of each of the species, and their particular quirks. Funnily enough, reading this story I’ve somehow ended up expanding my zone of comfort about unexpected appearances. I mean really, some of the species she describes are TRULY bizarre, and yet, it’s weird only when you look at it from a human perspective; it’s weird because it’s different from what I’m used to! I really love this visceral sense that started stealing over me, of being ok with all these STRANGE looking creatures who despite, what I think of as, their peculiar-appearance are SAPIENT! This is a Universe populated by variety—where one species beauty is another species ugly, where one kind’s highest joy is another’s absolute and utter squirmy mortification. All this to say that the world-building is absolutely fantastic!

Which brings me to a favorite story line. And this is spoilery, so I’m putting it in white. Highlight, if you want to read! So, Rosemary and Sissix!! I really thought for quite a while that it’s going to be Ashby and Rosemary, since, well, they are both humans—yes! Bias much?! But turns out Chambers had BETTER things in mind! Their coming together romantically, while being of different species, with different cultural cues, and rules, and definitions about love and sex and family is just such a pleasure to watch unfold!

The peeps in this story are NICE. Yes, even the resident curmudgeon has a sort of reason to be curmudgeony—not that that EXCUSES his behavior, but you know what? The reason does make me look at him with more understanding! And I LIKE this. I would RATHER cultivate a kinder world-view than its opposite, and stories like The Long Way to a Small Angry definitely do their bit in forwarding that.

There is no guns-blazing, seize the evil villain by his horn action in this story. Heck, even the conflicts that the crew runs into are dealt with in a pretty ordinary fashion. I give you evidence. Conflict One becomes steerable because of one of the crew members’ ability to communicate in a different language. Conflict two is handled by figuring out a loophole in the law. Conflict three is about each of the members doing the best they can in that moment. Don’t you love that? I mean isn’t this “ordinariness” how we generally deal with the crap of our lives? It’s so good to see this channelled into an actual story.

I can go on and on about more things I liked—the ending, for instance. It’s ambiguous, talks about BOTH sides of the equation, and is the sort of political question that the story touches upon again, and again, often eschewing a neat, clean answer in favor of highlighting the merit in each of the arguments.

Let me leave you with this.

GC space had plenty of neutral markets that welcomed spacers of all species, but the Port was something special. Even if you didn’t need to stock up, the spectacle of it was well worth the trip. Sprawling streets stuffed with open-air shopfronts, overflowing with clothes and kitsch and sundries. Grounded ships, gutted and transformed into warehouses and eateries. Towering junk heaps lorded over by odd tinkers who could always find exactly the part you were looking for, so long as you had the patience to listen to them talk about their latest engine mod. Cold underground bunkers full of bots and chips, swarming at all hours with giddy techs and modders sporting every implant imaginable. Food stalls offering everything from greasy street snacks to curious delicacies, some with rambling menus of daily specials, others with offerings so specific that the only acceptable thing to say at the counter was ‘one, please.’ A menagerie of sapients speaking in a dizzy array of languages, shaking hands and clasping paws and brushing tendrils.

And also this.

The memories reached out to Dr Chef, trying to pull him away from his safe observation point. They tugged, begging for him to give in. But he would not. He was not a prisoner of those memories. He was their warden.

. . .

Rosemary started to nod, then shook her head. “That’s not the same. What happened to you, to your species, it’s . . . it doesn’t even compare.”

“Why? Because it’s worse?”

She nodded.

“But it still compares. If you have a fractured bone, and I’ve broken every bone in my body, does that make your fracture go away? Does it hurt you any less, knowing that I am more in pain?”

“No, but that’s not—”

“Yes, it is. Feelings are relative. And at the root, they’re all the same, even if they grow from different experiences and exist on different scales.”

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Mercy

Before I begin I should warn you, dear reader, that Ancillary Mercy is the last book in the Imperial Radch trilogy and what follows may contain spoilerishy things for the first two books in case you plan to read them!

Ancillary Mercy takes up right where Ancillary Sword left off: Breq’s revelations leave her crew reeling with shock; there’s the question of the ghost gate and the mysterious occupants beyond it; Anaander Mianaai is still AWOL; and to complicate matters further a new Presger translator arrives on the scene, just a few pages into the book. The scene is set and everyone’s on tenterhooks!

Ancillary Mercy is a fast paced, gripping read. And yet despite being a page-turner the thing that strikes me the most about this book, and in fact this trilogy as a whole, is its meditative quality. (Is there a category called ‘meditative thriller?’ ‘Cus Ann Leckie would definitely belong there!) I think this is partly because of the way Leckie structures her story. Scenes of nail-biting action alternate with details of ordinary existence. You might be annihilated any second but till that happens you still need to eat and you still need to—pardon my crudeness—poop. It’s this juxtaposition of extremities that often brings what matters into a startling focus.

Against the background of an uncertain intergalactic war, Leckie explores the invisible nature of privilege. While Seivarden’s character makes the “peculiar benefits” of privilege pretty obvious, Breq’s realizations sneak up on her and the reader. That this happens to wise, omniscient Breq who sees to the heart of the matter is a masterstroke on Leckie’s part. It really brings home how easy it is to overlook one’s own position of privilege and the power imbalances that can result in one’s relationships because of this.

ancillary mercyAll this doesn’t take into account the details that make the Imperial Radch world feel so alive. My particular favorite is the layers of meaning that Leckie vests glove-wearing with—in Leckie’s world not wearing gloves would cause greater mortification than being naked. I’ve never really thought about the things that we take for granted as social mores but this trilogy has made me wonder at their arbitrariness and how the very same thing that causes ridicule in one culture might be valued in another.

Then there is the gentle menace of the Presgers who are unable to distinguish one human from another. The translator in particular often provides comic relief accompanied by a swift feeling of disorientation in the scenes where she (he? it?) is present. The question of what it means to be human—Is it having a body? Feelings? Awareness of oneself and one’s surroundings? Consciousness? Sentience? All of the above? A combination of some?—crops up again and again through the course of the story (and the trilogy) and is central to resolving one of the conflicts in the book. This resolution might come across as gimmicky to some readers but it seemed like a logical next step in the story that Leckie has been telling.

Leckie has mentioned that while Breq’s story is done with she WILL be writing more novels set in this universe. I can’t wait! I’m hoping to see some more of the Presgers in future books. I’ll end with a bit that’s poignantly funny:

I turned my head at a splash from across the courtyard. Translator Zeiat stood upright now, one leg still in water, one arm soaked and dripping. A small orange fish wriggled desparately in her grip. As I watched she tilted her head back and held the fish over her mouth. “Translator!” I said, loud and sharp, as she turned her head toward me. “Please don’t do that. Please put the fish back in the water.”

“But it’s a fish.” Her expression was frankly perplexed. “Aren’t fish for eating?” The district magistrate stood at the top of the steps into the courtyard, staring at the translator.

“Some fish are for eating.” I went over to where the translator stood half in and out of the water. “Not this one.” I cupped my hands, held them out. With a little scowl, Translator Zeiat dropped the fish into my outstretched hands, and I quickly tipped it into the basin before it could flip out onto the ground. “These fish are for looking at.”

“Are you not supposed to look at the fish you eat?” Translator Zeiat asked. “And how do you tell the difference?”

The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

The work that I want to talk about today is a short story. It’s been nominated for a Hugo and you can go read it for free at Tor.com. It’s called the “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere.”

Onto the story—I really really liked it. The thing that I like the best may very well be the thing that might annoy some people though.

In the world in which the story is set, water has been falling on folks out of nowhere, no matter where they are—inside their homes or outside on the road. It rapidly becomes clear that this rainfall is a clever plot device. You see, the rain only drenches somebody (and it is apparently a very very cold drench) when they open their mouth and a falsehood comes out of it. A nifty way to know whether the person in front of you is saying something they really mean or not!

And that’s it. That’s the extent of the “science fiction” element of the story. Against this background the actual story unfolds which is about Matt, a Chinese man, coming out to his parents and telling them that he is gay.

I found Matt annoying to start off with but Mr. Chu redeemed him for me as the story progressed. Matt’s sister sounds somewhat unbelievable—his relationship with her is a source of central conflict in the story—and I sincerely hope that nobody has a sibling that awful! (Do not even say that she did all those horrible things to him out of sisterly affection!)

As I said, I can see how this story may very well annoy folks who would rather have the science fiction play a stronger role. For me though, it was just perfect. An integral part of the story but not the whole story. I am now tempted to go read the other short stories that have been nominated too!