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

HarperCollins Publishers, LLC, © 2014
ISBN 9780062444134
Print length 467 pages, $10.81

When Rosemary’s feet leave Mars for the first time, it’s to take a cramped pod shuttle to rendezvous with her new employer, Captain Ashby Santoso, aboard the Wayfarer, a tunneling ship that digs passages through space, shortcuts for travel throughout the Galactic Commons. While Rosemary is running from family problems, she finds that she has run to a new home, one she won’t want to leave behind.

Long Way is character-driven space opera at its finest. The capable but quirky crew consists of Captain Ashby, pilot Sissix, algeist Corbin, techs Kizzy and Jenks, clerk Rosemary, medic and cook Doctor Chef, navigator Ohan, and the ship’s AI Lovey. Their ship, Wayfarer, is a hodge-podge of cobbled-together parts and equipment that somehow, through the expert ministrations of Kizzy and Jenks, functions at or near optimum. Still, its small stature and low-end tunneling equipment suit it only for small jobs. Ashby has occasionally dreamed of taking his ship and crew to the next level, but credits are tight and one does not just step operations up a notch without the proper equipment.

So when a prime new job practically lands in his lap—not just any job, but one that would significantly boost the crew’s and the ship’s credits, status and capabilities—Ashby says yes. Their assignment is to connect the Galactic Commons to a distant, newly opened territory. No problem, except that there’s no pre-established tunnel, nor any anchor in the new space toward which they can aim a new passage. The Wayfarer must travel to their destination without shortcuts. A year of close quarters, idle hands and potential risks all seem worthwhile—until they arrive.

But that’s not the point of the story. While the climax helps to drive the narrative, Long Way is really about the characters. En route to their goal, Wayfarer stops at various ports of call to make essential purchases, to relieve the long-haul boredom, or just to visit with friends and family. It’s these episodes that make the story more interesting as we learn more about the characters and their various species and cultural norms. The crew, inter-species though they may be, are indeed a family of the heart. Through good times and bad, they stick together and support one another as family should. More than once, I had tears in my eyes as I read moving emotional sequences.

Author Becky Chambers takes on a lot in this uplifting, hopeful tale. In a Galactic community, where species are as different from one another as it is possible to be, somehow the powers that be have managed to find and maintain a delicate balance. Humans are new to the mix, adding volatility that had been resolved long ago by the more traveled races; what’s important to note is that Long Way takes on issues critical to such a melting-pot social setting like ethical questions, moral quandaries, gender issues and cultural differences between species, the sorts of things that humans can’t seem to master in this world. Chambers clearly holds strong, positive opinions on these and similar topics, and they shine through in her narrative.

There is no one set protagonist or antagonist in this book. Instead, the reader sees through the eyes of each crewmember at one time or another, but for me this did not detract from my enjoyment of the story. I found myself cheering the crew as they prospered, or laughing at their hijinks, or holding my breath for their safety or resolution in tight situations. Although humans fill a small space in this larger tale, the other species also wrangled with issues that would be familiar to any of us. I had no trouble relating to non-human characters. My only criticism is that I would have liked to see more about the physical appearances of the various species so I could imagine them as I read. Chambers does a passable job in this area, but she so excels in the rest of the story I can forgive this small shortcoming.

Overall, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is the most enjoyable read I’ve experienced in a long time. Its positive attitude and the compassionate outlook of the characters truly lifted my spirit. I can’t recommend it enough.

It’s a Love Thang (or How I Fell In Love With My Characters)

Writers are omniscient, at least within their own worlds. They know who’s doing what to (or with) whom and why, what the probable outcome will be, what price will be paid by those involved, and where all the action is taking place. Ask any author about the city where her story takes place. She can tell you without hesitation where the seedy dives are located, where the upper crust population shops, where you might find black market bargains, and which streets are safe to walk after dark. Not that all those details ever show up in a story; most likely, they won’t. But the writer has to know them, nonetheless. Just in case.

When I put that same principal to work on my characters, it was love—the same sort of love I imagine any creator has for her creation. I know each of my characters intimately; all their flaws and secrets lay bare before me. Their accomplishments make me proud. Their quirks make me smile (or make me want to smack them silly, depending on the sitch). Sometimes they surprise me but for the most part, I know which ones will be strong, which ones will falter and where or how. I understand their motivations, whether or not they are acting in accordance with what I would personally do. Even my antagonists have reasons for their foibles.

Years ago, a friend gave me a canvas tote that says, “Please do not annoy the writer. She may put you in a book and kill you off.” While I haven’t done that (yet), I can sympathize with the idea. Many of my characters are a conglomeration of real-life people, usually (though not always) friends or family members—this one’s musical ability and happy-go-lucky attitude and that one’s philandering, wrapped up with criminal tendencies and a dark streak a kilometer long make up Bardo, one of my favorite lovable bad boys who is actually one of the good guys. Mix one friend’s hedonism with another’s desire to ignore problems until they bowl her over, sprinkle in a generous amount of surprises hidden deep beneath the surface and voila! Magdalene appears! Even people I have never met are fair game; in fact, if you see me sitting back sipping my coffee in a public place and staring at someone, I’m probably watching for stealable traits.

So yes, it’s true. I love all my characters, even the ones you will (hopefully) love to hate. I can’t help it; they’re real to me. They have to be, or I can’t make them real for you. I wrestle with showing their strengths and weaknesses through words on a page, even though I know what they are by virtue of the fact that I created them. That struggle fleshes out each character even more for me, making her that much more solid, so that when the plot bits come together and dictate that one of them must die, it’s a sad day for me, even if they “deserved” it. That’s part of the omniscient writer package. Sometimes, no matter what I do or how I twist the details, there’s just no other way it can reasonably end. (It makes me wonder if the Universe has the same problem sometimes, laying out the threads of our futures. Things that make you go “Hmmmm….”)

In the long run, the characters in my current storyline will take a back seat, and new ones (like the budding characters in a future crime drama or dystopian future tale) will shift to the front. The inhabitants of the Umani’s universe will never leave me; they’re my first created beings, and will always have a special place in my heart. Besides, their stories are ongoing, and hold fodder for a lifetime of tales. I hope I’ll have the privilege of all their Tellings.

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

Spectra Publishing, © 1990
ISBN 978-0553283686
Mass Market Paperback, 481 pages, $6.82

In a dark and foreboding universe, Hyperion is only one among many terraformed human worlds, though it may well be the oddest. Home to the Time Tombs, which move backward through time, Hyperion is also home to the Shrike, a horrific monster said to guard the Tombs. Some hate the Shrike. Other worship it. All fear it. Yet legend has it that the monster grants audience to pilgrims who come on foot in groups of prime numbers, and that it hears all petitions and grants one wish. The catch—there’s always a catch—is that most people who encounter the Shrike die in unspeakable ways.

With humanity on the brink of war, and Hyperion a central focus for both sides, future pilgrimages are suspended. One last group makes its way against the tide of evacuations as the enemy draws nearer. Knowing they are likely marching to their deaths, each of these final pilgrims tells their tale of connection to the abandoned world, revealing bit by bit the connection between them all and what ties them to the Shrike.

Though this review only covers the first book in the series, the Hyperion Cantos is actually a four-book series. The first two volumes, Hyperion (1990) and The Fall of Hyperion (1995), take place in the same era. The last two, Endymion (1995) and The Rise of Endymion (1997), follow the story 272 years later. Further reviews on those books will follow as I read them.

There’s a lot to love in this book. The characters project rich backgrounds and unique personalities, especially with their stories, each rife with details that explain not only why they’ve come to the pilgrimage in the first place but why they are who they are. Some of the characters are easy to like. Personally, I loved Sol Weintraub’s tragic saga of his daughter. The Consul, too, caught my sympathy with his tale of a love carried out across time differences. Other characters—the poet, Martin Silenus, for example—left me cold. If I happened to meet Silenus in real time/space, I would want nothing to do with him. His tale, however, is intriguing, as are they all. In fact, the pilgrims’ accounts are both the strength and the weakness of Hyperion. They draw the reader in and snare her on the details, on wondering how this connects to the larger narrative; at the same time, just at the point where the reader is most engrossed, the pilgrim’s tale ends, and the reader is thrust back into the larger story of their trek. I found it a bit jarring, a la Canterbury Tales, but not enough to put down the novel, thank goodness. It was worth my time.

I will say that this book is not an easy read. Nor is it suitable for someone who enjoys only light sci-fi; Hyperion is a true space opera. Time-debts (differentials in the passage of time between those on a planetary surface and those engaged in space travel) play a key role in the story overall, which is a bit confusing at first. Technology in the Hegemony of Man is (no pun intended) light-years ahead of contemporary Earth civilization. Farcasters connect distant worlds through portals (WorldWeb) which I envisioned to be gates, similar to those in the old Stargate television series. Humans are allied with AIs, who inhabit and run the TechnoCore and control all mankind’s high tech. Some humans have data ports in their brains so that they can be plugged into the Web on a constant basis. And that’s just the basics. In most cases, Simmons offers no explanation for terminology such as “the hive” and “treeship,” leaving the reader to imagine it on her own. In addition, some characters are centuries old — due in part to available medical technology.

Readers who love such imagined futures in sci-fi will love this classic. But don’t just get the first book; get all four. I wish I had, since this is not a standalone book. If you want to know how it ends, you must read on.

Overall, I found this to be a most enjoyable read, and look forward to continuing the saga with The Fall of Hyperion.

Going with the Flow

As I said last week, my initial foray into writing fiction was flawed. In the science fiction market, the genre for my first novel, acceptable manuscript word count tops out at around 120K as a maximum for a first-time author; mine was greater than 800K and still going with no signs of ending any time soon. But I’m pretty sure it was a launch problem, not a design problem. I’m still convinced the story itself has real potential.

See, writing fiction has power—power over its audience, surely (hopefully!), but also over its writer. The ability to design my own world(s), plots, character-driven and plot-driven crises and resolutions or lacks thereof, even the research I did to make the scenarios realistic, as well as the opportunity to say something worthwhile within my storyline, rooted in me so deeply I didn’t give the rules much thought, if I even knew what they were. I just wrote.

And wrote.

And wrote.

At the time, I told people, “I hear voices in my head. They’re going to make me rich.” (Yeah, experienced writers. Laugh. You know you want to.)

Apparently, in the world of professional fiction writing, there are “plotters” and “pantsers.” Plotters map out their entire story from beginning to end, knowing where every detail will happen and how it will affect the scenes to follow, as well as where the crisis points will take place and how it will all end. Pantsers sit at the other end of the spectrum, winging every single scene, handing the reins over to their characters and their plot and the worlds they’ve built and saying to themselves (and their agents), “Let’s see where this goes.” I was (past tense) definitely in the second camp, so far to that end that I had no idea how or even if the darn thing would end. My characters would dictate story so loud that I sometimes had trouble sleeping, and so fast that my fingers could barely keep up. I was as surprised by what they did as anyone who read my work. Every time I finished a chapter, a small crew would gather to hear it read aloud, then offer their critiques and comments. It was great fun, and a wild ride, but that was only the beginning.

Most writers, I’m told, fall somewhere in the middle of those extremes, plotting the major points while allowing some degree of creative flexibility in the plan; their characters are given some leeway to drive the engine along controlled segues and side-streets, as long as the whole train ends up at a reasonable and believable juncture in the end. I think that’s where I’ve landed, at least so far. I have no illusions about coming to rest on any particular process this early in my writing career. My education continues.

I still hear the characters in my head, just not all at once. The crowd has thinned, so to speak. Those other characters, the ones I don’t hear so often any more, haven’t left the building. They’re just in another room, waiting their turn. The secret I had to discover is that one book should be about one protagonist, two at most, and the prevailing conflict that separates her from what she wants. I started working with an editor (hi Paula!), whose brutal guidance assured me that I had to cut out 75% of my content, and focus what was left. Two years and four drafts later, she finally e-mailed the words that prompted my happy-dance: “It’s ready to pitch.” My current draft sits at 119K words, and is awaiting an agent’s attention.

It’s not perfect, not yet. But I think it’s ready for representation. Books two and three (that’s where some of those other characters will get their shot) are in the planning stage; if book one takes off and my agent thinks it would make a good series, I can move forward on them. Otherwise, they can become stories in their own rights for later books. In any event, I continue to learn and grow into this craft. Because yes—writing is a craft. It takes guidance, education and practice, practice, practice to get it right (or is that “write”?).