Taking and talking detours aboard the Wayfarer
For a pleasant August evening, the Beamers spent a pleasant couple of hours going over and under the various elements that Becky Chambers used to create her Wayfarer universe, as seen in her debut novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. While the destination of the crew is, indeed, a small, geologically active (hence “angry”) planet, and its inhabitants, the Toremi, are not particularly welcoming, we found a lot to enjoy in the book, and even more to discuss.
Kickstarting a Writing Career
Ms. Chambers wrote The Long Way with the assistance of 53 prospective readers who backed her book project on Kickstarter. She thanks them in the Acknowledgement, and also by delivering a space opera that avoids many of the current features of the sub-genre, notably a plethora of military action (Explosions! In SPACE!!) and a constantly moving plot. I had heard the book described as Firefly: the Novel, and that sense of a character-oriented, small-ship-centered work does seem to hold up. Not that all of our Firefly fans were pleased (and, actually, I do not count myself as a Whedonista).
The overall atmosphere of the book is much more intimate, even gentle in some ways, compared to a more typical space opera (the works of James S.A. Correy, such as Leviathan Wakes, a Beamer book from May 2016, were invoked as examples). Kathy was particularly struck by the amount of character development that occurs, with nearly all of the Wayfarer crew demonstrating some significant changes in their attitude or their relationship to other crew members, always for the better. She singled out Corbin, the generally irritating biologist in charge of the ship’s algae vats, a character who could easily slip into the role of, if not a villain, an antagonist. But, Chambers presents us with a fairly harrowing episode, following the discovery of Corbin’s genetic heritage, that helps him re-align his place among the crew, to become much more of a colleague and not simply a co-worker.
Not Your Granddaddy’s Bug-Eyed Monsters
Liz was greatly entertained by the number of alien species that Chambers was able to introduce and to provide sufficient backstory to help us understand their cultures and their place within the Galactic Commons (a European Union of different sentient beings). On the ship alone were 4 different species (5 if you count the AI, which some of us did and some of us did not, much like the GC itself). Alan was a bit skeptical of how 4 different aliens would be able to share both living environments and food together without some adjustment for oxygen levels or nutrients (potentially toxic to a crew mate). Liz was willing to excuse the removal of such likely incompatibilities in order to let the story flow. Which flow both Donna and Chris were willing to champion. If the reader is left wanting to know more about the universe, then Donna was happy to recommend the book, as the alternative could be a 1,000-page tome that would be less fun to read.
How Low Can You Go?
One point that I brought up was to refer to the work as a “low stakes” fiction, in that readers have little fear that drastic consequences will follow upon the plot events. The crew of the Wayfarer all seem to have secrets or issues that potentially could involve legal punishment or social ostracism. Yet, we do not see much truly tragic ramifications unfold. Yes, Corbin is harshly treated and threatened with death. Yes, Lovey the AI is given a hard re-boot and resets to a default personality (“Lovelace”). But mainly, Corbin is strengthened by his ordeal, and Lovey’s demise sets up the initial action for the next book (A Closed and Common Orbit). In fact, Fran was a bit disappointed at how the stitching of the series could show so openly.
Does being low-stakes make it a lesser work?, Liz challenged me. And to that, I had to say it can be taken in that way, but I would not want to imply it. If we look at Shakespeare, we have a low-stakes romance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a high-stakes one in Romeo and Juliet. And it is usually comedy that is more low-stakes (and, sadly, often considered somewhat inferior to tragedy). Here, though, we have a set of characters who do seem insulated from the consequences of their secrets or past indiscretions.
Alan was critical of our initial character, Rosemary, who takes a job on the Wayfarer to escape the notoriety of her father’s criminal conviction for arms peddling. But, aside from a short scene in which some of the crew belittle her father, no real animosity is directed at Rosemary. Again, we are told that she left college due to a very chilly reception from classmates and faculty. But, we are not shown it, and we could have. Alan mentioned a character on the television series The Good Fight (sequel to the legal drama, The Good Wife) who struggles with being the daughter of a crooked financier (cf. Bernie Madoff). Discovery of her secret puts her career in jeopardy. Rosemary just earns a hug.
Truth, Justice, and the GC Way?
And the book is pretty packed with ethical issues and moral quandaries. The arrest of Corbin for being a clone was a great discussion point for us. Did the Quelin, the aliens who seized and mistreat Corbin, have a legitimate reason to act in that manner? To them, clones were an outrage that should be prevented at all costs. So, the Quelin seem like rigidly orthodox fundamentalists to some of us. However, when Rosemary discovers a way to force the Quelin to transfer custody of Corbin, they respect GC law enough to override their own moral objections. Since they are acting in a manner that benefits “our guy”, it is easy to see Corbin’s release as “doing the right thing”. Except, I posed, what if the law that they respect is the Fugitive Slave Act and they are turning an escaped slave back to a pursuing owner? So, are the Quelin doing the right thing? And, in any case, they are not fundie fanatics, since they do not impose their own code above that of the Galactic Common. Liz opined that treating the law without respect is a sign of arrogance, so the Quelin at least escape that charge, whatever else we may think of them.
Plus, the way in which Corbin becomes more integrated with the rest of the crew involves him taking a moral stance that overrides another crew member’s choice, when he inoculates Ohan, a step that does save Ohan from dying but also essentially alters his mind and personality (changing from a Pair “we” to a Single “he” person). Should Corbin be allowed to remain on the Wayfarer after committing such a denial of another member’s explicit wishes? We brought up numerous examples of acting against the wishes of another in matters of extreme danger, the conflict between the rights of individuals and the needs of communities (Corbin acting to spare the other crew a second loss, after Lovey’s “demise”), and the implication of taking such action, even with the best of intentions, and the trust necessary between crew members, here fatally broken (the new Ohan being a new personality). We did not settle on a single, correct course for Corbin, but his suffering a few weeks of snubbing by the captain, Ashby, did seem too light a penalty.
Time for Some Beamer ‘Tough’ Love
Still, the Beamer Common on the book was very favorable (in spite of several of us using terms like “plotless”, “episodic”, and “immature” to sum up our thoughts!). The majority of ratings hit 7 or 8, with a couple reaching for 9. Donna, who has almost finished reading the second Wayfarer book, brought up names like David Brin and Frederik Pohl as comparisons for Ms. Chambers’s way with aliens. I had to toss back to Donna a book she recommended long, long ago, The Color of Distance by Amy Thomson, which was a Phil Dick Best Original Paperback winner back in 1995. In both cases, we were pleased with the imaginative alien physiology and cultures. And nothing feels better to a Beamer than to be reminded by a present book of a long-lost friend, up on the shelves of memory.