I already enjoyed the Monk and Robot series by Becky Chambers (A Psalm for the Wild-Built and A Prayer for the Crown-Shy). It’s now one of my favorite books. so I was excited to also read her earlier work, the Wayfarer series, starting with The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and it did not disappoint me.
Both these series are science fiction. While Monk and Robot is solarpunk, a relatively new sub-genre focused on imagining a world with major environmental (and economic) problems solved, the Wayfarer series much more reminds me of the kind of science fiction I used to read as a kid. While it’s described as space opera, it reminds me more of Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke or even Niven, who are considered hard sci fi. I’m not sure whether this is because it focuses less on accuracy and logic than those other authors, or if it is because it does not do so at the expense of character development, or perhaps because it is written by a woman.
Nevertheless, in contrast the classic “space opera” clichés, it does not focus on a war (though war is involved). In general, the stakes are far lower than that, involving ordinary people with ordinary jobs, interacting with and influencing events that affect the entire fictional universe in relatively minor ways – outsized for a completely normal person, but not “saving the world” or “overthrowing the evil empire” or other typical space opera fare.
The aliens and the civilization in general is also a lot more developed than typical space opera, where aliens are typically humans with one twist each who live in normal human societies. Instead, it has the full “hard sci fi” range of alien eccentricities, full of philosophical exploration of how xenobiology might end up being and an intricate inter-species galactic social balance.
In fact, not only is our trusty space ship crew made up of regular people just trying to eke out a living, but humans in general are just a regular species, side stepping tropes where humans are the best species or the most creative – or the most violent or the most evil. Our space crew isn’t even entirely human (though it mostly is), and we get a fair amount of explicit alien perspective.
Instead of humans, the privileged species that dominates galactic society, the equivalent of the colonizing (or post-colonizing but still quite privileged) white people in our world, are aliens who we would find quite repugnant, but who until recently dominated large swaths of the galaxy by force. Other species, including humans, try to emulate their ways and are proud to learn their prestigious language. Meanwhile, the lingua franca is not a human language, but most humans are forced to learn it.
This means that our mostly-human and human-led crew are normal not-particularly-privileged people in a normal not-particularly-privileged species. The sense of normalcy and “everyday folks” is refreshing in a genre normally dominated by the powerful and those who become or fight the powerful, and again, does not strike me as within the stereotype of “space opera.”
It does in some ways remind me of Serenity, partially because our trusty crew – with one special perspective character, their newest member, who is decidedly not a protagonist but merely a window into an ensemble cast – take on various jobs to make a living, and the storytelling takes the form of episodic vignettes that take place in the context of these jobs. While there is an overarching, overall plot, it is more like the season plot of an episodic TV show than the plot of a more tightly-woven novel. If anything, it could use a little more development, as the climax ends up feeling a bit abrupt.
The themes are perhaps another reason why it’s not considered hard sci fi even though it probably should be. Rather than an old man trying to evangelize libertarianism or some other weird form of conservatism (looking at you, Heinlein, though others are guilty) or explain how humanity will become a transcendant orgy hive mind (shockingly many Arthur C. Clarke books, and also Heinlein), Becky Chambers explores the meaning of family … and what to do with family members or colleagues who are obnoxious but indispensable. It explores issues like medical consent, or when is it okay to ally with another group, as opposed to when that is too risky.
All in all, I think it’s a good thing to have more diversity in science fiction than what I grew up with, namely a weirdly specific flavor of stodgy conservative white men – a flavor, to be clear, even more specific than that combination of adjectives alone would imply. It’s good to have that diversity even if some of that perspective confuses reviewers and marketers about what genre a book is in. I as my current self greatly enjoyed it, and I think my teenage self would have too, and there’s something uplifting about that concurrence.
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