I recently read/re-read the three books in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, and Record of a Spaceborn Few. I’ve loved these books since I read the first one, and even though they are relatively recent (in the case of the last, quite recent, only a year old), they have swiftly made their way onto my shelf of comfort re-reads. (If you are deducing from this paragraph that I’ve recently been in need of comfort, well, you aren’t wrong.)
For anyone who hasn’t read them, the Wayfarers books take place in a future in which humans have destroyed earth and moved off-planet, where they have encountered other species who have banded together to create a “Galactic Commons” government. In the Wayfarers world, humans were relatively recently granted Galactic Commons (GC) membership and are lower-status members of the galaxy.
These books have been quite successful. The first, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, began life as a Kickstarter-funded self-publishing project; it went on to be nominated for the 2015 Kitschies (Best Debut) and was subsequently picked up and republished by Hodder & Stoughton and, in the US, Harper Voyager. More awards nominations followed – the 2016 Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (Best Foreign-Language Novel), 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award, 2016 British Fantasy Awards (Best Newcomer), and 2016 Women’s Prize for Fiction – as did the following two novels (not sequels per se but rather books set in the same universe), which racked up an impressive list of awards nominations as well. The series won the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Series.
The thing about the Wayfarers series, for me, is that none of the books are strongly plot-driven. A Closed and Common Orbit is a bit more so than the other two; the Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is like a character-driven science fiction television series (I will not be the first to note that it has a similar feel to Firefly, although Chambers’ Galactic Commons is quite different than the universe inhabited by the ship Serenity) while Record of a Spaceborn Few reads like an engagingly-written piece of ethnography. The world-building and the characters are what make these novels so fun to read, not the plot. They are also unfailingly optimistic, and given the current state of the world, who couldn’t use a little optimism? But the character- and world-driven nature of these books is startlingly unusual in the recently published books I’ve come across. I’m amazed that they were published by big publishing houses – tremendously grateful, for chances are I would never have found them otherwise, but amazed nonetheless. I’d have guessed that their non-plot-driven aspects would have immediately flagged them as no-go for major publishing houses. And I suppose I wouldn’t have been wrong to make such a guess, as it’s only after the success of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet as a self-published work that they got picked up.
In this sense, the Wayfarers books are not dissimilar to Check, Please! Both are optimistic as well as episodic rather than plot-driven; both were self-published, gained success, and were subsequently picked up by major publishers. Obviously they are substantively different in other ways – but to me, both reflect how self-publishing has been changing norms about what types of books will be successful. I can’t help but hope their publication signals a shift among traditional publishers, an increased willingness to take a chance, to move away from marketing-defined pigeonholes and to publish some works that have unusual and perhaps risky characteristics and yet are nonetheless truly quality.
I am probably hoping too much. But my experience with Wayfarers, and with Check, Please! too, highlights a reason why I am hoping this: if these works had not been picked up by major publishers, I almost certainly would not have encountered them. Self-published and small press-published works are difficult to find if what you are looking for is quality rather than something that falls squarely in a genre; there are so many of them, and they are so all over the map in terms of their execution. I was lucky enough to find Younger-Older Ones and Tales from Rugosa Coven on my own. How many similarly quality books have I missed, all the while bemoaning the lack of innovation among recent traditionally published books? And yet, the pool of self-published and small press-published books is so very large as to make the task of sorting through it nearly impossible.
Chambers has a new standalone novella out this fall. I haven’t read it yet, but I look forward to it.
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