A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers – I love Becky Chambers’ writing and this book is no exception, but I also found this work centrally flawed. I’ll keep it short, but: AN AREA ABANDONED BY HUMANS IS NOT “UNTOUCHED.” There’s a huge literature about this, in fact – about the inherent misconceptions of the idea that “culture” and “nature” are two separate things – and given that the relationship between humans and nature is so central to the entire concept of this work, I found the lack of understanding of this to be a huge problem. One concrete (hahaha) example of this: as anyone who has spent time in the backcountry would know, bicycling along a road through a forest that had been abandoned two hundred years prior would not be possible. It’s in fact kind of amazing how quickly human infrastructure turns to ruins…but it is still there, and it leaves a legacy. An abandoned place is not a “wilderness,” if you are defining wilderness as “untouched by humans” (as this book explicitly does, in a few places).
I’ve read more than this, actually, but what I haven’t listed is mostly re-reading. I’m recovering from last year and right now I just can’t muster the energy to list it all. Every day, a little more energy…or so I hope.
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.
Usual disclaimer: while some of the links above will take you to Amazon, they are for informational purposes only. The links should not be taken as any kind of recommendation to buy the product from the linked source, and neither I nor this site receive any funds from links to commercial sources.
I recently read A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s the sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, a book which began life as a Kickstarter-funded self-published novel, was eventually picked up by a major publisher, and went on to be nominated for a number of prizes and make all sorts of “best of” lists. I read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet last year and really enjoyed it – it’s a fun novel about a multi-species crew traveling through space. It reminded me of Firefly in some ways, particularly in its focus on families of choice, but politically it ran in a very different direction than Firefly, its vision of the future being much more upbeat.
As I wrote earlier this year, I’m worn out with bleak projections right now, and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was well-written and fun and a great antidote to all the dystopias littering the science fiction literature. After finishing it I immediately went to see what else Chambers had written/was writing, and was simultaneously delighted and dismayed to see she had a sequel coming out in 2017 – delighted because more to read, but dismayed because generally I’m not a fan of sequels.
There are a few reasons why I feel this way. Some are ones I know others share: so often sequels are heavy on filling in the backstory for readers who haven’t read the first book; and I find they often suffer from not enough plot, presumably because the author is trying to tie up loose ends from the previous book (as well as fill in backstory).
But the biggest reason I generally don’t like sequels is that, if I liked the ending of the first book, a sequel will often takes away from my enjoyment of that first book – because it’s essentially changing the ending. I know a lot of readers don’t feel this way – some people want to know “what happens next.” For me, though, the ambiguity in what happens off-screen is one of the things I enjoy about reading!
So I had mixed feelings when I picked up A Closed and Common Orbit. I’m happy to report, though, that this sequel was the kind I like – not a sequel exactly (though it does overlap slightly with The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), but more of a story-set-in-the-same-world. I thought it was fantastic, and am not at all surprised to learn that it’s been nominated for a Hugo.