In recent times I’ve often seen my fellow bloggers write enthusiastic reviews of Becky Chambers’ novels, and curiosity drove me to add her first book, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, to my TBR, but it was a comment about this novella that compelled me to start with her latest work, both because it afforded a quick peek into this author’s writing style and because of its intriguing concept of somaforming – the adaptation of the human body to alien environments in antithesis to the change of environment, or terraforming as a means to create a suitable living space.
This initial detail is what informs the structure, the soul of the story if you want: a team of four scientists – Ariadne, Chikondi, Elena, and Jack – depart from Earth on the Merian, a long-range ship tasked with the exploration of a promising planetary system. Since the voyage will take several decades, the four explorers will go into suspended animation while in transit and during that time their bodies will undergo the necessary transformations that will allow them to survive in extreme conditions, like higher gravity or radiation exposure. The story is told in the form of a message/diary sent by Ariadne back to Earth, and from it we learn about the overcrowding and environmental troubles in our home planet, conditions that are driving humanity to search for viable places for colonies: what’s interesting here is that such expeditions are funded by a non-profit organization based on what essentially sounds like crowdfunding, which allows for a purely scientific research free from any kind of corporate exploitation.
The tone of the novella is set by the sense of wonder coming across in the descriptions of the four planets visited by the explorers, the awe created by such diverse and astonishing landscapes: the four scientists are naturally intrigued by their findings and the discoveries they make in their travels, but they are also capable of pure joy at the alien vistas opening before their eyes.
As an astronaut, you know conceptually that you’re going to another world, that you’re going to see alien life. You know this, and yet there is nothing that can prepare you for it.
There is also a strong sense of family uniting them as well, the unspoken but ever-present awareness that they depend on each other in this little pocket of home away from home, and the definite sense of effortlessness in the ties that have come to bind them: shared love of pure science, of course, but also the realization that their individualities contribute to the healthy whole that is the Merian’s microcosm.
Love of science – a science imbued with that sense of wonder and joy of discovery I spoke before, and therefore free from any pedantic connotation – and love of knowledge for its own sake are the underlying themes of the story and they stand at the root of the final conundrum facing the four explorers: a difficult decision that they don’t feel entitled to take on their own because it requires the support of all those who sent them into deep space to find the answers Earth needs. Just as the crew of the Merian did not travel so long with conquest or profit in mind, so they feel the need to engage their backers – or their descendants – in the next choice to be made: being so far away from home does not free them from the responsibilities and the moral obligations that have driven them so far, and so the poignant core of Ariadne’s message is “Where we go from there is up to you”, the willingness to share discoveries and goals and to invest in the hope for humanity’s future.
If this first sample of Becky Chamber’s writing is indicative of what I can expect from her longer works, I believe I will quite enjoy the full-length novels I already set my eyes on…