I’ve been aware of this book for quite some time, particularly because many of my fellow bloggers wrote very positive reviews about it, but I did not get around to reading it until I picked up the novella To Be Taught, if Fortunate, which made it imperative for me to learn more about Becky Chambers’ work. The Long Way… stands as proof that when I go into a book with little to no expectations whatsoever, I often end up being quite pleasantly surprised.
The Firefly vibes many reviewers speak of are there, and they must have gone a long way toward helping me enjoy this story, but the novel and the characters easily stand on their own and the overall effect was to offer a pleasant experience that was much needed after some recent reads that were on the darker side.
Rosemary Harper is on the run – we’ll learn later on from what – and with her newly forged identity she joins the crew of the Wayfarer, a ship tasked with the creation of wormhole shortcuts for space travel. The crew is quite varied but mostly welcoming: Ashby, the captain, is a straightforward guy with an easygoing attitude toward command; pilot Sissix is a reptilian whose warm approach contrasts with her cold-blooded nature; Kizzy and Jenks, also human, are the dedicated techs for whom no engineering feat is impossible; Dr. Chef is a multi-limbed alien whose dual role as physician and cook makes him a very intriguing character; and Corbin, the algae specialist, is the true oddball of the mix, since he does not care much for sharing space with his crewmates. To complete the roster, there is Ohan, the navigator, another alien whose peculiar nature brings them to be reclusive, and finally Lovelace – nicknamed Lovey – the ship’s AI gifted with a warm personality.
The core of the story focuses on the most recent job assigned to the Wayfarer: to open up a tunnel toward a far-off system whose inhabitants are in constant warfare, although one of their factions has chosen to join the Galactic Commons. The possibility of danger at the other end is mitigated by the profitable bonus the captain and crew will receive on completion of the mission, and the need to upgrade the ship, and therefore be able to perform more advanced jobs, convince Ashby to take the offer, so the Wayfarer starts its titular long journey toward the distant world that is the goal. The trip, with its many stops along the way for resupply or repairs, offers Rosemary the chance to get to know her crew mates and to be known by them, while also allowing the readers to explore this future universe where many alien cultures live side by side in harmony – more or less…
The overall tone of the novel might appear overly rosy-hued at times, painting a picture that goes even beyond the theme of the unified, strife-free galaxy envisioned by Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: as the crew of the Wayfarer is on warm and friendly terms with each other, so are the various alien races peopling this universe, and even the few exceptions don’t seem able to shatter this balance. It might sound wildly utopian, and I for one will admit that I tend to prefer some conflict to help underline the finer points of characterization, but in this case I was able to accept and welcome it because the sense of family – no matter the cultural barriers – established aboard the ship did not prevent the author from exploring deeper themes like identity, consciousness or sexual freedom. The case in point is represented by the AI Lovey to whom Jenks offers the possibility of downloading into an artificial body to allow it (her?) to seek new dimensions for the development of her personality.
Another interesting aspect of the story comes from the anecdotal format of the narrative: roughly each chapter showcases a different planet, or a different situation to be solved, or a new (at least from Rosemary’s POV) alien race to discover. The book almost reads like the novelization of a TV series, with the “problem of the day” often easily dealt with by the end of the chapter and with only a modicum of fuss, showing the same kind of reset that’s typical of episodic TV, but as the novel progresses it becomes clear that through these more or less easily overcome obstacles we get to know the crew in finer detail and their characterization gains each time a new facet, and further depth. At a certain point I discovered that I was both intrigued by and invested with these characters and their journey – both physical and spiritual – and that the sense of family I spoke before had come to envelop my imagination as well. And it’s worth mentioning that the easygoing atmosphere of the story does indeed lull the readers into a false sense of complacency, so that when the slow-building trouble brewing off-stage explodes with sudden violence and brings dramatic and soul-shattering consequences.
The only fault I can find in this novel is probably the too-swift way in which the above incident’s aftermath is dealt with: given the extent of the damage inflicted on ship and crew – either physical or psychological – I would have expected the same level of detail reserved, for example, to alien customs and cultures, that at times seemed to border on the didactic, but since this is the first book in a series I can probably expect more from the following volumes, and this little misgiving does not detract at all from my enjoyment of the story.