Reviews

THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL, ANGRY PLANET (Wayfarers #1), by Becky Chambers – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

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.

My Rating:

Reviews

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA REWATCH: Miniseries (2003) – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

When this re-imagining of an older SF tv series from the late ‘70s aired, it set an interesting model for serialized shows in the genre and it brought a definite change from its unapologetically cheesy predecessor’s standards: from the very miniseries that introduced setting and characters, it asserted its dramatic tone and the overall darkness that would become its trademark.

I remember that at the time of my first viewing I was enthralled by this grimdark vision of the future and I followed the evolution of the story with great interest, but as the seasons rolled on some of that “magic”  was lost and the last season left me thoroughly baffled, if not disappointed. Still, many times I encountered viewers’ comments that defined the new Battlestar Galactica series as one of the best contemporary genre products, so I often wondered if I had not missed something along the way…

When the entire series became available on Amazon Prime I decided to refresh my memory and – more important – to see if the possibility of watching more than one episode per week, as was the case when I first saw the series, would alter my perspective of the overall story, and on this subject I can confirm that even a limited binge-watching of two or three episodes per viewing does change substantially the perception of the story-arc and of the characters’ evolution.

The miniseries, with a runtime equal to that of four average TV episodes, introduces a human spacefaring civilization distributed over 12 planets, or colonies: in the past they had created laborer automatons – the Cylons – that had at some point rebelled and started a bloody war that ultimately ended in an uneasy truce. Long decades of peace brought humans to the decision of dismantling their military, not knowing that the Cylons were preparing a brutal, multi-point attack on the colony worlds with the intention of obliterating their creators.  On the day of the assault, a small number of ships, led by the only surviving Battlestar – the space equivalent of a contemporary aircraft carrier – flee from the Cylon attackers in search of shelter for what remains of the human race, less than 50 thousand individuals.

The drama of the hunted survivors, packed on ships that are often obsolete and where the more sophisticated tech must be kept inoperative to avoid hacking by the Cylons, is compounded by the discovery that there is a new breed of automatons besides the mechanical models they know of: these new Cylons look completely human and an unknown number of them has infiltrated the fleeing masses, adding suspicion and paranoia to the terror for the sudden attack and the constant threat of total obliteration.

The introductory miniseries does indeed start with a bang, and it takes the pressure to almost unbearable levels, the strain of the situation underscored by the amazing soundtrack from Richard Gibbs, where the main title “Are You Alive?” (linked below) is an obsessive presence from beginning to end and never fails to signal that something momentous is going to happen. At the same time the story lays down some of the topics that will become its leading themes: humanity became complacent in its conviction of having mastered the universe, unable to learn the lesson that the hubris of becoming creators themselves would turn against them, just as their “children” had done in the past, and now they are facing total annihilation while still seeming unable to lay down their pettiness and spoiled-child attitude, even when facing the end of the world as they knew it.  On the other hand, we see the humanlike Cylons willing to turn against their former “parents” but at the same time trying to understand what it means to be human, organic, vulnerable, and building their own religious credo as a form of rationale for their actions.  It becomes practically impossible for the viewer to side with either contender, because they are both flawed and both deserving of survival, right and wrong at the same time and at some point one could say they are two sides of the same coin – but in perpetual conflict with each other. 

Where the core concept of the series is very intriguing, the main characters peopling it are quite fascinating – more for their flaws than for their qualities – but I will leave their detailed examination for my review of the following seasons: here I prefer to focus on the background of the story that’s so very different from what other space opera shows have accustomed us to.  Forget the high-tech sets of Star Trek’s starship Enterprise and its brethren, Galactica and the other ships in the refugee fleet all share the look of well-used vessels past their prime while, for example, the need to keep even existing technology safe from the Cylons’ cyber attacks forces officers to renounce more modern systems in favor of the outdated, safer ones: for example people communicate through what look like old telephone handsets, which adds an interesting old-fashioned note to the overall appearance. The darkened, seedy corridors, the metal bulkhead doors reminiscent of submarine design, the constantly patched fighters, all contribute to the appearance of an utilitarian vessel rather than that of a glamorous spaceship, and reinforce the sensation of precariousness that is the leitmotif of this story of constant strife for survival.

And it’s clear that the authors wanted viewers to concentrate on this rather than on visual eye-candy: well, they have my attention, indeed…

My Rating:

Reviews

SCIFI MONTH 2020 #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

Ladies and Gentlemen, the luxury liner Galactic Express is ready to depart for lands unknown and alien realms, so we wish you all a pleasant cruise!

Our gallant commanding officers, IMIRYL and LISA are once again here to guide us toward the uncharted routes of the imagination, and the crew will be happy to share with you reviews, discussions, giveaways, read-alongs and bookish prompts – plus any other kind of amazing discovery you might look for. Take a look at the NAVIGATION CHART to know the next ports of call.

Your first time aboard ship? No problem! Just connect to the INFORMATION NODE, where you will be able to ask any question your mind can come up with – and more: our dedicated A.I., Hal 8999(*), is at your complete disposal. 

(*) no worries: he’s the younger sibling and completely harmless 😀

Take your seat on the acceleration couches, strap in and… enjoy the ride!