‘Floating among the stars, that is my objective.’ – Wally Funk
I didn’t know about the Mercury 13 until recently, when I read the sci fi thriller Goldilocks and saw that the book was dedicated to them. I looked them up and learned that they were a group of 13 women in the 1960s who wanted to become astronauts. They aced the same grueling physical tests as the male astronauts, but their careers were cut short before they even began when it was decided (in the USA, at least) that women shouldn’t be astronauts at all. What a tragic story, and equally more tragic when I watched this documentary, Mercury 13, and saw how qualified, capable and enthusiastic these women were.
During lockdown last year, a lot of people started developing new hobbies. Some of my friends got on board with the baking sourdough bread trend, some got really into watching make-up tutorials on YouTube, or working out, or revamping their gardens. Some bought pets. My ‘lockdown thing’ (which honestly started a bit before lockdown) was Star Trek. I got really, really into Star Trek. Not just watching the TV series (The Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine…) but also reading some of the companion NOVELS and even experimenting with writing sci fi myself (which I’ll tell you more about later, I hope!). I honestly never thought of myself as much of a sci fi person, but Star Trek really opened my eyes. It’s gently idealistic (what if in the future there’s no money, no wars, and humans are part of a ‘federation’ of other species who explore the galaxy together…), it’s an ensemble show with lots of colorful characters with their own unique stories, it’s cozy and fun, it’s been running forever so it has built this rich and complex world, and, at its best, it’s intellectually engaging and even profound. The best science fiction in general, I think, engages with the most interesting questions of all: what is time? what makes a person? what else is out there? what does it mean to be a part of this universe?
I’ve since branched out into other sci fi shows and books. A friend of mine (who also loves Star Trek) recommended The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, which is the first book in Chambers’ Wayfarers series. It’s a very popular science fiction series, and this first book was published in 2014 (interestingly, Chambers self-published it and it was later picked up by a traditional publisher). I found it a very enjoyable and ‘cozy’ read (more on that in a second). If you are like me and enjoy Star Trek, then I’d say skip the rest of this review and just read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet because there’s a lot of similarities and I imagine you’ll like it too!
This is a book about ordinary people in space, specifically a group of basically construction workers traveling around trying to ‘punch’ holes in spacetime to make wormholes (fast interstellar highways). It features a motley crew of people aboard this one starship – similar to Star Trek – and it’s quite episodic. They encounter little difficulties here and there on their ‘long way’ to complete a big job, but it’s not about big explosions or major political events. There are long scenes of people eating dinner and chatting. It switches perspectives from all of the characters on the ship, and sometimes intersperses this with documents/letters or pages from the galactic equivalent of Wikipedia, which work well to add texture to the world and feed us info in a not-too-obvious way. Chambers’ focus on the small moments between people made me think of what Natalie Goldberg has to say in Writing down the Bones, on the importance of the everyday:
‘We are important and our lives are important…their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think…Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter…A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp’s half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter’
I love this focus on small quiet moments and small things in The Long Way. It suggests to me that these ordinary people’s lives do matter (which of course they do). And the writing itself was smooth and solid. I don’t think her primary interest is in the prose, it wasn’t particularly lyrical or poetic or inventive on that front, but it was much better written than most of the Star Trek novels I’ve read thus far and the dialogue especially was lively and fun. There was a lot of attention to detail in terms of the setting and how things worked mechanically which I appreciated (it was never boring or dry, but I just felt she’d done a lot of thinking about these things and the science behind them). And overall it was just a rather nice story about people being friends and hanging out in space.
So I’d definitely recommend it if you’re looking to dabble in a bit of sci fi but want something character driven with a big heart, or if you know you like sci fi and you want a gentle story where people are generally decent and tolerant and mean well. At first I wanted this book to be a little edgier or darker than it was, but in the end it was kind of refreshing that it stayed pretty light. (As a side note, I’m halfway through the second book in this series – A Closed and Common Orbit – and it’s very different and definitely darker. And I think I actually like it MORE than The Long Way. I’d recommend it too! It’s about Artificial Intelligence). I plan to read all the books in the series: this is my version of a ‘beach read’! It’s engaging but not stressful and is like a big warm hug (from a giant lizard or a robot).
Have you heard of this series? Do you enjoy sci fi generally? I’d be curious to know your favorites! I’ve just started The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, recommended by many, so I’ll let you know my thoughts once I’m done with the book which seemingly everyone describes as their ‘favorite sci fi’!
Thanks as always for reading, and hope you have a great weekend!
PS the super cool featured image for this blog is a celestial map from 1670 by Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit, accessed via Wikimedia. It’s not directly relevant to this book, but it’s got stars and also funky animals and interesting creatures, so I see some overlap.
And here’s an interview with Becky Chambers where she introduces the book and a wee bit more about it if you’re curious!
A few weeks ago, a billionaire went to space in a rocket. I’m really not impressed. What does impress me is the work that scientists and actual astronauts have been doing for years to map the heavens and better understand our place in this vast, incomprehensible universe. On that note, I wanted to recommend a book which I read last summer that combines two interests of mine: history and outer space. It’s a non-fiction book about the first ever global scientific collaboration conducted on Earth, which actually happened in the 18th century!
The book is Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens by Andrea Wulf. It has adventure on the high seas, it has danger, it has rivalries, and best of all it has international cooperation (something that we could use a lot more of these days).