I bought the second Becky Chambers novel first – A Closed and Common Orbit – and that was a mistake, because the first page was so fascinating, yet so obviously needing the back story before I could continue, that I had to find the first novel – The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet – and read that. Due to disorganisation I didn’t manage this for a year, then had them both looking at me hopefully for months while I circled round them warily, uncertain that I really wanted to read space opera right then. (Does this happen to anyone else? Big enthusiasm followed by big nervousness in case the book isn’t going to be all I wanted it to be.)
Reader, I loved them. I began Small Angry Planet with caution, and was tearing into it by the time Rosemary had arrived on the deep space-going wormhole tunnelling ship Wayfarer as the new certified clerk, and was greeted by Lovelace, the friendliest AI ever. When I emerged from the end of Closed and Common Orbit I had the third book on my Must Buy list. (Record of a Spaceborn Few is out now, so I’m hoping for the paperback soon.)
This is warm, joyous, boldly imaginative space opera, world-building with fun and charismatic characters who like each other. This is everyday living and working in space, no dark nemesis of doom, no vicious predatory galaxy-wide dictator, no empire. The lack of a villain, and a very limited amount of routine militarisation, throws the focus on character and dialogue, all of which work beautifully among everyday space politics and snacks. There are stupendously attractive non-humans, mechanical and organic, and there are technologies and cultural practices that work across sentiences. There is drama, lots of tension, and a great deal going on underneath the plot, so that we swim among complex philosophical arguments about sapience, identity, disability, family, friendship and home.
The friendliness and the likeability are so important: it feels so unusual to read about characters in space who all care about each other and really don’t want to kill anyone or anything. A friend told me that her teenager adores these novels, and I can see why. Becky Chambers is an excellent entry-level sf author, and she’s an accomplished novelist too. Despite what Chambers says on her website, it does make sense to read the novels in order, because so much happens and is explained in Small Angry Planet, that much of Closed and Common Orbit won’t make sense without it.