This book by Becky Chambers is basically Futurama, from the semi-serious, semi-silly tone to the plotlines themselves, several of which were Futurama plotlines at one point. If you like Futurama, you’ll likely enjoy this.
It’s biggest flaws were a) the overuse of ZOMGQUIRKY!!!1one characters, b) the author’s biology failures, and c) the jarringly preachy tone it could take. Personally, I found the wordbuilding issues too distracting and thought the author handled her own cast poorly, but I can see why people like it.
As I said, the best to to describe Small Way is as ‘Futurama, but not set on Earth.’ It has the same semi-utopian feel of a far-flung future where lots of races are cohabiting relatively cleanly, the different-but-similar feel where crazy technology is taken for granted but nonetheless interpersonal interactions are still familiar, and the sharp turns from farcical to serious that actually work quite smoothly. Like Futurama, it follows the hodgepodge crew of a working spaceship when a new member joins them and together everyone learns life lessons.
The overarching plot is that of the ship, the Wayfarer, which tunnels wormholes through space. When the Wayfarer receives a massive commission to create a new tunnel in support of a new species joining the galactic species alliance, the crew accepts because of the enormous pay, but the long journey to the wormhole site forces them into close contact for more than a year. Predictably, everyone learns life lessons about friendship and love and tolerance and it’s all very nice. Predictability is the book’s milieu; it’s not the rote predictability of of a boring book, though, but the comforting, homey predictability of a story where we always know things will be okay, and that’s how we like it.
The book’s biggest issue is that despite the apparent fact of Chambers is an adult woman, the book tends toward the sins of teen girl fanfic. The author is overtly in love with her over-the-top QUIRKYYYYY characters, which is really obnoxious (and, as is often the case, these characters are almost entirely women — there seems to be a tendency to be unable to write women with strong personalities without turning them into human caricatures). I don’t know if there’s a name for this trope, but it was basically a bunch of Manic Pixies without the sexually idealized ‘dream girl’ aspect. The whole character composition of the book felt very Joss Whedon to me, and despite the palpable similarities to Futurama, I’d guess Whedon was a much more direct influence. Regardless, the real problem with these characters is that they’re flat and obnoxious. You can see Chambers push against the staticism of the archetype with Kizzy; despite the fact that she has a legitimately good plotline about dealing with trauma, she just can never stray too far from the over-the-top nature the trope demands, and it makes the trauma plot feel superficial and cheap, because to actually be affected would mean being ‘OOC’ for the type of character she is. I also find these characters immersion-breaking, because they’re not how any actual humans act.
The other main problem I had was that the book was that Chambers was just shit at theme integration. In lieu of nuanced, novel-wide social commentary, the narration would sometimes just turn to the camera and lecture the audience about whatever Special Topic the author wanted to address. Everything from gender to body positivity to racism was handled this way, and it was phenomenally jarring and annoyingly preachy. No one likes to be lectured, even about stuff they agree with, and it’s entirely immersion-breaking. This got much better as the book went on, which I suspect was just Chambers becoming a better writer with time, but also may have been because once she got all the explicit moralizing out of the way she didn’t feel the need to bring up those topics again.
This leads to another problem, which was that for someone who clearly had strong feelings about important issues, the social commentary here is insultingly superficial and there’s some really shitty choices. Like, there’s an Objectively Pretty race of aliens, which alone is stupid, but one of the signs the Evil Race are evil is that they don’t find them beautiful, because nothing says ‘body positivity’ like ‘anyone who doesn’t view beauty standards as objective is literally a murderer.’ I also thought it was in really poor taste to have a character with dwarfism rant about body acceptance and then make his only love interest a disembodied computer. It made me think of an interview that Peter Dinklage gave about how he really resents hearing people call him a ‘sex symbol’ because those same people would never, ever actually date a little person. Apparently we can have little people as characters, but giving them a love interest that is conventionally attractive? Whoa there! That’s crazy talk. It would have been a lot more powerful to swap Jenks’ and Ashby’s romance plot, and have Jenks score the Objectively Pretty woman and have Ashby want to fuck the computer. And this may seem hair-splitty, but Chambers is the one who tried to turn Jenks into a morality play, so not seeing how insulting the computerfucking plotline was in light of that is just really lazy.
Chambers also has some weird hangups about motherhood. For some reason one of the recurring tensions between the mammalian and nonmammalian races is that humans are obsessed with babies, as exemplified, obviously, by the female characters because of course it was.
Anyway, this is my bio rant. It falls squarely into the category of “Thing that bothers me because I coincidentally know a lot about it but most people would likely easily brush over.” Take that how you will.
The author really really doesn’t seem to know anything at all about animal biology or behavior. I don’t even know how to explain this. Like, she thinks that the reason people are upset by babies dying is because reproductive sex is like, programmed into us? Instead of babies dying from neglect being objectively cruel? Like at one point a character explicitly says the reason there was a human population boom was because we were too horny to stop reproducing, which… no? And I mean, not even getting into that there are patriarchal reasons why women aren’t allowed to prevent pregnancy, she seems to not realize that at one time people popped out as many kids as possible because most of them would die of illness or starvation before reaching adulthood, and it was totally normal for parents, even (gasp) mothers, to not get too emotionally attached to infants and pregnancies because of the high mortality rate. The humans in the book are shocked, just shocked, that the lizard-aliens (which: why is this trope so common?) whose hatchlings have an incredibly high mortality rate don’t get too attached before they make it through the critical period, but the whole thing is this bizarrely privileged, Western view of pregnancy and childrearing where the only conceivable reason a pregnancy wouldn’t work out is like, stabbery or something, ignoring that for 99% of human history this was not the case (and, obviously, is still not the actual case, despite what people think). It seems predicated on a very essentialist view of motherhood as something all women innately want and childbirth as something that will magically cause women to want tons of children.
The characters also think that human women must get more attached biologically to offspring because pregnancy is a big investment, but that’s just… where does she think eggs come from? What does she think a yolk is? Aside from the huge biological cost of laying eggs across the board, there are animals where laying the egg can be fatal. Meanwhile, on the other end, human pregnancies spontaneously abort because of nonviable eggs all the time. This is not something that doesn’t happen in mammals (I’m not even sure she understands what mammals are, tbh). Most of the time the woman doesn’t even know, so this weirdness about how at the moment of conception human mothers are deeply emotionally invested is just bizarre nonsense. Also, like, this is why most women wait until after the first trimester to tell people about pregnancy, because it’s really common for miscarriages to happen right at the start (as many as a quarter of pregnancies miscarry in the first trimester!). And the reason it’s sad is because of the lost potential, the loss of something you wanted and the having to start over, not because the instant an egg implants ladybrains turn on the BABIES program and crash into oblivion if children aren’t produced.
The whole thing is a biological clusterfuck, and then she decides, even more bafflingly, to take it in a cultural relativism direction where not only do the lizardpeople not get emotionally attached, they actively neglect children — not fetal infants, literal entirely sapient children — sometimes to the point of death, but it’s okay because ~that’s just their culture~ and no?? Not okay??? Just because something is part of a culture does not make it okay. Like, sexual assault is currently integral to the fabric of US culture. This does not mean an alien looking at how our men treat women should be totally fine with it. She seems to equate child death to like, the fluidity of family structures and sexual mores — things that actually are specific to cultures and more importantly, are harmless differences without any inherent morality. I’m not sure she understands that the reason people are sad when a baby dies is because the preventable, painful death of a living thing is in and of itself an injustice, never even mind a living thing that’s obviously sentient (never even mind sapient).
TLDR, this book gives me the impression that Chambers and I have huge differences in opinion on animal rights.
This is a good segue into the AI plotline, which had a similar issue where it’s never clear if the AIs in this universe are actually sentient or not, never mind fully-realized people who can feel and learn. On one hand, the characters insist that AIs “can’t be smarter than the people who made them” which would imply that they’re just programs restricted by the internal workings of the code, so that even if that code has a ‘be in love’ program it’s not actual feeling, just you jerking off to an AIM bot. But then the moral of the story seems to be that they are actual people? I honestly couldn’t tell if this was supposed to be ambiguous in-universe (which, I don’t really see how that’s possible — surely it would be quickly evident if you created a machine that was capable of independent thought?) or if this was just more authorial weirdness about the definition of personhood. For me, the possibly-unintentional ambiguity just made it hard to know how to react to the character, and I ended up feeling like the whole Jenks-Lovelace plotline was a waste of time. I was much more interested in characters like Dr. Chef and Ohan, who have real plotlines with deep internal struggles and instead we spent all our time over with what was possibly just a dude who was sobbing because someone deleted his sexbot program.
I also think this speaks to a second problem I had, which was that the author didn’t seem to understand which of her characters were interesting. She was obsessed with her QUIRKY!!!1one characters and the robot that had, like, feelings, man, to the point that the sequel follows them, but left behind characters like a symbiont that now has to survive without its partner, a human who just found out he was an illegal clone, a giant slug thing that’s one of the last of a dying race, and a young, sheltered woman who ran away from home because her father was an arms dealer. I just don’t understand how in the face of all that she was more proud of the groundbreaking idea of, ‘What if robots had, like, feelings?????’
What’s so irritating about all this is that it all would have been much less of an issue if Chambers wasn’t so preachy. Without the lecture on self-love, the whole Objective Pretty Aliens thing wouldn’t have been an issue (though making the evil people find them ugly is still fucking stupid); without the camera lingering way too long on lizard-babies I wouldn’t have thought so hard about the biological worldbuilding; without the denouement being that the computer was the most important character I would happily have taken it for granted she was a person even if the characterization was just as bad. But because the narration hovers way, way too long on these things, I hovered way too long on them, and when you think about them hard, they had issues. And it was really to the book’s detriment, because when I wasn’t sitting there going, “Holy shit, this is not how pregnancy works,” I was actually getting to enjoy the setting.
I can’t speak for anyone who doesn’t live in the US, but at least here in New England, we’re kind of at that defeatest point where you wake up every morning and think, ‘Well, there wasn’t nuclear war last night, so I guess I’m going to work today,’ and in this climate optimistic future sci-fi is a huge relief. It’s nice to read about a future where we make it. I liked the idea of humanity fucking up the planet, but managing to escape and to learn from its mistakes. I liked the human characters. I liked Ashby’s pacifism. I liked Rosemary’s fear. I liked Corbin’s ability to learn from losing his pride. I also liked Ohan and Dr. Chef, which were able to highlight the best in people: our ability to pull together at the end, our almost reckless individualism, our convictions.
Dr. Chef really was the best character. I think there was a level of nuance in him that really represented the book at its best. Also, I have no idea why, I pictured him as a blue walrus with a Jamie Heinemann mustache. I know this is objectively not what the description was, but that was how I saw him anyway.
I also liked Rosemary a lot, both as a person and as the perfect viewpoint character. I’ve talked a lot here about how disastrous it can be when fantasy and sci-fi don’t include a suitably outsider as a way to bring in the reader, and Rosemary was basically the ideal execution of the reader-expy outsider as someone who was capable and familiar enough to be involved in the action but alien enough to make sure we were never left behind.
But yeah, unfortunately the stuff I liked about it pales in retrospect to the stuff I found baffling or straight-up irritating. I do kind of wonder if I’m outside the target audience. Surely if you’re still at that stage of readership where quirky/randumb is still the height of creativity you’d love this. I also suspect a younger audience would be much more reassured by the kind of empty social-justice platitudes Chambers offers and not miss more nuanced commentary so much (it’s hard to feel good about a book taking the totes amazing leap of positing that people should just love themselves and that’s all there is to solving body negativity after you spend a year in treatment for anorexia). But at the same time it didn’t feel like a YA novel? So I’m not sure. Maybe I’m just way more cynical than I think I am. (Then again, I just read Raymond Feist’s Faerie Tale, which said some really amazing things about rape trauma and mental illness and I came away really admiring, so maybe it was just this book?)
I think it will ultimately depend how good you are at not paying attention to the small stuff when you read, because there are some really good elements here, including some interesting characters and a well-paced, upbeat story, but I just found myself focusing in on the little issues that felt as though they kept building up.