A Good Book for a Small Angry Earth

Before I start this review, I just want to tell you about the crew of HMS Victory, the flagship of Nelson’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. This ship, so strongly associated with English nationalism, had a multinational crew. According to Jane’s Naval History, the crew included – 441 English, 64 Scots, 63 Irish, 18 Welsh, 22 Americans, 7 Dutch, 6 Swedes, 4 Italians, 4 Maltese, 3 French, 3 Norwegian, 3 Germans, 3 Shetlanders, 2 Swiss, 2 Channel Islanders, 2 Portuguese, 2 Danes, 1 Russian, 1 African, 1 Manxman, and 9 men from the West Indies.

This is all by way of introduction to the crew of spaceship Wanderer, whose fortunes we follow in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. A similarly mixed bunch, they crew a ship making worm hole tunnels through a universe populated by different species with conflicting opinions and customs. How all these life forms get along together is the main theme of the book.

We see, for example, the future of nationalism in characters who insist on maintaining the pure identity of particular life forms. These people seem condemned to pursue a mirage. To make this point, the story includes cloned individuals who are genetically identical, but still hate each other. There is also an interesting character formed by a host creature and a kind of parasitic virus. The viral infection confers special powers on its host at the cost of a dramatically shortened life span. The host makes persuasive arguments for this strange viral alliance, telling worried human colleagues that vital cellular elements of the human body are the result of ancient infections, incorporated into its genetic makeup. It seems that individuals themselves are a kind of cellular community trying to get along. Getting along with life different to yourself seems a basic requirement of living. It is pointless trying to isolate yourself within a single identity.

Then you run into contradictions. Accepting differences might be important, until you get to the point where acceptance becomes so pervasive that there may as well be no differences. The host of the virus might be correct about foreign cells incorporated into human bodies, but the creature is slowly dying as a result of its alliance. There is too much acceptance, too much staring out of windows, which this creature does a lot. The virus is too close to its host, so much so that the individual is referred to as “they”. It’s like one of those couples who are so into each other that they give up all their friends and it gets a bit unhealthy. Continuing with the human body parallels, some diseases corrupt body cells to make them all the same, which is of course disastrous.

Variety might cause disorder but it’s a better type of disorder to that caused by those of a totalitarian bent who seek uniformity. It’s a difficult contradiction, explored with great subtlety.

So thematically I thought this book was excellent. It really had its heart in the right place and, like all good sci-fi, said something important about the here and now. Reluctantly, I do also have to say that the quality of the writing was sometimes patchy. There was a fair amount of telling rather than showing, particularly in the middle of the book. At one point we met a new character, only for a description of their background to pop up out of nowhere, as though the author’s character notes had just been slotted in. There was also an irritating reliance on exclamation marks in some of the dialogue. By the end, however, I had forgiven all this. The wonderful sci-fi writer Douglas Adams used lots of adverbs – those things which new writers are told to avoid – but no one really holds it against him. In the end, for me, the same applies here.