Wayfarers: Book I
Despite enjoying the recent reboot of the Star Trek series, I’ve never been much of a girl for spaceship-based sci-fi. However, I’ve been seeing this book pretty much everywhere for the last three years, and my powers of resistance only go so far. And what a pleasure it was to finally read it! Equal parts space opera and character piece, it takes us onto the tunnelling ship Wayfarer – scruffy, banged together, and home to a hugely lovable crew. This is more a story about friendship, compassion, tolerance and cooperation than it is about techno-jargon or deep-space exploration: at its heart is a group of people, of various species, who have lived and worked together long enough that they have become a kind of endearingly dysfunctional family. And, as the novel opens, they have a new addition to their numbers: Rosemary Harper, freshly-trained clerk and space newbie, who is willing to go to the other end of the galaxy to escape her past.
Ashby Santoro has captained the Wayfarer since day one, when he picked her up second-hand and began transforming her into her present lovingly-modified state. He’s proud of her and he’s even prouder of his crew: his best friend and pilot Sissix; his two gifted and eccentric techs, Kizzy and Jenks; his Navigator Orhan; and the good-natured Dr Chef, who predictably combines the functions of doctor and ship’s cook. If pushed, Ashby would probably even admit to being proud of Corbin, the ship’s algae specialist and the least socially-adept man in the galaxy. They don’t always get on (mostly thanks to Corbin), but they manage remarkably well given that the crew includes members of four different species. And they have to manage, because the Wayfarer only functions through cooperation. They’re a tunnelling ship, boring holes through the fabric of space in order to connect new corners of the ever-expanding Galactic Commons. Ashby hopes for better contracts in the future, and for that he’s taken an important step: to add a clerk to the crew, in order to prove to the GC that he’s serious about following regulations.
Nothing in Rosemary’s past has prepared her for life aboard the Wayfarer, but she warms to it from the moment she arrives. Well, maybe not to Corbin, but to the others: affectionate, friendly Sissix; madcap Kizzy and Jenks; the culinary genius of Dr Chef; and calm, welcoming Ashby. As time passes, however, she begins to learn more about this new family that surrounds her. No one is entirely immune to the pains of being sapient, with its secret griefs, hopes and desires, and Rosemary soon discovers that she isn’t the only one aboard with a painful past. Moreover, when a thrilling new opportunity takes the Wayfarer out into unfamiliar territory, Rosemary learns that not everyone in the galaxy is quite so welcoming. Nothing bonds a crew together quite like peril.
Plot is always hugely important, of course, but here world-building is key. Chambers has pulled off the coup of creating a distant future which feels entirely plausible: a place in which Galactic Commons bureaucracy holds court (imagine the European Union on a massive scale, with several different lifeforms participating in it). She doesn’t drop a load of information on her reader but allows it to build up gently, whether that’s political and historical context, or the range of species which populate her sprawling galaxy. And yet, for all her talent in providing background information, the book’s heart lies with its characters. And what a lovely gang they are. The Wayfarer feels like the kind of ship that would love to be the Enterprise but is never realistically going to get beyond being Red Dwarf, and that’s why it’s so wonderful. The crew don’t aspire to push back the limits of sapient knowledge: they’re simply there to do a good job, get paid, and hopefully have some time to relax at the end of it all. They feel like the kind of people you already know, because Chambers concentrates on them as people, regardless of the fact that one has scales and another fur, irrespective of their sexual preferences or gender identities (or favoured pronouns) – and so it manages the remarkable feat of being a brilliantly diverse, inclusive book without being remotely obvious or preachy about it.
There’s a lot to be said for a nice book about nice people (albeit with a bit of drama and a few set-pieces added in), and I finished The Long Way feeling pleasantly fuzzy, as though I’d just had a warm bath and drunk a hot chocolate. I’ve often been guilty of assuming that sci-fi is more interested in machines and ideas than people (my views are mainly based on trying to read Robert Heinlein space-cadet stories as a ten-year-old), but Chambers triumphantly smashes that stereotype. Generous, engaging, and more than a little bit lovely, this has left me very keen to read more about Chambers’s galaxy – and hopefully I haven’t seen the last of these wonderful characters.