Have you ever been on one of those scenic train rides where you take in some pretty scenery, maybe have a nice meal along the way, and enjoy the company of your fellow riders, but you just go in a loop and end up where you started? It's a nice ride, but it doesn't really go anywhere. That's how I felt about Becky Chambers's The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. This is a fun, colorful, imaginative sci-fi novel, but the plot doesn't go anywhere. The good news is, even though it was going nowhere, I enjoyed the ride.
The crew of the Wayfarer, a tunneling ship that bores holes through the fabric of space, is made up of a rag-tag bunch of characters from many corners of the galaxy. They are essentially a road-building crew, creating new routes for space travel. They have been hired for a potentially dangerous but extremely lucrative job to build a new route connecting a small, angry planet to the friendlier parts of the galaxy. Since there's no route yet, it's a long way there.
Along the way, they have a few adventures, getting boarded by pirates, caught in a swarm of gigantic cricket-like creatures, and navigating the politics of the Galactic Commons. Much of the story involves descriptions and histories of the various species and the social dynamics between the species in the crew. Chambers demonstrates the open-mindedness of the crew by pairing up the characters in various inter-species relationships, including a tech who is in love with the ship's AI.
While the mission to the small, angry planet gives a semblance of direction to the book, the various events and character development don't form much a story arc. It almost feels like an origin story or the pilot of a TV series, where we are introduced to the characters with the promise of new adventures each week. Chambers mixes standard sci-fi elements with original ideas, alien stereotypes with her own creations, and stock characters with fresh faces, giving The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet a familiar, yet refreshing, feel.