Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet


You have to read this book.  This book belongs to that rare sub-genre of no particular name which contains those few novels which make you remember why you became a bookseller in the first place.

It’s also a Ronseal book .i.e. it does exactly what it says on the cover.  It takes Rosemary Harper – and the crew of the Wayfarer – a very long time to get anywhere at all but as with all the best journeys, it’s not about the destination.  It’s not even about the stops along the way which could have easily fit into a number of recent TV sci-fi series such as Firefly or Battlestar Galactica.

As with all the best sci-fi, the feel of the world the characters inhabit isn’t smooth like something from The Jetsons but rough like salvaged junk.  If you travel on a ship that’s going any distance, you’ll need engineers who know how it works because it will, in the way of all machinery, break down.  Good repairs aren’t neat repairs and the repairs of repairs don’t have to look pretty just so long as they work.  The same philosophy is applied to good characters.

So many writers write what they know that a book that isn’t about middle-class problems is immediately going to stand out on the bookshelves.  It’s surely not difficult to accept that science-fiction will always have the edge over so-called ‘non-genre’ or literary fiction written with the apparent sole purpose of winning literary prizes because in imagining strange and unfamiliar settings, the writers have to focus on the characters to be able to present something that readers can relate to and this is the strength of Becky Chambers’ novel – and indeed any great novel of the past few years such as Ann Leckie‘s ‘Ancillary Justice’ or Emmi Itäranta’s ‘Memory of Water’ (which, though I didn’t write a review of it at the time, was definitely my favourite read last year).


Re-imagining Tolstoy’s ‘War & Peace’

747,510 words and thirteen months later, I now have a first draft.

If you’ve wondered why I’ve been a bit quiet of late, easing up on the social media and getting involved in other stuff, including going out for a drink (sorry, Chris) then this is why.  Between three and six hours a day, every day with only the two weeks off while in Hong Kong is a huge commitment but I kept going because I was having so much fun.

‘Gargantus’ is not the first novel I’ve attempted to write (it’s either number nine or number thirteen depending on whether you count those stories I never quite got around to finishing) but it’s certainly the first one I want to see published.

To think I only got into this because I’ve never understood why ‘War & Peace’ isn’t more widely read.  It’s got more clogs ‘n’ bonnets than Austen and more action and melodrama than Dickens.  Surely, if people are happy to spend a weekend watching a boxed set of DVDs then the size isn’t enough to put people off.

I’ve tackled three different translations to get a better understanding of how the book works (Tolstoy insisted it wasn’t a novel – pah).  Tolstoy preferred the original Maud sisters translations – yes, it’s good – but I prefer and recommend the Anthony Briggs version.  It’s like a soap opera on amphetamines.  (Don’t bother with the most recent Random House version which is for poseurs only).

The biggest challenge faced in re-imagining such a well-loved book is that folk are always going to be looking for different things.  First up, it’s not a re-write.  That’s something completely different.

What I realised on re-reading ‘War & Peace’ is that the world of Napoleonic Europe two hundred years ago is as strange to us as any attempt to imagine the world in two hundred years time.  I also felt that there were a couple of things about two of the major characters that just jarred and so I got my thinking cap on.

Hands up, I’ll admit that boxed set DVDs are as big an influence on my writing as the books I’ve loved most and having seen such brilliant writing in recent TV dramas such as ‘Les Revenants’ and the re-imagined ‘Battlestar Galactica’, I don’t think I can be faulted for that.  It was watching Helen McCrory in  the BBC’s ‘Peaky Blinders’ that gave me a second light bulb moment.

Prince Andrei Bolkonsky became Heddar Wallaner.  A girl.  In uniform.  Kicking arse (trust me, when you say it like it’s written, it sounds just so much better than the American ‘ass’).

I have had an absolute blast creating the first draft and am really excited about beginning the re-write.

The next step is to find an agent who will hopefully then help me find a publisher.  I’m really looking forward to introducing these amazing characters and their amazing world to a wider audience.