Andrew shared this
review of a book, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet
by Becky Chambers, that neither of us have read yet but which both of us are probably more keen on getting around to now. Not just because it sounds like a good book -- it does, but there are so many
good books. What makes this one stand out, according to this review, is that it's a nice
book. It's not a grimdark dystopia. It's not about a bunch of assholes. It's not an epic series of wars and peril and high body counts. The worldbuilding isn't overbearing tedious entries from an RPG sourcebook but natural and on a human scale: about people's jobs, hobbies food, and so on. Difficulties and even death aren't absent, but they also aren't so common as to be numbing. As the reviewer says, "Numb, I’ve come to realize, is what most modern SF leaves me feeling."
All the things about this book that end up making it seem remarkable in this review say a lot more about what we expect from science fiction now than about this book itself.
It reminds me of something I realized a couple of weeks ago, while watching one of the Dalek episodes, and increasingly whenever I've thought about Doctor Who
since. As well as the new Doctor Who
, I subsist on a steady diet of Big Finish and old TV stuff too, and I think especially since I've been working my way through the Hornet's Nest stories
again, which is Tom Baker at his handwavy, confident, frustrating best, I'm finding all this stuff on telly a bit weird. For one thin I'm sick of "this time the Doctor's gonna die, for real!" (Andrew and James and I happened to catch the last episode or two of Matt Smith's Doctor over the weekend, and all that
was about him definitely being about to die forever too, and I just felt weighed down by it, and by how long this has been going on, how interchanageable it all seems, how quickly I get impatient with it because it's tedious and it's tedious because I know it isn't really going to happen that way, so I feel as if I'm always looking over the shoulders of the people earnestly trying to tell me these things, to see when the real story is going to come along.) And I think near the beginning of this series Missy tells the Doctor "You've always been running," i.e. since he left Gallifrey, and my brain just rebels at that idea. The Doctor I'm used to has adventures and gets in scrapes! He's not running away, he's bimbling along. I feel like this repeated assertion that he's always been on the run and he's always about to die are not only getting old real quick but are fundamentally trying to alter the character I recognize as the Doctor, and this is frustrating and, actually yes sometimes anxious-making for me. The Doctor is a unique character, and I fear this kind of thing will make him too much like everybody else. Everybody in this grimdark modern SF.
The genuinely poor effect this kind of thing can have on my mental health brings me to what I thought was the most powerful part of this review of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
: where the reviewer says,
What depresses me–
And when I say “depresses” I don’t mean “I don’t want to think about this stuff,” I mean I’ve come to realize many novels I’ve tried to read have literally not been good for my mental health–
In my case, I think it's been true for more than novels. I think I first noticed this with I Claudius
, actually. That was the first time I caught myself thinking this is just about horrible things happening to horrible people...
...and I don't have to keep going with it.
Like most epiphanies, it sounds dumb and obvious when reduced to language, but it was kind of a big deal for me. I'm exposed to a lot of knowledgeable, interesting commentary on movies, TV and books thanks to my friends. Moving to another country and my friendship circles just generally expanding expanding I get older has left me with a ton of things I'd like to understand better. But I've had to learn that some of it I just don't have the...well, the cliché would be to say "the stomach for," but my stomach's fine; I don't have the constitution
for a lot of things.
Things like Game of Thrones
, which sometimes left friends of mine in such a poor mental state I wished GoT were a person so I could punch it, which I saw strangers in cafés bonding over how harrowing they'd found the most recent episode, were about as appealing to me as setting my own hair on fire. High fantasy isn't really my thing anyway, but to be opting against it for reasons of self-preservation felt weird.
I worried it was just me. Inarticulate concerns that I might just be getting "timid" or "weak" in my old age also sound silly when I find words for them, but they felt real and worrisome. Seeing someone else say that stories they've tried to enjoy have actually been bad for them is...well, I'm sorry it's happened because it's no fun, but I'm glad to realize that I might not just be an increasingly-fragile human being, but that I am ageing into an era in which the genres often most looked-to for escapism -- SF and fantasy -- are instead making grimdark dystopias fashionable.
So this has been a terribly useful review to read, for me as a person, which is a lot more than I expect from a book review! And The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet
has shot up to a high priority for me to get around to reading!