Deji Olukuton's Nigerians in Space is part noir, part political thriller, part heart-breaking literary fiction - all packed up with a vaguely science fictional gloss. A futurist raison d'etre. The plot itself is meandering: Dr. Wale Olufunmi is in Houston, working on moon rocks, when he gets the call from a mysterious political figure back in his country of birth, Nigeria. Wale, seduced by the dream of a Nigerian space programme, obeys: he steals a sample, uproots his family, and heads to Nigeria. Unfortunately, reality and politics intervene - also, assassins. Wale drags himself all over the world trying to restore some balance to his life, but only gets deeper and deeper in trouble.
The second thread of the narrative takes place with the next generation: Wale's son (an inventor), a hypnotic refugee model (the daughter of another member of the failed Nigerian 'Brain Gain' plot) and an opportunistic mollusc dealer. Their lives orbit and, eventually, intersect those of Wale's, and their smaller plots become part of the larger one.
What's beautiful about Nigerians in Space is that it is adamantly and aggressively earthbound - it is a novel of shattered dreams and failed launches. But it is also about the concept of space: a beautiful, unbounded future, filled with possibility and the (theoretical but not wholly defined) advancement of the human species. This is the shine of Golden Age SF - the magic and the mystery of the space programme - but with a wonderfully contemporary touch: a handful of people looking, aspiring, to live that dream in a world that refuses to accept it. Ultimately the idea of space is not unlike the stolen moon rock sample - infinitely valuable, but without practical purpose. It is about a dream, and what that represents.
A truly glorious book, that reminds the reader of what makes science fiction - as an idea - so very, very special.
Becky Chambers' The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is so good that I may even stop being snarky about Kickstarter. The Wayfarer is a wormhole builder - a ship that goes out to the middle of nowhere and sets up doorways for future travellers. (There's physics involved, but it is presented through a combination of hilarious analogies over the breakfast table, so that's ok.) The ship itself is populated by a mixed and ramshackle crew - including a pair of bonkers engineers, a sentient AI, and the ostensible protagonist - Rosemary (a wealthy runaway hiding as the ship's clerk).
The format is episodic: the ship has been tasked to build a gateway in a faraway system, formerly the domain of warring alien tribes. A fragile new alliance means that there's the opportunity to begin trade - especially in the lucrative go-juice that makes wormhole travel possible. The Wayfarer will make good money and, as a perk, they're allowed to get there at a pleasantly ambling rate - thus the titular long way.
Through Rosemary, the ship's newest member, we learn about all the crew's proclivities and personal histories: the wars, the families, the strange and wonderful alien customs and the liaisons (illicit and licit) and relationships. Generally speaking, there's no one 'big' adventure - the peripatetic structure is a series of small encounters that range from the harrowing to the adorable. On one end, there are space pirates and giant locusts; on the other, there are rather poignant encounters, and explorations of loneliness and belonging. In-between, we get a beautiful overlap: what is love like between alien species? What does family mean to a clone? The Long Way is remarkable not only because it tackles tricky questions, but because it does so with such deftness and charm. Despite the sprawling, far-flung setting, a universe populated with sentient beings of all shapes and sizes, this is a deeply intimate book: we get to know the half-dozen crew members, what makes them tick, and why they're so genuinely wonderful together.
And I think that's the beautiful thing about The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Science fiction is a genre of big statements and big ideas. Certainly, The Long Way doesn't shy away from them, but where it excels is in the little things - how the characters interact and interweave, how situations are resolved not with a bang, and how it doesn't shout about philosophies as much as quietly live them. It is also, and this is worth noting, a happy book - a book that espouses positivity in the face of adversity, and reinforces a core belief that people of all shapes, sizes and species are (or can be) pretty nice. The Long Way is, very simply, an extremely good book, a seemingly effortless demonstration of how progressive and enjoyable science fiction can be.