In the lead-up to the 2019 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s novel and short fiction Finalists, and what makes each of them great.
We’ve been taught to expect our novels to be predominantly narrative in nature, but Becky Chambers is here to say that there’s another way. As I wrote in my review of what is by leaps and bounds the most hectic episode of the Wayfarers series so far, the plot of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet appeared almost an afterthought when all was said and done. If that proved a problem for you, A Closed and Common Orbit, with its still slighter storyline, would have been far from the follow-up you fancied—yet in its doubling down on the close, character-focused moments that made its self-published predecessor such a personable pleasure, A Closed and Common Orbit was, in its hearteningly humane way, no less of a success than Chambers’ multiple award-nominated darling of a debut.
Record of a Spaceborn Few is at least as remarkable, yet regrettably, isn’t going to win over anyone who’s been underwhelmed by these books before. Indeed, it’s never been clearer than it is here that this is a series about people—people as opposed to the things that happen to them, assuming anything happens to them at all. To be sure, a few things do in Record of a Spaceborn Few—there’s a tragic mishap at the outset, and an equally disastrous accident as the text progresses—but the third of Chambers’ loosely-connected Wayfarers works is only interested in events insofar as these events affect the five folks that are the focus of this practically pacific work of fiction.
All five are found, in the first, aboard the Asteria, one of the hundreds of spacecraft comprising the Exodus Fleet: a flotilla of generation ships that escaped humanity’s home planet just hours before it became wholly inhospitable.
“We destroyed our world […] and left it for the skies. Our numbers were few. Our species had scattered. We were the last to leave. We left the ground behind. We left the oceans. We left the air. We watched these things grow small. We watched them shrink into a point of light. As we watched, we understood. We understood what we were. We understood what we would need to do to survive. We abandoned more than our ancestors’ world. We abandoned our short sight. We abandoned more than our bloody ways. We made ourselves anew.
“We are the Exodus Fleet. We are those that wandered, that wander still. We are the homesteaders that shelter our families. We are the miners and foragers in the open. We are the ships that ferry between. We are the explorers who carry our names. We are the parents who lead the way. We are the children who continue on.”
This is a speech Isabel, as the Asteria’s archivist, knows as well as any pledge. “She’d said the words hundreds of times. Thousands, maybe. Every archivist knew how to say them, and every Exodan knew their sound by heart. But still, they needed to be said.” They establish, at the ceremony that heralds every new arrival, the values that underlie Exodan existence; the ethos of equality and interconnectedness that determines everyone’s relationship with everyone else. Humanity had to be better than it had been to endure the interminable transit between our own small, angry planet and whatever lay beyond—and, in an early indication of Chambers’ ever-optimistic attitude, it was.
Centuries after setting off, the Exodus Fleet made contact with the Galactic Commons: an interstellar community of intelligent lifeforms that, upon accepting the immigrants from Earth into their system, allotted the Exodans one small sun, some vacant space, and more than anyone knows what to do with in terms of technology and trade. These are obviously positives, but even changes for the better have cascading consequences, and as such, much has been in flux on the Asteria ever since the Fleet became a part of the GC. To wit, we find Record of a Spaceborn Few’s titular few dealing, over the course of Chambers’ novel, with the ramifications of life as they no longer know it.
Take Eyas as an example. Eyas is what’s called a caretaker. This is a job she does on a voluntary basis, as all Exodans do, for if there is food, as the spaceborn saying goes, the people of the Fleet will eat; if there is air, they will breathe freely; and if there is fuel, they will fly—not that there’s anywhere to fly, now that they’ve arrived at the destination they did not know of to name. No one has to do anything, strictly speaking, yet almost everyone pulls his or her or xyr own weight—another sign of the author’s refreshingly positive position—not least Eyas, who oversees the decomposition of the dead and the resulting redistribution of their remains.
A necessary evil at the outset of the Fleet’s flight, this outwardly macabre practice became a beautiful thing in subsequent generations, but now that the Asteria has access to technology that means it’s no longer necessary to process bodies into compost, Eyas, as caretaker, as happy as she is in herself to continue doing what she does, is getting a lot of looks she doesn’t like. For her, and for Isabel the archivist, who’s become concerned about the number of people she welcomed into the world leaving the Fleet to settle on solid ground—as well as Tessa, a salvage supervisor about to be put out of a job by a bot from the Commons, and Kip, a young man who loathes his life in what he sees as a pointless orbit—it might be time to try something new.
Something new is exactly what Sawyer’s trying. The only one of the novel’s five point of view characters not to come from the Asteria, Sawyer chooses to come to the Asteria. He’s excited by the change of pace initially, but quickly finds life there—not to mention the food there—impossible to penetrate, far less appreciate. A job trial as a code monkey for a freelance salvage squad promises to be the thing that makes or breaks him as an honorary Exodan, but what follows goes to show that change can be more than merely scary: it can also be dangerous.
This is the only suggestion of spectacle in Record of a Spaceborn Few, but even here, where any other novelist—be he or she or xe of the genre or not—would draw out the action for chapter after sensational chapter, Chambers is succinct, and sensitive. What happens to Sawyer happens, but its principal purpose isn’t to excite or even to intrigue. Instead, it acts as a rallying cry that motivates Chambers’ credible and compassionately-crafted cast of characters to take full account of their respective futures.
If you’re looking for a story stuffed full of substance, with sex and space battles and betrayals, Record of a Spaceborn Few really isn’t the book for you, but if the idea of a near silent and not at all violent novel about decent people in relatively difficult situations trying to do what’s right for them right then appeals—in other words, if you’ve enjoyed the Wayfarers series in the past—then Becky Chambers’ latest may well be the purest distillation of her characteristically smooth science fiction to date.
This article was originally published in July 2018.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.