Becky Chambers takes a real chance in Record of a Spaceborn Few. She sets aside conventional adventure plots to create a convincing human society in space that is actually hopeful. Hopeful, but not easy. From the outset of this novel, third in the Wayfarer series, we are reminded of how fragile life can be on settlement ships that orbit a star.
An error leads to the catastrophic break-up of one ship in the Exodus fleet, with the loss of tens of thousands of lives. But her interest is not just the fragility of a space community but the interweaving bonds that hold people together and that make a good society. That’s a rare goal for a science fiction novel, and Chambers does it brilliantly.
Chambers has a genius for dramatizing normal life in a science fictional world. Here she gives us the Exodus fleet, a cluster of ships that have left a destroyed earth behind.
She skillfully envisions ordinary lives of a space community of ship residents. Their world is ship-bound, as the cluster of vessels orbit a star that another species of beings has let them take over. That species has also donated powerful technologies that enable the humans to thrive in that planet-less world.
The tragic accident that opens the story is not a starting point for action, mystery or adventure, but rather a backdrop that reminds the Exodans of their basic values. As one of their rituals affirms:
“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.’ … From the ground, we stand. From our ships, we live. By the stars, we hope.”Record of a Spaceborn Few, Kindle edition, locations 483 and 493
The story revolves around the everyday lives of six characters:
Tessa is a mom whose husband George is away most of the time and who deals with a rebellious nine year-old girl and a toddler. She is the sister of Ashby, the one character link to the first book in this series, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. She cherishes the orderly nature of her work in a cargo bay to balance the frequent emotional chaos of family life.
Isabella is an archivist, married to Tamsin, a retired space engineer. She is guiding a guest alien around her ship – who happens to be an ethnographic researcher. That’s a convenient excuse to explain how everything works on the human ships. Archivists also preside at ceremonies, like burial and naming, that help remind everyone of the communal bonds and values that unite them:
“The person being honoured there would not remember any of it, but the others present would, and they would relay the story one day. That, in a nutshell, was what Isabel’s profession was for. Making sure everybody was a link in a chain. Making sure they remembered.”Record of a Spaceborn Few, Kindle edition, location 460
Eyas is a thirty-something caretaker, that is, someone who prepares the dead for burial. Since nothing can be wasted in the systems of these ships, burial means composting. It is a grim but respected role and one that makes it hard to link up with casual partners. She travels to another ship where she isn’t known to visit Sunny, a sex-worker.
Kip, a teenager, is predictably dissatisfied with everything. He yearns to get away from ship life and get to a university on one of the planets humans have moved to.
Sawyer is a twenty-five year-old immigrant from one of those planets, who has heard great things about this ship world and wants to find a home and community.
There is also the visiting alien ethnographer and blogger whose feed opens each part of the novel. She gives her own take on the human species and their way of life in the Exodus fleet.
The arc of each character forms a satisfying whole, as they search for a new role in life. Not all find it, but even the fatal errors, like the disaster that opens the book, become an occasion for reminding the greater community of who they are. It may seem like a series of separate stories, but they have the cumulative effect of showing you how a society works, what holds it together, how it is tested.
That’s the special genius of this book, that it can take you through personal decisions that change lives but keep you mindful of the social bonds and values that make those individual choices more meaningful. Because everyone is contributing in their way to a greater good and getting in return the inner fulfillment that keeps them and the whole community going.
After all the stories of generation ships falling into one kind of chaos or another, I love seeing a convincing story of how things could work, how humans might actually survive after destroying earth and overcome the urges to conquer and dominate.
Too good to be true? Yes, of course. But this is not exactly a utopian story. It is by all means a hopeful one that shows people managing to make the best of a limited life in an essentially closed system. Reminiscent of the future envisioned in the Star Trek series but much more grounded in everyday reality.
It’s a brilliant book, but don’t go into it expecting the usual sort of action-driven sf plot. This is sweet music for the soul, thoughtfully composed, imagined in great and convincing detail. It gives you hope about being human, hope that we can one day learn from the disastrous past that we’re in the midst of right now.