Wednesday 2 January 2019

Interstelar Pastoral

Chambers’ novels have great titles.
There is a poetry to phrases like
“A Closed And Common Orbit.”
The title Record Of A Spaceborn
is both an evocative and
elegant label for this work.
(Image via
There are few authors writing SFF today who reliably offer as many well-developed and interesting characters as Becky Chambers does.

After bursting onto the scene in 2014 with her self-published debut A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, the more focused 2017 follow-up A Closed And Common Orbit earned her a completely justifiable Hugo nod. It would not be surprising to see Record Of A Spaceborn Few receive another.

Chambers’ first two books were notable for likable, nuanced characters with the ability to provoke empathy. Her characters tend to face human-scale problems, and to have human-scale goals. In a genre that all too often loses a sense of proportion, Chambers’ work can be a breath of fresh air. 

With her latest novel, Record Of A Spaceborn Few, Chambers focuses even more closely on the quotidien, telling a series of interwoven stories about life aboard a series of spaceships that were built to house refugees from a dying Earth. 

While this “exodan fleet” had been referenced in her previous two novels, here it is more fully realized as a society and as a setting. In fact, it is so fully developed that it could be described as a main character within the story. 

The fleet is explored through several primary point-of-view characters, though it’s hard to think of any of them as ‘protagonists.’ Tessa the archivist who shows an alien visitor the ins and outs of the fleet. Sawyer the immigrant who’s trying to reconnect with his heritage and find his place. Kyp the teenager who wants to get away. 

Through slice-of-life vignettes, Chambers shows the reader how the culture of the fleet works. How food is provided. How they maintain their environment. How families are structured. How order is maintained. How people’s bodies are disposed of. 

This last provides one of the most beautiful and elegant sections of the book, as what could have been a distressing subject is shown to be part of the cycle of life aboard a closed-system space fleet that’s been adrift for centuries. 

Work, culture, social responsibility and community are the focal points of this story. What it means to grow up in this alternative society, how populations adapt to limited resources, and how we adapt to those outside our social bubble are all explored. 

This novel will not appeal to those who are seeking fast-paced action, for those looking for big super-science, or for those who seek a puzzle to be solved. One complaint that was leveled at the book was that ‘nothing happens,’ but one suspects that this may not be at odds with what Chambers was attempting to achieve. 

This book is an exploration of how people might live, and fits into a grand — but of late neglected — utopian tradition in social science fiction. 

There is intellectual grist, though little adrenaline in Record Of A Spaceborn Few … and that’s actually just fine. 

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