Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few book cover
Rating 9.4/10
Where have all the graveyards gone?

In my review of Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, I agreed with Michelle Herbert’s assessment of the book as like a hug from a close friend. So when Record of a Spaceborn Few came up, it was as if we’d opened the front door to find that close friend standing outside, suitcase in hand, casually explaining that he was in the area and wondering if we would mind if he crashed on our spare bed for a few days. We of course assured him that it would be no trouble, even though we know he will turn the kitchen into a bomb site whilst cooking for us, and probably have us up until dawn discussing every subject under the sun over cocktails, and that the rest of life will probably have to be put on hiatus while he’s with us, since he is just not quite like anyone else we know.

Spaceborn Few also resembles our eclectic friend in that even as it plays fast and loose with authorial convention and usual literary organisation, it’s a massive amount of fun!

Two hundred years ago, The Exodus fleet left Earth, a group of people bound together by a common cause forming a close-knit community, trying not to repeat the mistakes of the past. It’s been a couple of generations since the Exodus fleet made contact with the galactic commons, and things are changing, imports from technology to currency threaten the carefully balanced Exodan way of life, even as the younger generation are leaving their homesteader ships to settle elsewhere.  In this atmosphere of change we follow five human residents of the Exodan fleet, living with them day to day, and understanding their hopes, fears and expectations from life.

One of the most astounding things about Spaceborn Few is that Chambers is both able to play to her strengths as an author, and at the same time give us something new. Angry Planet had a fairly casual ongoing plot corresponding to the Wayfarer’s voyage, whilst Common Orbit’s attempt at a continuous plot was perfunctory at best. Here however, Chambers pretty much says from the get go that there will be little by way of narrative structure or direction, and that the entire book will be essentially episodes from the lives of her five principle characters.

In any other author you might think this was a recipe for dullness, in Chambers however, with her ability to populate her universe with flawed, three dimensional and just plain lovable people, this is nothing of the kind.

Where any other author would struggle to make basic character drama and reaction the centre of a whole novel with very little by way of ongoing plot, Chambers succeeds admirably, alternating the viewpoints of her five principle cast members so none become stale. Indeed, if you had told me that an author could pull off end of chapter cliff-hangers just at the idea of a teenage boy being lead into rule flaunting by a friend, or of someone going to a job application office, I’d have wondered what you were smoking. Yet, from Sawyer, a young man coming to the Exodan fleet to find a new way of life, to Isabel, an old archivist trying to show off the fleet to a sympathetic, if at times slightly condescending alien friend, the five stories are without exception compelling ones told with humour, pathos and some edge of the seat moments, even if the thing you’re on the edge of the seat about is comparatively mundane.

It is particularly through Isabel’s viewpoint, showing the flee to her Hermajian friend, and that of the rather confused Sawyer, that we also get a look at the Exodan society as a whole, which is where Chambers really shows us something new.

Previously, Chambers’ universe, for all its realism has been split into black and white; or at least tolerant and intolerant areas. Thus, Common Orbit contrasted the bohemian community of Port Corial with a drab, industrial dystopia. Were Chambers not as gifted a character writer as she undoubtedly is, this would likely make the world feel a little less believable, especially with the obtrusion of Chambers’ own wonderfully liberal, but still at times a little too obvious perspective. With the Exodan fleet however, Chambers manages to make a society as nuanced as the characters who inhabit it, since while in principle the Exodus fleet is a socialist, eco-friendly (or at least homesteader friendly) utopia, in practice that also means an emphasis on traditional life patterns and an inward focus which seems stultifying to the younger generation when contrasted against the big, glittery galaxy out there.

Stylistically, the book remains relaxed and readable as before, however here for the first time Chambers seemed to vary the tone a little, albeit always through the lens of character reaction. Thus, we are able to both understand people expecting treats composed of fried insects and strongly sour peppers, and sympathise with poor Sawyer when some locals decide to take advantage of his inexperienced taste buds.

Chambers also goes far further than previously in showing us a community, even if one which looks rather idealistic to our short sighted twenty first century view, which contains its share of closed minded arseholes, bigots and bullies, though for the most part we still get the idea that future humanity is a little less prone to scummy behaviour than we are.

Since everything in the book happens through character interactions and reactions, the book’s pacing is a little odd, however, Chambers writes with such honesty that even small anecdotes, such as Tessa’s complaints of the mess her two children have made of her habitat come off as endearing rather than simply filler, likewise, passages which in the hands of another author would exist simply to explain a facet of the world, like the detailed description of a visit to a professional host at a “Trist club”; a combination councillor, sexual therapist and courtesan, explain a little more about their characters needs and motivations and further the relationships in the book as well as show us another aspect of Exodan culture.

Normally, I would complain at spending pretty much the entire book on one spaceship, however as with Port Corial in Common Orbit, the Exodan world is so varied, the characters so engaging and their stories so compelling, that this never became a problem, particularly since through Isabel’s friendship with the Hermajian Gololoan, we get to see another decidedly alien race in detail.

My only minor issue with her explanation of the Exodus fleet’s world view comes with the story of Eyas, caretaker for the dead. Chambers gives us a large amount of information on the Exodan respect for dead bodies, and how even the process of composting the dead to grow plants for food and oxygen has more than a functional significance in Exodan life. Yet, nowhere does she suggest anything like religious faith, either among the Exodans, or elsewhere in the galaxy. The closest she comes are the Gaiists with their focus on planet Earth, but even there, there isn’t anything like a spiritual or religious significance, much less any idea that death is not a purely functional process. With the Exodans, this is perhaps understandable to an extent since their culture was artificially created from the start, but I do find it odd that an author who obviously thinks so much about the acceptance of gender, race and sexual preference shows absolutely no inclination towards religious acceptance at all. Indeed, I suspect that like many atheists, in writing the Exodan rituals concerning the dead, Chambers confuses respect with reverence, and ritual with faith.

On a more minor note, I also do wish Chambers had thought a little more carefully about one character’s old father receiving an ocular implant, since I severely doubt, were vision loss in the balance, someone would be reluctant to try “this new-fangled technology if it could save their sight”. Indeed, essentially sweeping all experience or concerns about blindness under the rug and turning the matter into a simple, rather comical case of an old man not wanting to take his medicine definitely felt a wee bit off for an author who is usually so concerned about bodily identity.

While the plot on average remains a fairly low-key one, Chambers also breaks her own standard in elements of tragedy, both in terms of the destruction of a homesteader that begins the book, and a smaller, personal tragedy which occurs to one of the characters. This tragedy comes as a totally unexpected, GRRM style sucker punch, still more because we get to see not just the tragedy itself, but how that tragedy is interpreted both by our principle characters and around the fleet at large, indeed Chambers’ observational skills as a student of human nature were definitely in full play here.

I will admit, I do wish our characters crossed paths a little more during the course of the book, just as it also would’ve been nice to see the Wayfarer’s crew again (indeed since one character is Tessa, Captain Ashby’s sister I did wonder if we might). Then again that would probably have made the plot more obtrusive and more complex than this type of story needed to be. That being said, while for the most part you could virtually read this as a standalone book, a few sly little nods, such as the name of one internet user or the significance of one particular alien artefact, was a nice little Easter egg for careful readers of previous entries in the series.

The book didn’t so much have one ending as five, yet all five were appropriate to their respective protagonists, even if all five didn’t sit altogether comfortably. While I do wish the tragic moment had received at least a little acknowledgement in one or another character’s final chapters, at the same time I can’t complain about where any of the stories ended, indeed, I loved the fact that Chambers showed that perhaps different people, at different times in their lives need to make different choices, and while the Exodan way of life might be a superior one to ours, it’s still not absolutely right for everyone all of the time.

Looking on the internet, there seem to be three broadly similar groups of opinions on Spaceborn Few. Those who hate the book because “nothing happens”, those who love the book because of its focus on its characters, and those approve of the book because they believe Chambers grinds the same axe as they do. Despite the fact that I imagine Chambers and I would agree on many political and ethical issues, my lady and I definitely fall into the second group here.

People say science fiction is a genre of ideas, yet very few authors I know can explore those ideas through very ordinary people facing very usual problems, and do so with poise, pathos and comedy. Some reviewers have described the book as “soap opera in space”, and while I can understand why, this description is a little inadequate, “soap opera” after all (as per its dramatic suffix), tends to imply exaggerated emotional reactions, histrionics and pyrotechnics, often complete with farcical plot twists or romantic reversals. I’d say myself, Spaceborn Few is more like biography in space, not so much a book, as a casual conversation with a few interesting and likable people who are kind enough to invite you into their homes and chat about their lives.

Obviously if you enjoyed the previous two books of the series, you’ll probably enjoy this one, and even for all of those who will hate this book on principle because we don’t see Ashby, Sissix or Sidra again, I’d still recommend giving it a try on its own merits, since just like my eclectic friend, while it might turn everything upside down and be far safer and more upbeat than you expect, in a world of daily grind and ever more grimness that is nothing but a good thing.

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