As comforting as the previous two Wayfarers novels and as thought-provoking, Record of a Spaceborn Few continues to explore broad themes through smaller, everyday stories. Throughout these books I’ve felt that Chambers wants to mostly show the best that people can be, and as I am always ready to read that she remains a great fit for me.
So, let’s be absolutely clear: I enjoyed this a lot. My mistake, when I read A Closed a Common Orbit was to expect more of the characters from The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and to find it wanting because they weren’t there. While I didn’t make that same mistake this time round, this book has also helped me to appreciate its predecessor. I see now that Chambers is telling different stories and approaching different themes in each book, just using the same universe as the setting. I get it now. And that makes me want to go back and reread A Closed and Common Orbit without the expectations I brought to it the first-time round. I loved it then, it’s not that I didn’t, but I’d like to go again knowing what I know now.
Of the three books, this latest volume has the loosest plot. If you’re looking for one connective storyline, there isn’t one. What there is is a cohesive theme. Each of the characters we spend time with here – Tessa, Isabel, Eyas, Kip and Sawyer – have reached a point of change in their lives. They don’t know it exactly. They experience the frustration, excitement, confusion, doubt and anticipation that any of us do when we know that something isn’t quite right, that something has to change, but don’t yet know what or how. It’s a fascinating thing to do, to take a group of unconnected characters and build a story around their state rather than around events they are involved in, and I really liked it.
Perhaps I was more interested in some characters than others, but that’s nearly always the case. I was utterly engrossed in Eyas’ life and work as a caretaker for the dead and how that role was a part of her identity no matter whether she was at work or not, and her struggle to find a meaningful way forward was something I could identify with. I was also really into Isabel and Ghuh’oloan’s interactions, not just because Chambers writes great aliens, but because I love the whole clash-of-cultures thing wherever I find it. I felt for Tess and Kip, but couldn’t delve so completely into their situations; they just didn’t grab me in the same way, I guess. As for Sawyer, I felt for him too, very much, but I was equally troubled by his naivety.
Sawyer and the Harmagian Ghuh’loloan are the only two outsiders in the story and their points of view as immigrant and guest respectively help to round out the examination of the Exodus Fleet’s utopian way of life. As a group of generation ships that have had to leave their planet behind without knowing its ultimate destination, the Fleet has had to adopt closed loop recycling, a barter system instead of currency and a strongly cooperative social structure. In the Fleet no-one goes hungry, no-one is homeless, and everyone does the dirty jobs at least some of the time. Great pains have been taken to make life as fair as possible: there are no rooms with a view or penthouse suites, all accommodation is identical; there are no changing fashions, all clothes are repaired and remade again and again. But however fair, still there is an insularity that is stifling the Fleet’s children and hurting those wanting to join it. And with Humanity having been accepted into the Galactic Commonwealth, the Fleet is now only one option among many for its people.
Which begs the question: can any society be utopian when exposed to other models?
Chambers doesn’t argue for or against any one way of life. Instead she posits that each person/family/community has the right to choose what works for them, and to choose again as circumstances change. No matter where we find ourselves, we will develop and evolve traditions to create a sense of home and belonging.
There are so many lovely moments in Record that speak for all aspects of belonging, whether as a guest or a friend, part of a couple, a family or a community. Chambers is a master at this capturing of small moments full of heart, like Isabel and her wife Tamsin enjoying the Sunside ride; Eyas in the old theatre; Grandma Ko’s jokes during Kip’s telling-off; and Tessa dealing with her children’s absorption of swearwords. And, of course, she makes great use of that most important symbol of welcome and belonging: FOOD. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet had me salivating for bug burgers because, dagnabbit, Chambers has got a feel for food. Well I was right back to dribbling again here, this time for bean cakes and cricket crunch, salt toffee, pocket stuffers and sintalin. Seriously, I love books that describe both the preparation and enjoyment of food, but there should be a rule that they include recipes.
I see the question about good gateway SF posed fairly regularly on the interweb and feel that Chambers’ Wayfarer series is kind of perfect. They’re books that explore ideas, which is perhaps my favourite thing about the genre, but in an incredibly relatable way. In The Long Way to a Small and Angry Planet she explores the concepts of found family and belonging, in A Closed and Common Orbit the concept of selfhood, and here the concepts of community and change. All of these ideas are part and parcel of being human. That she also continues to champion tolerance and compassion throughout is just the icing on the cake (mmmmm, cake).
And so, can we all just take a moment to appreciate the absolute awesomeness that is Becky Chambers?