Record of a Spaceborn Few
By Becky Chambers
A Hopeful Future
Review kindly provided by Vanessa Smyth.
Welcome to the third and latest instalment in The Wayfarers series, Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers. This current narrative is set within the same captivating universe as the first two books and, despite a few oblique character links, this is an original story which can be read as a standalone novel, though I would recommend reading it in sequence. This is because you will get a sense of Chambers’ style and learn that these books aren’t Hard Science Fiction but take a down-to-earth approach (excuse the pun) to life in outer space.
Record of a Spaceborn Few is precisely that, a record of the lives, of several characters, who were born in space because they are descended from the original humans who evacuated Earth when the planet became practically inhabitable. Generations ago the humans on Earth fled on the Exodus Fleet, comprising 32 Spaceships. Eventually they ‘made contact’ with an advanced alien species and were gifted a sun for the ships to orbit and therefor cease their travelling. There were those humans who chose to head out into a new life, and then there were those who chose to stay because they loved and believed in the traditions, and way of life, on their ships amongst the stars.
Chambers uses ordinary, everyday lives of five main compelling characters to offer us different perspectives from within the book. This enables us to question our own lives and the role society plays in shaping them and forming our notions of family, belonging, prejudice and tradition. This is one of the main reasons why Chambers’ books are significant and pertinent because she is highly skilled at portraying contrasting perspectives in a believable and realistic context. We, as readers, can only grow from learning about situations and ways of being that differ from our own. As Isabel, an elderly archivist, explains to Kip, a confused young adult eager to leave the stifling confines of the Fleet ‘Go out there and see what it’s like to be the alien[…]otherwise you’ll only ever think about other people in the abstract’. If we as individuals discover how to appreciate divergent perspectives it will go a long way towards building the hopeful future that Chambers is creating in her novel.
Besides the advantages that come from valuing new perspectives Chambers also tackles prejudice and how it might start with notions of superiority. This is part of the rationale she has for not making humans the dominant species in this universe. It may seem that we have that attitude in present day shown through the disregard in the way we treat our planet, its environment and its life forms. In the Exodus Fleet there is a sanitation lottery which Eyas, a Caretaker for the dead, explains to Sawyer, a newcomer to the Fleet ‘(it) randomly pulls names for temporary, mandatory, no-getting-out-of-it work crews to sort recycling and wash greasy throw-cloths and unclog the sewage lines[…] That way nothing is out of sight or out of mind. Nothing is left to lesser people, because there is no such thing.’ This sanitation lottery also demonstrates how everyone is necessary and valued in the social structure and how every item must be reused or recycled. Even the dead are respectfully composted and contribute to the ‘circle of life’. George, a husband figure, emphasizes the importance of being aware of this interconnectedness when he says, ‘a closed system is a closed system even when you can’t see the edges.’ There don’t seem to be any plastic bags or plastic cups utilised on the Fleet. Just saying.
Science Fiction is the perfect opportunity for delivering novel ideas (pun intended) because when we read Science Fiction, we apparently leave our biases on the side-line instead of having them blind our vision to the reality that is unfolding. We’re content to follow the story as it teaches us that there are alternatives to the ‘norm’. Hence, I appreciate that in this story same sex couples are no big thing. They are not a ‘thing’ at all. On the Fleet there is no societal expectation of male and female relationships. In fact, there is no expectation that a relationship consists of only two people. Another not-so-new idea but addressed afresh is cross cultural misunderstandings. For example, a chromatically communicative species is greeted by dozens and dozens of multi-coloured streamers, banners and bunting ‘similar to a thousand people shouting at them’ which wasn’t the impression the humans wanted to give but the misunderstanding was dealt with ‘gracefully and gently’. It proves that we can learn from each other’s differences and figure out how to get along. Record of a Spaceborn Few depicts some obstacles which may arise as people struggle with respecting cultural differences and accepting new people into the community. Sawyer, for example, has a hard time fitting in and learning how things are done in the Fleet because the inhabitants are used to people leaving but they aren’t used to people moving onboard. Since these private struggles are shared in a personal and comprehensible way it is straightforward to see how we might connect them with our own lived experiences.
We’ve established that this is a rich character driven narrative with meticulous detail of the nitty gritty of everyday life and not a large-scale Space Opera dramatization with planet sized explosions. Therefor when tragedy strikes it is felt, as we would feel it in our own lives, as a horrific shock that rocks the unsuspecting community. We then witness the consequences and effects this traumatic event has and how it is a catalyst in discovering what really matters in these characters’ lives.
This is the crux of the book, the authentic, genuine characters and their differing but believable perspectives, played out in ordinary daily routines. I think these characters are affirming what we need reminding of, that we each have a role in society which is part of an interconnected social system even if we don’t always feel connected or valued. We are allowed to question the status quo and picture the type of future that we would like to move towards and be a part of. The humanity and empathy expressed through these pages, will help develop the good will and optimism that leads us towards a hopeful future.
Written on 12th April 2019 by Vanessa Smyth.