Book review: Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Third in the Wayfarers series, Record of a Spaceborn Few retains the charm of its two predecessors.  Just like the previous book, it is only loosely connected to either of the two older novels, and just as the previous titles, it offers a refreshing new perspective and style.  The book’s subject matter and how the author handles it strikes me as a little more somber, which may be the main reason I didn’t like it as much as the other books in the series.  Still, Record of a Spaceborn Few is a very solid piece of fiction, and a worthy addition to the Wayfarers series.

When Earth became uninhabitable, what was left of humanity on the planet boarded a number of generational ships and blasted into space to find a new planet to call home.  During the journey, they encountered other galactic races for the first time, and became members of the galactic community.  They were given planets to settle on, engaged into trade, and were given technologies that improved their ships.  At the end, though, many remained on their ships.  They parked in the orbit of a star and went on living in the enclosed spaces.  They never truly integrated: they did not have a currency and rather bartered, and they looked at all outsiders with suspicion.  Relatively safe, they still feel threatened by the encroaching galactic economy and potential immigrants.

The story starts on a very somber tone when one of the generational ships explodes, and thousands of people die in the process.  From there, we follow the stories of several characters: a dock worker, a librarian, a cleric, a teenager and a recent immigrant.  Their stories are very loosely intertwined, but each is ultimately going their own way.  The laborer is the sister of Captain Ashby from The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, and she serves as the only direct link to the rest of the series.  She is contemplating leaving the fleet and finding a planet to settle on, mainly due to her daughter’s traumatic experience from witnessing the destruction of the other ship.  The immigrant looks for a new, better life, and has a romanticized idea of life in the fleet.  He arrives and is quickly brought down to earth by realizing that he’d have to start at the bottom of the society: by cleaning sewage systems.  Due to his lack of experience he falls prey to a few unsavory types and ends up getting killed.  The cleric, who had met him before his death and gave him some advice on how to live in the fleet, must perform last rites on him, and realizes that she may serve the fleet better by establishing a learning academy for the fresh arrivals.  The librarian is hosting an alien anthropologist, through whose eyes the reader learns the most about the fleet and its people.  And finally, there is the teenager who doesn’t really know what he wants to do, but ends up making all the right decisions, leaves the fleet for what he considers a more exciting life, only to return a few years later.

As with the previous books, the overall storyline is absolutely miniscule compared with the grand scale of things.  The personal stories are actually quite short, with Chambers focusing more on conversation and exposition.  I believe that was intentional.  Throughout reading the novel, I found it evocative of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work.  In particular, Chambers takes a simple question, and uses it to explore a society she created.  In her case, the question was, why would anyone willingly live in a generational ship.  And that’s what all her characters struggle with.  Some want to leave but have too many attachments on the ships.  Others think they want to leave, only to find they actually wanted to stay.  And yet others want to come to live on the ships, but don’t know how. There may be economic or personal safety reasons why someone would choose to live on the ships or leave for a planet, but ultimately it all boils down to emotional attachments, and Chambers had already proven her mastery over that subject.

There are other similarities between Chambers and Le Guin.  They are both stacking the deck in their favor.  Le Guin’s Dispossessed has a society that is completely economically unsustainable.  It is there for the sake of argument, and to contrast it with the hard-capitalist society of its twin planet, but it would not survive the real world (and human mentality) for very long.  Chambers’ Fleet suffers from the same problem: the barter economic system that relies heavily on the person’s standing in society, as well as the basic needs system for people without any means, would not hold in a normal society, much less in the enclosed ecosystem of a generational ship.  This broke the immersion for me in places, and unlike with the previous books in the series, I was staying above the story, not forming emotional attachments with the characters.

Chambers is not yet at the level of Le Guin.  She tried her best, but the book falls a little short of Le Guin’s depth of worldbuilding, especially in its societal element, and the subtlety in presenting the fictional world.  That doesn’t detract from the quality of Spaceborn Few, though; few people could approach the quality of worldbuilding of The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness.  This book is very good in its own right, and I am not surprised it got nominated for the 2019 Hugo Award, and together with the other two books in the series won the Best Series Award at the Dublin Worldcon.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is a very fine novel.  It offers a new and fresh perspective on generational ships, when instead of technical issues or profound changes in the society is asks – and expertly answers – the question, why in the world would anyone willingly live inside a spaceship if other options were available.  However, it skips the technical and economic questions a little too obviously.  This prevented me from fully immersing into the book and emotionally bonding with the characters, as was the case with the previous titles in the Wayfarers series.  It is still a highly recommended read, though, especially for anyone who enjoyed the previous two books.

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