Every book of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer series has centered on a slightly different, but extremely relevant, facet of life that is common to the modern millennial and Gen Zer, perhaps even more so than to prior generations. Her knock-out debut, The Long Road To A Small Angry Planet, discussed the found families that have become integral parts of (particularly young adult) society, while its follow-up, A Closed And Common Orbit, focused on personhood, adult autonomy and, in a more overt nod to its science fiction setting, sentience. This third installment of the series edges from the social to the political after a fashion, tackling the topic of migration at a complete remove from any real-world policies, tho it’s pretty clear that Ms Chambers, like myself, is an open borders advocate, if her narrative choices are anything to go by.
Record Of A Spaceborn Few follows the lives of five human descendants of the Exodan Fleet, as the survivors who fled a dying Earth for the stars (as opposed to Mars or the Outer Ring planets) call themselves, interspersed with the sociological observations of a Harmagian anthropologist, Ghuh’loloan. The Harmagian has come to visit one of these ships now that the fleet has lived for several generations as part of the Galactic Commons uniting most of the known universe’s sentient species, and Isabel, one of our viewpoint characters, serves as her guide. As one of her ship’s resident archivists, Isabel is in an excellent position not only to show Ghuh’loloan around, but also to answer her many questions.
The other four descendants are Tess, the sister of the pilot from TLRtaSAP, a middle-aged technician struggling to raise her two young children and look after her increasingly irascible dad while her husband is off mining asteroids; Kip, a disgruntled 16 year-old who wants more than what he thinks the Fleet has to offer; Eyas, a caretaker for the dead whose lofty position in society can’t make up for how lonely she often feels, and Sawyer, a young man who’s lived his entire life on the Harmagian planet of Mushtullo and is looking for something new. The way their narratives intersect makes for a really comprehensive overview of why people uproot their entire lives for territory foreign to them, and sometimes why they don’t, and sometimes why they return, and what our responsibilities are to those who choose to brave new places in search of safety or belonging. It is one of the most powerful, intensely empathetic looks at the immigrant experience that I’ve ever read. This quietly devastating novel had me ugly crying my way through entire passages that could have easily described the inner turmoil of my teens and 20s, even as I recognized and grieved the differences that had me far removed from some of the decisions made.
It isn’t an entirely perfect book: the seemingly complete eradication of violent crime and other assorted ugliness amongst the Exodan Fleet feels too good to be true, even to my optimistic eye, but that is an exceedingly minor quibble in the face of the thoughtfulness and depth and warmth and heart put into working out the rest of Exodan society, how it treats within itself and how it gets along with others. While I was entertained by Ms Chambers’ previous novels, this is the one where I feel like she’s finally moving into her own as a cultural commentator and thinker — a Marilynne Robinson of sci-fi, if you will — using the medium of space opera to explore via metaphor some of the real problems borne of lack of empathy plaguing our everyday lives. RoaSF is a truly superlative installment of an already excellent series, and one I’m hoping mainstream readers will find and celebrate as justly as it deserves, especially since you don’t need to have read the previous books to enjoy this one.
Record Of A Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers was published July 24th 2018 by Harper Voyager, and is available from all good booksellers including
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