Reviewed by Annabel
Becky Chambers’ third novel is set in the same galactic milieu as her first two. It can be read as a standalone and marks her out as a shining star in the latest generation of space opera writers. In her marvellous debut, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, we travelled with the Wayfarer, an asteroid mining ship with its idiosyncratic crew of humans and aliens on its adventures – it was optimistic and such fun. Her second, A Closed and Common Orbit (reviewed for Shiny here), spun off from the first, taking a couple of subsidiary characters including an ‘AI’ and telling their onward stories in a coming of age adventure. In Record of a Spaceborn Few, she takes another sideways move to spend time with five humans living in space; they each have a different experience to tell.
When humans finally broke Earth, they evacuated the planet in a vast fleet of spaceships, the Exodus Fleet. Their aim was to find a new home, but this was centuries ago, before first contact, and now the Fleet orbits around an unused sun belonging to the Aeluons who welcomed the humans into the Galactic Commons (GC). The original mission is no longer needed, nor a return to Earth as in Pixar’s Wall-E. With the technological help of their new alien friends, the Exodans live in a Utopian and inclusive community where everyone’s needs are taken care of.
While many will be happy with their lives in space, there will always be those who need to escape the confines of living on a spaceship. Equally, there will be those outsiders for whom moving to the Exodus Fleet could be the start of a big adventure. Chambers’ five protagonists cover all the bases, and they showcase her wonderful world-building skills as we spend time with each in turn. In the prologue we are introduced to the five and what they were doing when a tragic accident happens to one of the ships in the Fleet. It brings home the precarious nature of living in space, and questions how the other ships would cope with finding homes for the evacuees and deal with their dead amongst many other consequences of the tragedy.
We move on four ‘standards’ to the main story which begin with Tessa, who provides the link back to the first book – her younger brother is Captain of the Wayfarer. Tessa’s husband is the equivalent of a rigger, working away for several months at a time, leaving Tessa at home with her Pop to raise their two children. Their young daughter Aya had been watching the stars when the accident had happened and has been scared ever since that their ship might go the same way as the Oxomoco.
Next, we meet Isabel, an Archivist. Her role is to protect and communicate the history of humankind and the Exodus Fleet. In her eighties, she also presides over naming ceremonies for new spaceborn, speaking the words that induct them into the fleet.
We destroyed our world and left it for the skies. […] We made ourselves anew. We are the Exodus Fleet. We are those that wandered, that wander still. […] from the ground, we stand. From our ships, we live. By the stars, we hope.
Eya is perhaps the most interesting of all the characters we meet. She is a ‘caretaker’, one of the Fleet’s funeral directors. But rather than send bodies into space, she will compost them to spread on the oxygenating plants, thereby completing the circle of life.
Kip and Sawyer are both young, but whereas eighteen-year-old Kip is just chafing at the bit to leave the Fleet to study planetside and is desperate to reach his majority at twenty and enjoy the fun side of life, Sawyer, a naïve 23-year-old from Mushtullo, has come to the Exodus Fleet to try his luck in the place his ancestors left generations ago.
Record of a Spaceborn Few is a more thoughtful novel than its predecessors despite having so many profound things to say. The overall story arc is quite minimal. Being completely character-driven, we just follow the five’s lives, getting to know them, their homes and jobs and how they all live in this closed system. Some of the five will interact, especially after one dramatic incident which gives the drama needed to allow a point from which a satisfactory ending can be derived.
In Isabel’s thread, she is being visited by a Harmagian, an alien from the Reskit Institute of Interstellar Migration who has come to the Fleet to see how the Exodans live. Ghuh’loloan Mok Chutp’s blog essays precede each of the novel’s seven sections, allowing an outsider’s comment on various aspects of the Exodan’s life: from their reliance on alien technology and generosity, to their internal trade and barter economic system which is at odds with galactic credits, not forgetting the sustainability of their intense recycling lifestyle. You are forced to consider whether the Fleet can survive under its current rules for living, or if it needs to evolve further and reach out to the GC more, and yes, the warnings are clear for us.
Chambers makes us care so much about each of her five leads, taking us on an emotional journey with them through love and heartache, hard decisions, drama, danger – and fun, it’s not all doom and gloom. At the heart of this novel is hope, a core of optimism that entrances the reader, driven by the power of Chambers’ excellent storytelling and world building skills. I hope she will write more novels set in this universe.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Becky Chambers, Diary of a Spaceborn Few (Hodder & Stoughton, 2018), 978-1473647640, hardback, 368pp.
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