Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third of Becky Chambers’ novels; the third in a series whose title, Wayfarers, now feels like something of a relic. The Wayfarer was the name of a spaceship in her first novel, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, which, while deeply comforting and rather wonderful, was also derivative and episodic.
Record of a Spaceborn Few has nothing to do with either Small Angry Planet or its successor A Close and Common Orbit. Nothing, that is, apart from the universe it’s set in, a space federation (the Galactic Commons) teeming with life of all kinds, all trying to rub together more or less harmoniously. That setting’s developed from an interesting backdrop in Small Angry Planet into a rich site for examining themes of integration, identity and community; for thinking about what happens when cultures collide.
For my money, Record of a Spaceborn Few is easily Chambers’ most successful novel yet. It’s set in the Exodus Fleet, a handful of enormous generation ships carrying the last humans to leave an Earth ravaged by climate collapse. For centuries they journeyed more or less peacefully through the empty black of space, before making first contact with the alien species of the Galactic Commons. The novel’s set a generation after that first contact, as the effects of the Fleet’s new place in the world, orbiting a fixed star, are beginning to be felt culturally, and its people have to work out who they are now they’re no longer wanderers.
The first thing to happen in the novel, in the prologue, is a catastrophic decompression aboard the Oxomoco, one of the Fleet’s generation ships, killing the tens of thousands of people living there and spilling debris across the Fleet’s sky. It remains there throughout the novel, in the characters’ sight and in the forefront of our readerly minds, an astronomical shattering of the Fleet’s place in the universe. Exodan culture is founded on recycling, on the idea that people and things live on not by being preserved but by being remade into new crops and new tools; for them, the wreck of the Oxomoco, which is far too large to be salvaged quickly (and its population far too large to be given conventional funerals), represents a waste so huge it borders on the profane. It’s an ever-present symbol of the sudden expanding of the Fleet’s horizons, of a scarcity economy suddenly booming into plenitude; it’s a reminder that this sort of culture clash can be deeply traumatic as well as hopeful.
After the tragedy of the Oxomoco, though, nothing much happens for, oh, at least half the novel. We watch as a group of characters go about their everyday lives aboard a Fleet ship called the Asteria: a funeral officiant, an ageing archivist, an alien academic studying the Fleet, a fifteen-year-old boy trying to work out what he wants to do with his life, a blow-in from a distant planet who wants to rediscover his roots in the Fleet. We learn about the Fleet’s customs and history, the texture of everyday life in a ship that’s been designed to keep humans healthy and happy and sane for generations of travelling. It is in part an exercise in worldbuilding – in that sense and in others, including the depiction of a culture based on scarcity and on mutual support as a mechanic for social cohesion that comes into traumatic contact with a much older capitalist society, it reminds me of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. (Le Guin’s work is a purer thought experiment and better literature; Chambers’ is warmer and more human.)
And like The Dispossessed, things only start to come together later in the novel, and it becomes clear why it needed to be written in this diffuse, uneventful way. The characters are linked by a crime that, like the wreck of the Oxomoco, strikes at the very heart of the Fleet’s purpose. And it gradually becomes obvious that this is not the story of any one character; it’s more like a character study of a society, and how that society changes, slowly, incrementally. Chambers shows what each of her characters contributes to the quality of the Fleet’s culture, what their role is and why they’re important; she shows us that though their lives diverge, and they make very different choices in response to the Fleet’s loss of purpose, they are each vital in deciding the Fleet’s overall direction from here on out. And that in turn is vital to Chambers’ vision of a functional society (whether that’s the crew of the Wayfarer or the population of the Fleet) as mutually constitutive: everyone has something to contribute, and everyone gains. Record of a Spaceborn Few is not afraid to confront society-shattering trauma, but it’s also not afraid to rebuild from and around it. In that sense I think it’s deeper and more robust than Small Angry Planet, and grander in scope than A Closed and Common Orbit. And yet it still offers hope for all our futures.