Book Review: Record of a Spaceborn Few, Becky Chambers

Book Review: Record of a Spaceborn FewBecky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few, Becky Chambers

Book Review: Record of a Spaceborn FewWayfarers Book 3, Becky Chambers

When a fictional world is well crafted, returning to it becomes an absolute delight. Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few is her third foray into the world she created originally in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and revisited in A Closed and Common Orbit. Record is very different. It travels to a different part of a now familiar galaxy, and in typical Chambers’ style it is warm, caring, intimate, thoughtful, deep, and surprising. She is a terrific writer, creates amazing characters, and takes them on unexpected journeys. Each of the books stands alone, but the depth of her writing can best be appreciated by taking all three of them together (and any more she chooses to create in the future).

 

Record of a Spaceborn Few follows several characters living on one of the Exodan ships. These are massive ships that were built using the metal from cities on Earth, cities which were becoming depopulated as the Earth was destroyed by human environmental destruction. Survivors used the ships to flee the Earth, eventually being rescued by an alien race which introduced them to the rest of the galaxy. Those ships still held a large number of humans even after years with opportunities to settle on other planets.

 

Tessa is the sister of Ashby Santoso, captain of the Wayfarer, whom we met first in The Long Way. She lives with her two children and (when he is not working mining asteroids) her husband in the family home, along with her father. Kip is a teenager struggling to figure out what he wants to do with his life. Sawyer is a young man who grew up on a planet but wanted something else and decided to return to his ancestral home onboard ship. Isabel is an archivist, charged with keeping a record of everyone and everything that happens on board the ships. And Eyas is one charged with caring for the dead, recycling their bodies so that the ship can benefit from their component elements.

 

These characters lives intersect from time to time, but the book is really the story of each of them living (well, mostly) through the same time period and being affected by the same events. Chambers does several things so well in her writing. Each of the characters has a voice, unique interests and motivations, perspectives that in common show their common shipboard experience and in separate that show their unique perspectives. Tessa is a tired mother working a dead-end job which might end with technological advances. Kip is desperate to get off the ships, but struggles to figure out who he is and what he really wants. These differences and those of the other characters are made clear in the conversations they have with others and the choices they ultimately make.

 

There are so many threads to follow in Record of a Spaceborn Few! What would a society be like that has lived in space, off planet, for generations? Who would leave if they could? Who would stay regardless? How would someone fit in who did not grow up in that society? Chambers does not ignore the technological aspects involved in building her world, but the real effort is in showing the society. Can humans truly ever live in a perfectly equal and egalitarian society? Or will we always want something more: power, wealth, authority, status, control? And if that equal status is disrupted by, for example, alien technologies, can the balance ever be fully restored?

 

Record of a Spaceborn Few is fantastic! If you read Becky Chambers first two books you will like this one. If you haven’t met her works yet, now’s the time to get started.

Record of a Spaceborn Few, Becky Chambers

Book Review: Record of a Spaceborn FewBecky Chambers

Book Review: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

Book Review: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

Book Review: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Wayfarers Book 1, Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a fun but thoughtful journey with the crew of the Wayfarer, a ship that bores wormholes through space to allow ships rapid transport between inhabited stars. The crew is quite diverse. Captain Ashby Santoso, Kizzy Shao, Jenks, and newbie Rosemary Harper are humans. The pilot, Sissix, is an Aandrisk. Dr. Chef (medical officer and cook) is a Grum. Ohan are a Sianat pair, and they serve as navigator. And Lovey is a sentient AI. Balancing the needs, wants, feelings, and skills of these species and individuals is challenging enough during the regular jobs, but when they have the chance to take on a larger job which has them traveling together for almost a year, things get quite interesting.

 

Becky Chambers does an amazing job building a world (well, galaxy) filled with very different and sometimes barely compatible people. AI may be sentient, but they are not regarded as “people,” and it is illegal to download a sentient AI into a physical body (normally they serve as the computer assistants for ships, buildings, and other similarly large and complex structures). When Lovey and Jenks fall in love, though, they might be willing to break that law. Aandrisk have the appearance (to humans) of feathered reptiles. They are very affectionate with each other and with their friends. On their planet, sex is a normal part of interacting with others, which makes traveling with the (by comparison) much more prudish humans a real challenge sometimes. The Grum are going extinct as a species. Only a few are left after centuries of war and genocide, and they have decided themselves that their crimes as a species are too great to allow them to continue in the galaxy. The Sianat are always referred to in the plural: they are a hybrid of an individual and a virus which allows them to navigate between space, the area where wormholes travel, but also dramatically shortens their lives.

 

The humans themselves are almost equally diverse. Rosemary grew up in privilege on Mars, but fled to escape her family name after her father was arrested for arms trafficking. Ashby spent his entire life shipboard and is uncomfortable on planets. Kizzy is bubbly, excitable, and friends with almost everyone. Jenks is extremely short, rejected as a child by people who believed that genetic misfits should die. Corbin is an unpleasant recluse, much happier tending his algae than interacting with others.

 

During their journey they face a variety of challenges: their ship is attacked and many things are stolen. They are stopped by an alien government that arrests Corbin. Ohan become sick. Dealing with these problems brings the crew together in new ways, finding strength in themselves and in each other that they did not know was there, realizing that family is not just the group you are born into or the species you are born from, but it is the people who are there when you need them the most.

 

Although Chambers works hard to build a consistent scientific framework, this is not a book to read in hopes that faster than light travel has been secretly figured out by a lone author working in her study. The magic of Chambers book is in the relationships between the characters and the histories of the species. Earth has been largely destroyed by pollution and global warming, so it was abandoned in two stages. The first stage was mostly rich people relocating to Mars. The second was the “Exodan,” multiple ships carrying the remainder of Earth’s population out of the solar system in a desperate attempt to find a new home. This second wave of refugees was not welcomed on Mars, and only an alien ship stumbling on them saved the bulk of humanity. Although efforts have been made since, there is still a vast gulf dividing the Solans (people born and raised in Earth’s original solar system) from the Exodans. That kind of effort to create new cultures is brilliant and amazing, and Chambers excels at it.

 

Chambers has published two sequels, which I will soon review, but this first book (2015) is so good that you should read them in order. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a trip well worth taking.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

Book Review: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

Book Review: A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers

Book Review: A Closed and Common OrbitBecky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers

Science Fiction Series: A Closed and Common Orbit Wayfarers Book 2, Becky Chambers

 

Most people do not get to choose their own names. Gamers and artists and writers may opt for names of their own, but they are generally the exceptions. It’s fun to think, though, that a name might mean more if it reflects who we’ve become or who we want to be instead of a parent’s hopes or dreams or ambitions or tastes. “Sidra” means “of the stars” or “like the stars.” The chosen name of an AI illegally ported into a human-appearing body, she is one of the few people who chooses her own name. In Becky Chambers’ book A Closed and Common Orbit we get to share with her the joys and terrors of choosing and discovering who she actually is following this transition.

 

A Closed and Common Orbit is set in the same universe as The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. In that earlier book we first meet Pepper, a human tech genius who lives with her artist boyfriend, Blue. Pepper gets called to work on the Wayfarer after it is damaged at the end of the first book. The crew realizes that their sentient AI, Lovey, has been damaged beyond repair. The only hope of saving her is to do essentially a factory reset. If it succeeds, they will restore Lovey. If it fails, everything that defined Lovey as a uniquely sentient person will be gone, replaced by someone or something different.

 

It fails, and the sentience known from the factory settings as “Lovelace” inhabits the Wayfarer.

 

“Lovey” was an integral part of the crew. More than that, the human technician Jenks had fallen in love with her, and had purchased a human simalcrum for her to inhabit so they could be together. Learning Lovey is dead almost destroys Jenks, and dealing with “Lovelace” (who has Lovey’s voice) is almost more than he can bear. Rather than simply replace Lovelace with another AI, Pepper offers her the option to inhabit the body Jenks had purchased for Lovey and leave the ship to live on a planet. Lovelace, seeing the effect her presence has on Jenks and the rest of the Wayfarer’s crew, agrees.

 

Living in a body, though, is very different than living in a ship. Instead of cameras positioned in the corners of ceilings to see everything in a room, you have eyes. Only two of them. Positioned awkwardly in the front of the head, leaving unobserved space above and below and behind. The body does not need food or sleep or air and can withstand submersion and frigid temperatures, but since she needs to pass as human she has to behave as humans do.

 

More than that, her body is not her own. That is, she is an alien, and interloper, possessing a body she was not designed to wear, that was purchased for another, that is illegal to own on any planet. Sidra chose her own name, but discovering she has agency and can make her own choices is constantly challenging.

 

Orbit also gives us the backstory of Pepper. Pepper was originally named Jane 23. She was one of many Janes, just another manufactured girl designed to clean scrap for recycling or reselling. She is a genetweaked human, not a machine, but she grew up on a planet with multiple other Janes being raised and trained by non-sentient android “mothers” to do busy work until she died. Escaping her factory after an accident opens a space to the outside world, Jane stumbles into a scrapped shuttle with a sentient AI, “Owl,” who helps her survive and guides her through adolescence. She, too, struggled to learn how to be human, and she never forgot the love and kindness shown to her by the mind and conscience of the ship.

 

For both Sidra and Jane/Pepper, the process to discovering who and what she is takes many twists and turns. Learning limitations. Making friends. Making mistakes. Deciding. Discovering. Accepting herself. Accepting others. Being human is not easy for humans. When you are a genetically engineered slave or a factory made AI, the process is more complicated. What Becky Chambers shows us in this warm and beautifully written book, the process may be painful and messy but the results can be absolutely joyous. Being a person is a dangerous journey, one that is best taken with friends. I might argue that it should also be taken with delightful books like this one.

A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers

Book Review: A Closed and Common OrbitBecky Chambers