Record of a Spaceborn Few

by Becky Chambers

Cover image

Series: Wayfarers #3
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Copyright: July 2018
ISBN: 0-06-269923-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 360

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This is the third book in the loose Wayfarers series and has a distant connection to (and a few minor spoilers for) The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, but it could easily be read out of order. That said, I think it carries some extra emotional heft from the sense of humanity's position in the larger galaxy one gains from reading the two previous books.

I'm about to rave about this book, but I also suspect this is the type of book that some will read and think "huh, what was the point of that story?" or find it lacking in plot. Others are going to bounce off of the science or world-building. I adore this book, but it's one that's best approached from a particular mindset, so let me try to frame it for you so that you know whether it will fit your mood.

First, Record of a Spaceborn Few is a mosaic novel: an interwoven set of stories told from the perspective of five inhabitants of the Exodus Fleet. It's set in the home of humanity in the stars in this universe, a place mentioned in the previous two books but never before seen directly. Mosaic novels can require some up-front investment because of the number of character introductions required. That's complicated here by starting the book with a brutal disaster, which makes the early parts of the novel both slow going and somewhat depressing.

Second, as you might guess from a setting on an evacuation fleet for humanity, or from reading previous books in this series, the science is in service of the story rather than the other way around. If you're going to be thrown out of the story by generating power for a spacecraft from the movement of water through its recycling system, do yourself a favor and put off reading this book until your suspension of disbelief is strong enough to hold perpetual motion machines. I've come to love how Chambers chooses technology to build atmosphere, particularly in this book where the subjective feel of the technology is a vital part of the story. But, despite some surface appearances, this is not hard science fiction, and will not be satisfying if read on those terms.

And third, this is not a book with a strong, driving plot. A Closed and Common Orbit had more narrative urgency, but Record of a Spaceborn Few is a return to the more relaxed pace and closer character work of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (only with more skill and more sure-footed writing). It shows excerpts from the lives of five people, touching and sometimes entwining, but following separate paths. None of those lives are dramatic, none are central to wars or diplomatic crises or the future of civilization. They are important to the individuals who lived them, and to their families, and for what they show of the ideals and structures of a culture and a community.

And now we come to the raving part of this review, because once Chambers starts drawing the pieces of the mosaic story together, it becomes a beautiful and deeply moving meditation on place and culture, on what it means to be from somewhere or to be part of something, on when and why social rituals matter. Like the best of Chambers's writing, it's a master course in empathy. She quietly leads you into other people's lives, helps you feel their day-to-day concerns and fears and frustrations, shows you their good and bad decisions, and leaves you caring deeply about the twists and turns of their lives. Her previous novels were about found and constructed communities, about chosen families; this one is about the communities you're born into, the ones you inherit, and all the ways people maneuver around them, and why none of those ways are wrong.

There are some tragedies at the center of this book, but it is not a tragic book. Quite the contrary: it's deeply hopeful in a way that's forgiving, understanding, open-hearted, and gracefully welcoming. It is one of the most touching presentations of the meaning of culture that I've read: how it can matter where you're from even if it's not where you choose to stay, how the shapes of our cultures are neither intrinsically good nor bad but the variety of them becomes good because of its diversity, and why passing down that culture matters as a gesture of humanity. And it does something very rare in a science fiction novel. It shows how the contributions of people who are not the strongest or most visible matter, not because they happen to be the linchpin in some grand plot, but because small actions build into a shared experience, and that shared experience is part of what makes us human.

The science is not hard science, and the focus is on universal truths about people and communities, but this is a science fiction story through and through. You could not tell the story Chambers does without the alienation of the reader provided by the tropes and setting of science fiction. She creates a human culture that is quite different from ours out of science fiction necessity, and then uses it to hold up a mirror that shows the special magic of all cultures while not hiding the dirt or the frayed corners or the sharp edges.

I suspect others won't have quite as strong of a reaction to this book as I did, but it was exactly the book I needed to read when I read it, and I love it beyond words. I was crying through most of the last third of the book and absolutely could not put it down. For me, this was something very magical, and very special, and one of the best books I've ever read.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-10-27

Last modified and spun 2018-10-28