Domestic life in space: Becky Chambers – Record of a Spaceborn Few

I really loved The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, the first in Chambers’ loosely connected trilogy of stories about spacefaring people and aliens. It was such a refreshing book in a world of grimdark books filled with backstabbing characters. I skipped the second book in the series but I was not going to miss this one as it’s nominated for a Hugo Award. Let’s just say while it’s not a bad book  it’s at the bottom of my ballot right now…

by Becky Chambers

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton, 2018
eBook: 400 pages
Series: Wayfarers #3
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: “Mom, can I go see the stars?”

Centuries after the last humans left Earth, the Exodus Fleet is a living relic, a place many are from but few outsiders have seen. Humanity has finally been accepted into the galactic community, but while this has opened doors for many, those who have not yet left for alien cities fear that their carefully cultivated way of life is under threat.
Tessa chose to stay home when her brother Ashby left for the stars, but has to question that decision when her position in the Fleet is threatened.
Kip, a reluctant young apprentice, itches for change but doesn’t know where to find it.
Sawyer, a lost and lonely newcomer, is just looking for a place to belong.
When a disaster rocks this already fragile community, those Exodans who still call the Fleet their home can no longer avoid the inescapable question:
What is the purpose of a ship that has reached its destination?

Record of a Spaceborn Few delivers exactly what the title promises. The book follows five characters and their life on the Exodus Fleet – a group of gigantic ships that left the Earth for a better life somewhere else, and that has techically reached its destination. Except not all people are leaving the Fleet for life on a planet but would rather stay there living they life they know. One with artificial gravity, no horizon, and their own rules.

Through the five protagonists the author shows us what life in the Fleet is like. Tessa, a mother of two with a mostly absent husband (because work in space can take you quite far away sometimes) struggles to hold her family together, to keep her dautghter Aya’s fears of being sucked into empty space at bay, and to simply make a home for them.
Isabel, an older archivist, lives happily with her wife in their close-knit community. She receives an alien visitor who wants to learn about humans and the Fleet – so it is mostly in her POV that a lot of exposition happens but I also found it very intriguing because it explains simply what life is like for these spaceborn people and why they choose to live it.
Eyas has one of the least popular jobs in the fleet. She’s responsible for the reclamation of dead bodies. As nothing is wasted, it’s only natural that deceased human bodies be used in whichever way is most helpful for the remaining people. Eyas’ storyline has next to no plot.
Kip is a teenager who doesn’t know what to do with his life (which teenager really does?) and who’s not sure he even likes being part of the Fleet. His coming of age takes a long time to build up but when it does, it’s quite satisfying.
Lastly, Sawyer is a newcomer to the Fleet, a young man who used to live on a planet but wants to try a different sort of life. He arrives filled with hope and naivete.

So… five quite different people, most of which don’t get an actual plot in this book. The kickoff moment is an accident on the Oxomoco, a ship that suffered a breach, killing everyone on it. It means something for Isabel to take into the archive, it means lots of bodies for Eyas to take care of, it means an emotional impact on all the characters, but it doesn’t really mean there’s going to be any plot.

For a very long time, all we get in this book is domestic life in the Fleet. The world building was brilliant, so learning about how everything works, what the society is like, how people interact with each other, was interesting enough. But there came the point when I asked myself why I’m reading about Tessa cleaning up after her two kids, or about a dinner with Isabel and her wife, or Kip trying to go see a prostitute. There’s no bigger plot anywhere to be found. Until – very late, I must add – there is.

Sawyer, a character I immediately liked, arrives at the Fleet knowing nothing. He has no idea what to do, how to meet people, where to get a job… he’s a fish out of water and unfortunately, someone immediately takes advantage of his blind trust. That’s all I’ll say about his storyline. As it’s pretty much the only one that has a plot, I don’t want to give anything away. Only let me say that had the book focused more on him, I would have liked it much more.

As much as I like Chambers’ way of writing characters that are nice, this was almost a bit too much. Everyone is just so respectful and so nice and friendly all the time. Sure, the world would be a much better place if everyone behaved the way these people do, but let’s face it: humans don’t work that way. Even the nicest person occasionally has a bad day, even the friendliest, most helpful human will have something bad happen to them (the death of a loved one, say) and won’t care about the feelings of others for a little while. But because the characters here are all so damn perfect, there is pretty much no conflict. The only one who acts out a bit is Kip, and even his teenage shenanigans are resolved maturely and calmly. I’m not saying every book needs to have a villain or violence, but every character should have layers and moods. Here, everyone is just too nice all the time.

So although I liked the characters as such and I liked reading about the Fleet, this book was tedious for a long time. At one point, when something big happens and the characters are finally loosely connected to each other, it got really good. This was maybe the last quarter of the book though, so even the excellent ending couldn’t make my rating go up by much. Chambers knows how to write, she does fantastic world building, she also writes lovely characters. I just wish she switched it up a bit and had given this book a plot from the beginning.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good


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