Review: Record of a Spaceborn Few
Science fiction is not known for being gentle. Technical? Yes. Explosive? Often. Operatic? You betcha.
RECORD OF A SPACEBORN FEW eschews explosions in favor of internal drama. Like the rest of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers Series (Amazon), this quiet story explores what it means to be a part of a family, a crew, a community, a species–this time through the fate of the Exodan fleet.
The Exodan Fleet is literally a relic, welded from the ruins of Earth’s cities. Humanity’s last hope for survival, the fleet traveled for generations before making contact with the Aeluons, an alien species that introduced them to the Galactic Commons. Now the fleet circles endlessly around a small star, preserving their unique way of life. When disaster strikes and one of the Exodan settler ships is destroyed, tens of thousands of people die in an instant. The destruction of the Oxomoco forces a reckoning for the entire fleet and especially for each of Chambers’ five POV characters–Isabel, Eyas, Sawyer, Kip, Tessa–who must reexamine their relationships to the fleet.
Chambers structures the narrative so that each individual’s story line spins out from the inciting incident of the Oxomoco’s destruction. The characters’ lives intersect somewhat, but this is certainly not an ensemble cast (as opposed to THE LONG WAY ROUND). The narrative feels looser, even as the intersections in character and theme that Chambers achieves suggest careful structural planning. RECORD relies on thematic cohesion between story lines, not POV character interaction.
The characters are are largely relatable and sympathetic. I particularly enjoyed Tessa and Eyas’ perspectives. Although they are dealing with different problems, their struggles felt real. Tessa is trying to decide how best to protect her family, especially since her daughter appears to still be suffering from the trauma of the Oxomoco’s destruction. Eyas’ work as an undertaker (or sorts) ties her to the fleet, but she wonders how she can reach out to the living as well. I also enjoyed Isabel’s interactions with a visiting alien who has come to complete an ethnology of the fleet. It’s a fun story line and allows Chambers to slip in a lot of details about the fleet that might otherwise have been too much of an info-dump. Even Kip, whose teenage rebellion is endearing, if a little prosaic, ends up having a satisfying ending to his through line.
Details about the inner workings of the fleet will be interesting for those who have read Chambers’ first two novels. Although readers should be able to jump into the Wayfarers series with without any problem, Chambers’ world building will be richer for those who are familiar with her previous work.
I will say that following five characters makes the first third of the book feel disjointed; hopping from perspective to perspective without an (immediately) uniting drive makes the beginning of the book feel random. The payoff only comes at the end as Chambers connects each characters’ emotional arc back to the fate of the Exodan fleet, revealing the narrative structure to be a feature, not a bug.
RECORD pushes its characters to ask difficult questions about what it means to belong to a community. As characters struggle to adapt to their (un)changing societal situations in the fleet, Chambers doesn’t settle for the easy, binary answers of whether they should stay or leave. This is where I think RECORD does its best work, in acknowledging and asking difficult questions that readers surely grapple with on a daily basis: How can I make my community better? Is this still the best place for me and my family? What parts of our heritage are worth preserving, and what should we let go? How should this community adapt to changing internal and external pressures?
Althougth RECORD begins as a slow burn, the time Chambers spends exploring each character’s situation gives the ending a more genuine emotional impact. Not everyone will be interested in such a firmly domestic (as opposed to public or political) exploration, but I found RECORD to be poignant read about what it means to love a community while acknowledging both its flaws and its goodness. It’s a task that I believe everyone can relate to and makes RECORD worth the read.
- Recommended Age: 12+
- Language: A little swearing
- Violence: An accidental death
- Sex: Legalized prostitution (fades to black)