Book review: Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

Every last one of us needs some kind of purpose.

Without it, no matter what we tell ourselves or how fiercely we push down the discontent, we always feel adrift, lost, as if we are heading nowhere even as we doggedly place one weary foot in front of the next.

It’s theme that cuts to the heart of what it means to be human and in Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few, we delve into the lives of a number of people who, centuries after humanity fled a dying Earth aboard a fleet of ships, are wondering why it is they remain aboard the arks which now feel, for some at least, like a prison.

It’s an interesting thing to explore – if everything you have ever known remains fit for purpose and is still working like it should, are you even allowed to feel dissatisfaction, to go running and looking for that greener grass?

Some like Tessa, who works on the docks sorting and dispatching all kinds of materials for the greater good in a Fleet which acts like a socialist collective where no one is hungry, thirsty or without a roof over their heads – one of the dynamics the refugees were determined to break was humanity’s propensity for rampant, cruel inequality – initially answers “NO”, convincing herself that she is perfectly where she is.

“She pressed her back into the metal floor, and felt the faint, faint purr of mechanical systems working below. She thought of the Asteria, orbiting endlessly with its siblings around an alien sun, around and around and around. Holding steady. Searching no more. How long would it stay like that? Until the last ship finally failed? Until the last Exodan left for rocky ground? Until the sun went nova? Was there any future for the Fleet that did not involve keeping to the same pattern, the same track, day after day after day until something went wrong? Was there any day for her that would not involve the same schedule, the same faces, the same tasks? What was better – a constant safeness that never grew and never changed, or a life of reaching, building, striving, even though you knew you’d never be completely satisfied?” (P. 152)

But as this remarkably thoughtful and introspectively nuanced book goes on, and a host of other issues press in on her, she begins to realise that perhaps leaving is exactly what she, husband George, daughter Aya and son Ky need.

Maybe, and it’s something she struggles with mightily, they would be better off with their friends in the colonies, feeling dirt between their toes that goes right down to the bedrock rather than the bottom of a finite metal well or looking up at a sky that stretches on and on into the distance?

Chambers beautifully and with care and great humanity charts Tessa’s journey from Fleet stalwart with an inkling that there might be more than endlessly orbiting a sun in a solar system gifted to them by the alien federation of which they are now members to someone who begins to realise that while the Fleet continues to have value for many, it has exhausted its relevancy for her. (The big question, of course, since the ships have successfully transported humanity to safety, do they even have a purpose anymore?)

The beauty of Record of a Spaceborn Few is that it takes its time establishing who Tessa is and exploring what her life is like, slowly and meaningfully unveiling the choices open to her and seeing which one she makes.

She is not alone in wondering if there is more to life than what she’s known.

Becky Chambers (image courtesy Hachette Australia)

Eyas, a caretaker in the Centre which processes dead members of the Fleet into the organic waste which grows their crops and enriches the plants that create much of their oxygen – their entire system of belief reverences death as an integral part of life and essential to the self-sustainability of the Fleet – is committed to staying but wonders if there isn’t more she could be doing with her life?

Her meeting with a Grounder who has come back to the Fleet to see how his ancestors lived and find a new way of life, and a subsequent tragic event propel her to re-invent or at least add on to her life in a way that has meaning for her.

Another inhabitant of the ships circling the sun, Isabel, an archivist who stands guard over humanity’s collective memory of Earth and their subsequent time journeying and building a society in space, is made keenly aware of the inertia that grips her spaceborn home when a visiting alien academic, a Hamagian known as Ghuh’loloan, who is genuinely interested in learning about the unique humanity of those aboard ship and predisposed to us as a species, points out that perhaps people have, unwittingly settled into a rut.

A gigantic rut in which there is still some vibrancy and progress, and the promise of future advancement, but from which humanity will need to work to escape.

It’s a sobering moment for Isabel who sees in Ky, a 16-year-old with a restless spirit, the future of her race if they can realise that while their past and the society it has created are important, it can not survive without a fresh approach to a great many things.

“‘It’s simple. If you never leave, you’ll always wonder. You’ll wonder what your life could’ve been, if you did the right thing. Well … scratch that. You’ll always wonder if you did the right thing, no matter what the decision is, big or small. There’s always another path you’ll wonder about. But that wondering is less maddening if you know what the other path looks like, at least. So, You should go.” (P. 321)

Possessed of a gentle narrative that concentrates less on major, hard punctuation level events – those there are some action-oriented moments that profoundly affect the compelling characters Chambers has created – than the lives of the people it features, Record of a Spaceborn Few is a rewarding rumination, in real and affecting ways, on how we all crave change and a renewed sense of purpose even if we don’t know what that looks like at the beginning.

The key, as everyone discovers, is being open to new things, to the possibility of something different, even when your existing life seems entirely fit for purpose.

Because you might just find, when you dig down, that there is more going on than you realise, and that perhaps you are more in need of renewal than you guessed.

It’s a thoughtful existential basis for a novel, and it imbues Record of a Spaceborn Few with a quiet, beguiling richness that leaves you thinking at great length and depth about whether you are really happy and whether even here on good old Earth, you could benefit from a life-changing shift in perspective.

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