No two books end up being the same. This is indeed what one should be aware of when approaching a new novel in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, because each one takes the readers in a different direction from the previous ones. And so I went from the group of space travelers in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet to the personal journeys of Lovelace and Jane 23 in A Closed and Common Orbit, only to find myself sharing the lives of the people from the Exodus Fleet – a cluster of connected spaceships that had left the Earth in its decline to create a space-faring society – with Records of a Spaceborn Few.
The story starts with a catastrophic explosion aboard one of the vessels in the Fleet and with the aftermath – emotional, psychological and also practical – of this event, seen through the eyes of a number of characters: Isabel is one of the Archivists, people tasked with recording the history of the Fleet, as well as presiding over the births, and the deaths, of its members; in the latter case, Eyas the Caretaker pays homage to their remains and their return (sort of) into the cycle of life; Tessa (the sister of Captain Ashby from book 1) works in the salvage department and has to deal with huge issues like her daughter’s trauma after the explosion, her father’s failing health and the need to move to a different job; and then there’s young Kip, who’s still trying to find his way and is not sure that his future will take place in the Fleet. The only non-Fleet character we follow in the novel is that of Sawyer, a descendant of former Exodans who choose a planet-bound life: he takes the inverse journey and comes aboard the Asteria – the ship on which most of the story takes place; his destiny will cross that of a few of the people mentioned above, influencing their outlook and their choices for the future.
There are many themes I enjoyed in the novel, not least the one about a space-faring society that forsook a ground-based life to forge its existence in the depths of space, with all the interesting social modifications that such a life implies: there is a similarity here to one of my favorite SF tropes, that of generation ships forging the unknown, and even though the Exodans have established their society in the proximity of a sun they were allotted by the Galactic Commons, their way of life is not so different from that depicted in generation arks traveling in search of a new planet to colonize. The sense of community is the strongest element at play here, together with that of legacies passed from one generation to the next: one of the most fascinating details comes from the descriptions of the quarters allotted to the various families and of the way each group of dwellers left the imprint of their hands on a wall, as a mark of their passage and as an encouragement to those that came after to improve and build on that ground. Exodans left their home with the keen awareness of having mortally wounded their home planet, and with the burning desire to avoid such mistakes in the future: keeping score of their progress toward a better society, a better breed of people, is indeed a way to try and avoid those mistakes – as Isabel says, we tend to be:
[…] a longstanding species with a very short memory. If we don’t keep records, we’ll make the same mistakes over and over.
It’s not surprising, then, that a similar focus on trying to create what sounds like an utopia, and a sort of insistence on traditions, might feel suffocating for younger generations, here represented by young Kip who struggles between the love for his family and his desire to look beyond the metal walls of a ship, no matter how comfortable or secure that existence might be. So it’s interesting that he ends up being profoundly touched by the inverse journey taken by Sawyer (who does not seem much older than he is) when he chooses to join the Fleet and finds himself on a very unexpected path. (I apologize if this sounds a little cryptic, but I’m trying to avoid spoilers…)
Given all these intriguing premises, it came as a surprise that I was not as invested in this story and these characters as I hoped: while I enjoyed the book overall (by now I know that Becky Chambers’ novels will always play well with me), I felt as if something was missing, and I’m still struggling to understand what it was. My involvement always remained on the surface, and while interested in what was happening to these people, I could not form any emotional ties with them, even in the direst of situations. Probably the contrast with the more adventurous bent from the first book, or with the deep personal journeys of the second, led me to believe that I would be able to get the same level of in-depth perception here, but the chronicle form of the narrative seemed to prevent that – even though the title itself should have represented something of a warning…
Still, Record of Spaceborn Few turned out to be a pleasant read, and my hope is that with the next issues in this series I will be able to recapture the sense of wonder and the character involvement that I experienced in the previous books.