Thoughts: Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers

It feels like I’m absolutely racing through books lately, so here I am again lest I overtake myself in reading and give myself a backlog again. There are some cracking books I ended up just skipping over to get back up to date (Hunters and Collectors by Matt Suddain [Amazon owned site for those who care] is HIGHLY recommended) and I’d rather not do that again.

I worry sometimes that one day I’ll just have nothing to say about a book, and then I don’t know what I’ll do – pretend nothing happened? Leave an apologetic placeholder? In the end, I still don’t know, because Chambers always gives me plenty to think about.

Spoilers below. I’m not joking, like, major ones.

I was a bit sad to get to the end of this trilogy, as it’s been such lovely lockdown reading, but all things end, alas, and part of me thinks that as it’s such a loosely connected trilogy, really she could just continue on forever whenever she felt like it… Every book has been pleasingly different, messing around with POVs and chronology and setting, and it’s been a genuinely nice journey to watch Chambers playing with different things each time.

Record… is no different – though it settles back into the multiple POV of The Long Way… we’re no longer in the close confines of the Wayfarer, instead roaming the vast hexagonal structures of one of the “homesteader” generation ships that originally brought humanity (the ones on the ships are known as Exodans) out of our home solar system and eventually into the Galactic Commons. Our POV characters don’t know each other at the start, and are mostly going about their lives, in the slice of lifey pace that Chambers is so good at. Eyas, the highly respected Caretaker, who spends her days composting the dead and wondering why she doesn’t feel fulfilled, Sawyer who was born on a planet and heads to the Exodan ships to find a better life, Kip, awkward teenager who wants to leave the ships to find a better life, Isabel, ancient Archivist hosting an alien academic who’s studying the Exodans, and Tessa, sister of Ashby, the captain of the Wayfarer from the first book.

There’s a particular event that brings all of the characters together… but one. Sawyer, innocent, gullible Sawyer, falls in with a bad crowd of scavenging petty criminals, and is killed in an accident. His death directly affects Eyas (who is not only a Caretaker of the dead but met Sawyer on his first day at the ship and was quite rude to him), Isabel (who as an Archivist is present at/leads/records events like funerals) and Kip (who overheard the criminals talking about the accident and tipped off the police). Tessa is just… absent here. Up until here, paths had crossed here and there and that was fine, but her absence here was a bit noticeable to me, and it did make me question a bit whether her presence in the plot as a whole was just because she was Ashby’s sister and therefore a character to relate to.

Another problem with Tessa is absolutely not Chambers’s fault – I know authors don’t write back copy – but the back of the book describes Tessa’s story arc thus:

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.

But her position isn’t threatened really until the very end – she mentions something about tech replacing her type of job at some point maybe but it just falls to the background immediately. She doesn’t spend time worrying about her job, or trying to find a new one, and I’m not really sure that’s the main reason she chooses to leave in the end. I’d argue that the actual primary reason is her daughter Aya’s difficulties with life on a ship, triggered by the prologue incident of one of the homesteader ships exploding and killing everyone on board. It’s a bit misleading?

I have a small issue with one aspect of the prologue incident as well – Eyas, Caretaker of the dead, is in the unenviable position of having to help decide what to do with the dead after the tragedy. She and her colleagues have not come to a decision by the end of the prologue. We never hear anything about it until a throwaway line near the end of the book where it’s revealed the ultimate solution was that the bodies were flown into the sun because there was no practical way to deal with so many simultaneously. It felt a bit like we’d missed something. A similar thing (incredibly, microscopically small issue) is that a couple of times, like literally two, a distinction is made in Eyas’s storyline between practical questions and emotional questions, in a way that heavily infers that this is part of how she processes information/human interaction. The second time it’s brought up by the sex worker she’s become close with (like a lot of Chambers’s idealised human society, I liked the idea of tryst clubs a lot), in a way that mirrors the first time, as though it’s a deep and established thing, and it felt like it wasn’t quite enough of a part of her to be justified.

Like the “not quite single unbroken story, not quite short stories” format of The Long Way…, the in-betweeny are-they aren’t-they connectedness of the characters in Record didn’t entiiirely work for me, but I always respect something new being tried, especially in this quieter end of the spectrum, which I feel gets unfairly overlooked in favour of physical action and sky-high tension at all costs. I want to see more of what Chambers does. I want to see where she goes with this. (I want to see other people do it too! Let’s not let this be a one author niche, please?)

I think in the end, though I enjoyed the book as a whole and am absolutely a sucker for people trying their best and trying to be better, I didn’t get on with the Exodans quite as much as I was meant to, and I can pinpoint that to Eyas meeting Sawyer and being a bit of a dick to him.

Ugh. I know our reactions to books are informed invariably by our own experiences and lives but ugh I hate talking about it. Anyway, I get that the parallel to Sawyer going back to his roots to try a new/better life on the ships among humans is that of a xth generation immigrant going to the place their family, or part of their family, originated from (the language/accent, the food, etc etc, it’s all there), but though I haven’t been in this position, I have been in a good couple of in-betweeny places in my life, and gone, vulnerable, to communities that I barely dare let myself admit I have a tie to, and been treated with this… it’s not really hostility, but it feels like hostility. I felt that scene deeply, and for it to have come from Eyas, who even after this has happened can say and not believe it’s a lie, that she is 100% always this respected symbol and masks her emotions even when she’s having a bad day, felt like even more of a slap in the face.

The Exodans are cosy and idyllic. They’re so the ideal of small-town America writ large, this perfect community-minded people so nice that it made me doubt my own experience of living in a small town and a region where jobs are being lost to technology and the younger generations are deserting it for better lives elsewhere.  The Exodans are cosy and idyllic when it comes to their own people and absolutely no further than that. And it is eventually realised and acted upon, but eh, there’s still something a bit smug about the Exodans. And that’s fine! I like engaging with stories on their own terms.

I’m not sure if Record… tried to do a little bit too much, in the end. Elements of developed/developing world, the diaspora thing, humans being replaced by technology, old ways of life being abandoned by the young… All fine, I suppose, but then there’s a bit of “how does a culture which defines itself by pioneering continue to exist when it is no longer pioneering” which felt very interestingly American, and yet “how does a culture which through no fault of its own is less technologically advanced than cultures which became technologically advanced through colonialism value itself” is also a factor… And it’s all a bit squished together in ways that made my present-day culture-influenced brain a bit confused.

But I’m still glad I read it! I’m still glad Chambers is playing with issues like this. This book was a net gain as an experience, and I consider the fact that it’s given me so much to think and write about a plus.

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