Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third book in Becky Chambers’ Hugo-award winning Wayfarers sci-fi series. I recently read book two, A Closed and Common Orbit, and, much like book two, book three has very little do with the other books beyond being set in the same universe and sharing some of the same alien races and wormhole technology. I continue to have no reservations in saying that book two is a far better read than the rather messy debut novel The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and that book three is about on a par with book one.
A review I skim read compared these three books as the equivalent of the original Star Wars trilogy – you have to say you liked the first one (A New Hope), you really did like the second one (The Empire Strikes Back) and you really didn’t enjoy the third one all that much at all (Return of the Jedi). The reason stated I think is that Orbit had dark edge to it that is lacking in books one and three, and indeed book three felt far too much like being surrounded by Ewoks. When you consider that the Ewoks were about to eat Han, Luke and chums before C-3P0 made the godly decree to release them, the analogy kind of breaks down, because that really is dark.
Anyway, I tend to agree. I liked the debut novel simply because we were hearing a new voice in the genre. I loved the second book because the story was tightly written and very focused on two characters and timelines that met up somewhere toward the end in a very satisfying fashion. Reading book three for me was akin to listening to the rambling of my dear departed grandmother telling me stories of her life and then giving me a tearful hug at the end of it all. Poignant indeed, but not really what I want from a science fiction novel. And like my grandma’s stories Chambers’ meandered through too many characters without a whole lot really happening until quite near the end.
There are simply too many characters for the reader to keep track of. Not enough time is spent getting to know any of them before switching to another chapter based on another very similarly voiced and motivated character. Yes they are all aboard the fleet that originally left Earth to find a new planet to live on but now orbits an artificial star provided by hi-tech aliens since humanity joined the GC. That should be the only commonality but unfortunately pretty much all of them are well-meaning and there’s very little conflict. Without conflict there’s no drama. Without drama there’s no real fun, nothing for the reader to sink there teeth into. It feels like you’re a fly on the wall in a hippy commune where everyone is at great pains to do right by one another alien academic visitor, off-fleet tourist or fellow fleet inhabitant alike.
The only sniff of any real drama is nipped in the bud quite quickly to provide a body to be found and buried in one of the fleet’s human composting centre’s without any relatives attending. Yes it’s sad. But the criminals that led him to his death are caught and I assume punished. We don’t actually find out. Perhaps they’re roasted and eaten by killer teddy bears, we just don’t know. It’s all wrapped up too quickly and the focus put on the ceremony and the history of the fleet.
I was left with the feeling that if Chambers had pared down the story to concentrate on just half the characters and told us more about them with some hint of crisis and character arcs, I would’ve enjoyed the book more. It could’ve been akin to a David Mitchell book in that respect. There’s no huge revelations or changes to any of the characters beyond finding their feet a little and casting aside some doubts over their futures. The biggest change is for some fleet members to leave and settle in a farming community, but even then it’s a very similar community where everyone pulls together to survive.
Criticism aside, Chambers looks at society from a wholly unique angle i.e. from the point of view of someone who was born in and has always lived in a spaceship, where the stars are always under your feet (there are no side or up windows in the ships for reasons of everyone getting along nicely with one another), you recycle and reuse everything, and you share stuff. She then compares that to the rest of the humans aliens living on planets, and gives you time to ponder on some of the fundamentals of modern life in Western civilisation. So it’s not all bad.