Centuries after the last humans left Earth, the Exodus Fleet is a living relic, a place many are from but few outsiders have seen. Humanity has finally been accepted into the galactic community, but while this has opened doors for many, those who have not yet left for alien cities fear that their carefully cultivated way of life is under threat.
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.
Kip, a reluctant young apprentice, itches for change but doesn't know where to find it.
Sawyer, a lost and lonely newcomer, is just looking for a place to belong.
When a disaster rocks this already fragile community, those Exodans who still call the Fleet their home can no longer avoid the inescapable question:
What is the purpose of a ship that has reached its destination?
The book cover below includes alt-text.
This is book 3 in the Wayfarers series, but it's only very loosely connected to the first book and can be read as a standalone.
There are 5 point of view characters in this book, and all of them are humans living in the Exodus Fleet — huge space habitats that set on a journey to escape dying Earth centuries before. For a large portion of the book their stories are not connected at all, they don't interact and have no impact on each other. This made following them and remembering who is who more difficult. I believe it took me about a third of the book to become comfortable with them.
The depth of insight into their lives and personalities hallmark of Becky Chambers's style is very much there. The characters are different, and each of them has a unique voice and presence. A teenage boy, a mother of two, an elderly archivist, an immigrant looking for a better life in the Fleet and a young caretaker — a woman who has a ritualistic job of turning the dead into compost and then using it to fertilize plants.
I'm sad to say that I didn't feel a connection to any of the characters, nor did I care very much about them. I was curious what would happen to them and interested in their lives, but it was nowhere near the involvement I felt while reading the first two books. The reason, I believe, is that they are all very ordinary people with very ordinary lives and jobs. Even the caretaker — whose role and unique challenges so insightfully portrayed by Becky Chambers I found truly intriguing — was pretty unremarkable (which was probably the point, but still). Maybe the immigrant was a bit more interesting, but for reasons I don't want to spoil, the readers don't get to know him too well.
Well, this is a completely character-driven story. I know all of the Wayfarers books I've read so far are character-driven. All of them focus mainly on the daily lives of the characters, on what it's like to be them. But there are also external events happening to them, even if there are not many. Here, there is exactly one event that brings the characters together in a loose way. The event affects all of their lives, prompts growth and encourages certain choices. But that's it. If you thought there was little plot in the previous books, you'll find even less here.
The world-building is as masterful as ever. All the aspects of living on generation spaceships that have been drifting for centuries are thought through. There are insightful observations, traditions and challenges unique to this peculiar environment, and everything feels real. It's skillful, but to me personally it was not as interesting and exciting as the world portrayed in the first two books.
Record of the Spaceborn Few didn't move me the way the first two books did. I was struggling to get into the story for a long time, and even when I finally did, I often found myself bored. I still got lost in this fictional world, but for me, something was lacking.
I love the author's in-depth character- and world-building, but this book showed me that it's not enough on its own. The characters in the previous books were aliens with strange behaviors and unique physiology, or an AI in an artificial body, and humans were quite interesting: whether it was because of their personalities, forbidden relationships or hard lives of survival. Not everyone had an interesting personality or life, but enough of them did, and the relationships between them were an essential part of the story, making it even more complete. Getting to know such characters intimately was a treat.
And the world — it was so vast in the first book! Full of intriguing places, bizarre cultures, various aliens. It was smaller in the second one but still very alluring, and I loved getting lost in it.
The plot, even though it was never full of action, had a recognizable structure and a climax. A crew on a mission, a survival story, looking for and saving long-lost family.
All of these things together created a delicious blend unique of Becky Chambers's work that I love so much.
In Record of the Spaceborn Few we follow ordinary people living their separate lives in a closed environment of their space habitat. It is a unique setting with its own challenges and quirks, but it wasn't nearly as interesting for me as the vast world around. The stories are told in a disjointed manner, and there is very little contact between the characters that only comes later in the book. And then, there is no recognizable plot structure as such.
This is an in-depth study of life on a generation spaceship and its pretty closed culture told through its inhabitants. It's insightful, introspective and thought-provoking. That's why I called it speculative literary fiction — I don't know how to categorize it, but I can say that it's about the human condition in an imaginary environment. It's brilliant and deep, it's about life and death, and I enjoyed it enough to keep reading, but for me personally it lacked the magic of the first two books.
I found the mood contemplative and wistful. It also wasn't as emotionally intense for me as the previous books. I remember having so many emotions while reading them, laughing and crying, and feeling cozy and good, but this one only left me feeling slightly sad. It was a bit touching in the end, but my emotions were quite muted.
That was a very long way of saying that even though I appreciate the author's skill and recognize the brilliance of the book, it's not for me, and the reasons are entirely subjective. I bought the next one in the series anyway.
You might enjoy Record of the Spaceborn Few if you like character-driven stories focused on ordinary people, are interested in the Exodus Fleet or generally in the concept of a generation ship.
If you haven't yet, check out my reviews of the previous books in the series:
Becky Chambers is a science fiction author based in Northern California, best known for her Hugo Award-winning Wayfarers series. Her varied works have also been nominated for the Nebula Award, the Locus Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Women's Prize for Fiction, among others. Her latest book is the upcoming novella A Prayer for the Crown-Shy (July 2022), the second of her Monk and Robot series.
Becky has a background in performing arts, and grew up in a family heavily involved in space science. She spends her free time playing video games, tabletop RPGs, and looking through her telescope. Having hopped around the world a bit, she’s now back in her home state, where she lives with her wife. She hopes to see Earth from orbit one day.
Featured image made by AI called DALL·E 2.