“From the ground, we stand. From our ships, we live. By the stars, we hope.” Just as these words are the foundation for the naming ceremony of infants among the Exodus Fleet, they also compose the sentiment that drives Exodan culture.
The Exodans — the distant descendants of Earth-born humans — keep the stars at their feet. That is, their ancestors took to the skies in ships with viewports facing the stars below ground. “Record of a Spaceborn Few,” the third in Becky Chambers’ loosely linked science fiction trilogy, explores the Fleet, a massive collection of ships that is home to the Exodans.
The book follows a variety of Exodan individuals whose stories overlap and intertwine with one another, directly and indirectly. The result is a strikingly insightful contemplation on the ways space travel and alien contact could shape humanity over generations. The five perspectives are aptly written to provide a tableau of the world’s sociological structure. Kip, born among the Fleet, is desperate to leave. Sawyer, the “grounder” — a human born on a planet rather than a spaceship — yearns to return to the Fleet and find some connection to his history. The young men both desire to leave their respective homes, convinced the other world holds a better life.
Yet it’s the three female perspectives that are the most compelling. Isabel, an archivist, is responsible for the histories and the stories of all of the Exodans. Eyas is a caretaker of the dead, her narrative revealing the intricate Exodan traditions around death. Tessa wrestles a love of her home with the fear that the Fleet she knows appears to be changing irrevocably. Rather than being an action-driven space adventure, a more narrow scope allows for the story to lean closer to the philosophical characteristics of science fiction.
“Record of a Spaceborn Few” marks a continuation of Chambers’ inclusive vision of the future — her characters span a range of ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations. Science fiction as a genre sometimes struggles more with imaging a world without a gender binary than it does with envisioning a world of interdimensional travel. Novels like “Record of a Spaceborn Few” are a testament to the absolute necessity that humanity’s stories be a reflection of the range of our individual and collective experiences.
Chambers’ dedication to world building bolsters this story in the same way it marked her first novel, “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.” In some ways, the first novel’s world might be considered more expansive, as it followed a crew consisting of different species in the GC, a governing body formed from by the sapient cultures of the universe. “Record of a Spaceborn Few” still includes brief mentions of these different species, but it is primarily focused on the range of subcultural values within the Exodan community.
“Record of a Spaceborn Few” is not perfect, with a number of compelling existential questions left unreconciled. Isabel’s story crosses with that of an alien academic who has come to learn more about Exodan culture. While there is brief acknowledgement of the way the academic’s presence and observation of the culture inevitably changes it, it would have been interesting to see this moral question (clearly meant to be commentary on the discipline of anthropology) given more room to unfurl.
But it’s scenes such as this one that demonstrate the nuance with which Chambers portrays alien humanity, the greatest marker of her masterful grasp on science fiction as a genre. This focus is reaffirmed in how much of the plot is devoted to wrestling with the quest for balance between generational memories of Earth and adherence to Exodan culture, and the conflicting urges to both cling to home and cast it aside. The novel dismantles this dichotomy with the affecting assertion that both are necessary responses that can often happen simultaneously within the same individual.
It is in this push and pull that Chambers finds space for some of her most profound theses on what makes us humans and — moving beyond the human species — what makes us people.
Danielle Hilborn covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].