Near utopian vision of humans exiled in space

Becky Chambers’ (above) Record Of A Spaceborn Few starts off light-hearted, but takes a dark turn.
Becky Chambers’ (above) Record Of A Spaceborn Few starts off light-hearted, but takes a dark turn. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF BECKY CHAMBERS, HODDER & STOUGHTON

FICTION

RECORD OF A SPACEBORN FEW

By Becky Chambers

Hodder & Stoughton/Paperback/ 359 pages/$18.19/Books Kinokuniya

Rating: 3.5/5


At an unspecified time in the future, humanity flees the dying Earth in a fleet of ships cobbled together from pieces of skyscrapers.

Hundreds of years later, these ships are all that generations of humans have ever known.

This is the point at which Becky Chambers' Record Of A Spaceborn Few begins.

The novel moves slowly, gradually immersing the reader in a communitarian society that is organised along radically different lines.

Humanity has rediscovered barter trade, relies on bugs as a main source of protein and turns the dead into compost so that they can be cycled back into the system.

Dirty jobs, like sanitation, are allocated by roster so that everyone - from teacher to doctor to odd-job worker - does his fair share.

Becky Chambers' (left) Record Of A Spaceborn Few starts off light-hearted, but takes a dark turn.

The novel revolves around five characters, all of whom stand looking uneasily inwards from the fringes of society.

Two stand out: Sawyer, who is part of the human diaspora on an alien planet, but yearns to find somewhere he belongs; and Eyas, whose work as a "caretaker" preparing bodies for composting sets her apart from the mainstream.

Chambers' take on how post-Earth humanity would behave is nearly utopian in its optimism and it can be difficult for a reader used to sci-fi epics with more blood and grit to take this seriously.

But the novel's initial lighthearted tone also makes its eventual dark twist even more disconcerting.

Readers who start off enjoying the novelty of this unfamiliar world will find parallels with issues that communities grapple with today. For example, what happens to a society in which more people begin leaving for greener pastures - whether those are in other countries or on other planets?

Record Of A Spaceborn Few is the third book in Chambers' Wayfarers series, but can be read as a standalone.

Comparing Record with The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet - the first, self-published novel in the series - it is clear that Chambers has honed her craft since then.

The dialogue is snappier and the characters have more depth - although, unfortunately, they retain the tendency to have long conversations that do nothing to drive the plot forward.

If you like this, read: The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya), the first title in the Wayfarers series set in the Galactic Commons universe.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2018, with the headline 'Near utopian vision of humans exiled in space'. Print Edition | Subscribe