I spent much of the early part of this year reading James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, ploughing through books two to eight in a couple of months. Now, like all fans, I eagerly anticipate the final book, Leviathan Falls, which is due out some time in 2021. I’ve been on the lookout for other series to take its place, and I know there are plenty out there, but I felt a need for character-driven space opera rather than out-and-out humans-v-aliens action adventure. Becky Chambers‘ Wayfarers series was always on the cards as a must-read, and now I’m wondering why it took me so long to get there.
Wayfarers is a four book series, beginning with The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet. Published in 2015, originally via a Kickstarter campaign, Becky’s debut found its audience and was nominated for major prizes, such as the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the British Fantasy Awards. It was also the first self-published novel to be nominated for the Kitschies, which “rewards the year’s most progressive, intelligent, and entertaining fiction that contains elements of the speculative or fantastic.” In short, publishing dynamite. The reasons for this are plentiful.
Ashby Santoso is the captain of the Wayfarer, a ship that creates tunnels through space, wormholes basically, allowing access to distant planets, galaxies, and markets. This function is vital to the stability and economy of the Galactic Commons (GC), a federation in which Humanity is its most recent member. Ashby understands that a ship is only as good as its crew, and in this regard, his crew is the most diverse, talented, unique, and loyal group of people the GC has ever mustered up.
Joining the team is Rosemary Harper, and she serves as our introduction to both Becky Chambers’ universe and its inhabitants. Rosemary enlists as a file clerk under false pretenses. She’s on the run from her past, but at the same time wants to see what else is out there. Luckily enough she is good at her job, even if her presence riles Artis Corbin, the ship’s algaeist. He has the important job of growing the ship’s fuel and nothing or no one else is really important to him. Also on board is Sissix, an Aandrisk, who along with Ohan, a Sianat Pair, pilot and navigate the Wayfarer. Jenks and Kizzy are the ship’s technicians, with Jenks enjoying a very special and beautiful relationship with the ship’s AI, Lovelace, AKA Lovey. Rounding off the crew is Dr Chef, a Grum, who also serves as a kind of therapist for his shipmates.
The main thrust of Small Angry Planet is the crew’s mission to tunnel a wormhole through to a new system that has been granted provisional membership of the GC. It’s a journey that will take some time, a ‘standard’, which I believe is more than a year. The passing of time is denoted differently to ours: where we would say week, the citizens of the GC say tendays, which I think is self-explanatory. The trek is not without its perils. The Wayfarer encounters space pirates, heretics, and saboteurs. But action doesn’t drive the plot; it’s characters do.
Along the way we get to know the crew through beautiful and surprising revelations. The story is told in multiple POVs, but never once does Becky Chambers lose clarity in voice or thought. While not an action-orientated adventure, the set-pieces when they come are dramatic, and often reveal depths to each of the characters in the novel. Their individual stories are the bedrock upon which the author sets her stall, and they are in turn inspiring, poignant, heart-breaking, and despite the presence of alien beings, so very human.
This is a story about family, and not just the one we’re born into: it’s about the family we chose for ourselves as we travel through life and the stars. Rosemary’s secret, when it does come to light, doesn’t affect how the crew sees her as a person, but it becomes a way for her to grow more into herself, and her relationship with Sissix especially is more powerful as a result.
The events at the end of Small Angry Planet allows Becky take us down another path. Book two in the series, A Closed And Common Orbit, is effectively a stand-alone sequel, with the focus on Lovelace, the AI, who takes human form, an action that is illegal in the GC. Lovelace’s new body, or “kit”, has its advantages and disadvatages, and through the course of Common Orbit, we see her and her friend Pepper, a friend of Jenks who comes to the ship’s rescue in the previous novel, negotiate the new normal. Two stories run concurrently. Lovelace’s search for the meaning of existence as she seeks to understand the importance of intimate relationships, as well as having a program that forbids her to lie, is the inital focus. Learning to bend the truth a little bit is vital for her survival. Pepper’s story is equally relevant, and we discover how she came to be. When Owl is introduced, I read her voice as one of my very dearest friends, and she gave me great comfort. I’m not ashamed to say that I found Pepper’s story very emotional and how the two strands in the novel work out hit me in my core. Pepper’s best friend, Blue, is magnificent. And Tak, Lovelace’s friend and tattoo artist, completes this fantastic four.
Book three has a different approach altogether. Record Of A Spaceborn Few choses as its focus five characters who live on board a generation ship that’s part of the Exodan Fleet, among them Tessa, the sister of Captain Ashby Santoso from Small Angry Planet. The Fleet represents what’s left of Humanity after it left Earth when it became uninhabitable. Granted GC citizenship and given a star of its own to orbit, the Exodan’s journey has come to an end. But what happens now? Spaceborn Few follows five main characters as they deal with the aftermath of a major catastrophe that occurs in the novel’s prologue. Apart from Tessa, we inhabit the lives and innermost thoughts of Isabel, the Fleet’s archivist, who is playing host to a visiting Harmaegeon, a GC elite who wishes to learn about the Fleet and Humanity; Eyas, a “caretaker’, who respectfully and ritualistically deals with the bodies of those who have died (basically turning them into compost); Kip, a teenage boy who wants nothing more than to leave the Fleet as soon as he’s able to; and finally Sawyer, a man who comes from the “bad side of town” and joins the Fleet looking for a new life.
Like the preceding books in the series, Spaceborn Few has a theme. Small Angry Planet is about family. Common Orbit is, I think, about identity: who we are, how others perceive us, and how we preceive ourselves. Spaceborn Few is about home. Wherever it is, can we be happy there? Can we find our truth and our heart, or do we need to look further ahead? Will we ever find acceptance among people who are not us? Sometimes its not enough to just have a place to live; we need a place to be and to connect. Becky Chambers’ forte is getting inside her character’s heads. In learning so much about them, we find out similar things about ourselves and our humanity. It’s a beautiful thing, but it’s not always comfortable to read home truths.
Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series is a beautifully written and deeply personal work of literary and speculative fiction. It probably won’t appeal to readers who like an explosion or gun battle every second chapter, although there are some great examples of both throughout all three books. It does, however, speak to the individual on what it means to be alive during times of crises and uncertainty. Each book found a place in my heart, and with a fourth and possibly final novel, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, due out in 2021, it looks like I’ll have to find more room. Winner of the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Series, Wayfarers is majestic, epic in scope, but initmate in focus. It speaks to the human in each of us.