I’m going to assume that the reader of this review has already read the first two books in Chambers’ Wayfarer series (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit). While there’s nothing specifically barring you from starting with this book, you’ll get a much better idea of the larger world if you start at the beginning.
Well, I did it. I finished the series, despite really not wanting to. I hear that a new book is possibly on the way in the next year or so, but I have never before found myself in a position of getting so into a series that is currently ongoing — my most-loved multi-volume works (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Lord of the Rings, the Aubrey-Maturin series) have always been finished well before I discovered them. So this is a new and uncomfortable place and I don’t much care for it, I can tell you. But I’m not mad either.
So, Record of a Spaceborn Few finally presents us with a picture of Exodan life. It takes place almost entirely within the confines of a few ships within the Exodus Fleet — the group of ships that departed Earth as everything finally fell completely apart and Human life could no longer be sustained. These are not the Humans who live on Mars or other outer planets, nor the Humans who created Pepper and Blue in fringe colonies. These Humans remain in their ships, living as much of a self-sustained life as possible while still conducting business with the greater Galactic Commons.
Our first introduction to this world is through Tessa, the sister of Ashby Santoso, the Wayfarer‘s captain. This is the person Ashby occasionally sends messages and his spare creds to, as well as her young children. Ashby is an Exodan, but one who left. We find that lots of Exodans leave these days, as new opportunities and more interesting adventures present themselves, but many remain. We are also introduced to Isabel, an Archivist charged with recording and keeping Exodan history; Eyas, a Caregiver charged with laying the dead to rest; Kip, a teenager struggling to find his purpose in the Fleet or out of it; and Sawyer, a young man with distant Exodan roots who decides to return to the Fleet in an attempt to try something different with his life.
There are a lot more characters here to keep up with than in A Closed and Common Orbit. In addition to the main characters, there is also Tessa’s family and Isabel’s guest, a Harmagian researcher whose entries about her experience with the Fleet comprise a few charming interstitial chapters. Each character gets their own chapter in each part, so it’s not too much to keep up with.
I think the best thing about this book is that it waited this long to really get into Human culture. What happened to Pepper and Blue wasn’t really anything you would call humanity — this is the first easily recognizable society we’ve gotten. Everything here is very clearly Human. There are toddlers throwing their pajamas in the toilet and blaming it on phantoms. Children bullying each other. The restless angry hormonal aching that most any person who was once a teenager can recognize. Obstreperous older parents. Looming midlife crises. The feeling of loving your home but being suffocated by it. And all this takes place in a society that is balanced between tradition and the unknown.
There are still some hard feelings among some Exodans toward the GC. Some species viewed Humans as unworthy. They were ridiculously backward, had nothing to offer in the way of tech, and seemed to be continuously on the verge of accidentally blowing themselves and everyone around them up. They were perhaps harmless, but also essentially useless. But the GC gave them technology they could have never dreamed of, introduced money, and allowed them to leave space for the ground again. The Exodans are not the most traditional Humans out there — Gaiists and Survivalists are much more hardcore — but they are more old fashioned than you’d expect for a group of people who do daily trade with the universe at large. Some Exodans refuse to use creds, preferring to stick to the old barter system. There are certainly speciesists who feel comfortable expressing their views openly in front of other races. Older generations cling to the safety of the Fleet while younger ones look outward and desire more.
And maybe Harmagians and Aeluons and Aandrisks have similar pulls and stresses, but this particular story felt so intimately relevant on a human scale. I come from a rural, fairly traditional area, so I know what it’s like to feel like somebody has lit a rocket engine on your backside to get out as far and as fast as possible, and then that distant tug of never quite being where you’re supposed to be again after you finally do get away. Of watching the traditions you understand butt up against a future that needs to happen. Of loving the old ways but embracing the new and figuring out a way to have both. There’s a really satisfying conclusion here for me in this story, and it made me happy.
The thing about these books — these last two especially — is that if you’re looking for big time action and excitement, it’s not really here. But there’s plenty of that in sci-fi, and I have no doubt you can find well-written, action-packed stories out there. These take you all the way up into way outer space and leave you with questions of what it means to be human. What cost tradition? How can we honor the past and seek out the future and blend them in a way that preserves the best of both? How can we be better? It’s in that last question I think I really get why I like these books so much: If we ever do follow the lead of the Exodans or the other Humans in these stories, hopefully we’ll have learned enough by then that we’ll be good neighbors to whoever else we find. I don’t think we’ll ever be perfect, but I hope we’ll be the best Humans possible. And maybe if we’re lucky some of that will happen even before we leave.