Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third book set in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers universe, but like the other two, it is mostly self-contained. There’s an offhand reference to the events of the first book, but it’s from the perspective of a new group of characters. I’ve generally enjoyed the books in this series, a space opera that focuses on nice people, rather than grim despair or dystopia (as a lot of modern takes go). The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was a character-driven, episodic narrative about the crew of a hyperspace tunneling ship that had seen better days. Most of the events covered in the book were well done but underwhelming, though it ended on a relatively strong note and the characters were enjoyable. The next book, A Closed and Common Orbit, focused much closer on two of the characters from the first book, and was significantly better for it. Like the first book, the stakes and tension weren’t particularly high, but the two characters at the heart of the story were endearing and interesting and once again, the ending was strong. I enjoyed that second book enough to nominate it for a Hugo Award, and it did become a finalist (I ended up ranking it #2 on my final ballot). Record of a Spaceborn Few is also a finalist for the Hugo Awards, so I was looking forward to catching up with it.
At this point, I would normally go for some sort of plot summary or describe the premise, but… there’s not really much to go on here. It’s really just a series of day-in-the-life character sketches, similar to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, but with even less tension or drama. The characters are nice and all, but I find that this book doesn’t add much to the universe Chambers has created, and the almost total lack of stakes doesn’t help either. It’s not bad, per say, but the Hugo nomination does it no favors in the expectations department.
The characters are a mixed bunch. Tessa is a mother raising her family as best she can while her husband is often working far away. Kip is a teenager going through a by-the-numbers coming of age story. Eyas is a professional undertaker, which is more important in space because of the way bodies are disposed of (or, er, recycled back into the fragile ecosystem of people living in space), etc… Isabel is an archivist who teams up with an alien ethnologist. Finally, Sawyer is a naive newcomer to the fleet, unsure of his place and struggling to fit in. Each characters’ story has small intersections with the others, but the general lack of plot lessens the impact these can have. At least two of the stories are variations on stories we’ve seen a billion times before (such that honestly, using the word “variation” to describe them is a stretch). Only one has any sort of conflict built into it at all, and it’s one that we readers can see coming a million miles away, but the character in question is too daft to even realize what’s going on. That one, at least, has a genuine surprise built into it, and that surprise drives the last half or so of the book (directly and indirectly).
Again, it’s not bad, and I do think there’s a place for this sort of book, but I don’t think that it’s “best SF novel of the year” material. It’s true that I rarely enjoy slice-of-life storytelling though, so maybe others will get more of a kick out of it. Mixed in with the character sketches are some decent SF worldbuilding bits, but they’re all disconnected and feel more like window-dressing, thanks to the meandering plotlines. The nuts and bolts writing craft is certainly up to standard, and I enjoy Chambers’ style and general positivity, so I’m still very open to reading more in this series. As it is nominated for a Hugo though, I think this book is ranking towards the bottom of my ballot (at least, of the three that I’ve read so far – I could see this sticking right in the middle of the ballot once I finish the others).