Books : reviews

Becky Chambers.
To be Taught if Fortunate.
Hodder. 2019

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 27 June 2020

In the future, instead of terraforming planets to sustain human life, explorers of the galaxy transform themselves.

At the turn of the twenty-second century, scientists make a breakthrough in human spaceflight. Through a revolutionary method known as somaforming, astronauts can survive in hostile environments off Earth using synthetic biological supplementations. With the fragile body no longer a limiting factor, human beings are at last able to explore exoplanets long suspected to harbour life.

Ariadne is one such explorer. On a mission to ecologically survey four habitable worlds fifteen light-years from Earth, she and her fellow crewmates sleep while in transit, and wake each time with different features. But as they shift through both form and time, life back on Earth has also changed. Faced with the possibility of returning to a planet that has forgotten those who have left, Ariadne begins to chronicle the wonders and dangers of her journey, in the hope that someone back home is still listening.

On an Earth struggling with ecological problems, a group is still pursuing the dream of spaceflight. A small group of scientists are sent on an interstellar journey to explore new planets; as they arrive at each one after a long sleep, they will find themselves bio-adapted to the local terrain.

This novella/short novel (150 pages) is another of Chambers’ wonderful space operas peopled with sensible, adult-behaving people coping together with extraordinary circumstances. Here we get vignettes of three different explorations, of very different planets, and see scientists at work, deeply committed to their research, respecting each other’s work, and overcoming what their explorations throw at them, all the while remembering they are doing this for the people back on Earth.

Becky Chambers.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.
Hodder. 2014

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 28 July 2017

When Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, she isn’t expecting much. The Wayfarer, a patched-up ship that’s seen better days, offers her everything she could possibly want: a small quiet spot to call home for a while, adventure in far-off corners of the galaxy, and distance from her troubled past.

But Rosemary gets more than she bargained for with the Wayfarer. The crew is a mishmash of species and personalities, from Sissix, the friendly reptilian pilot, to Kizzy and Jenks, the constantly sparring engineers who keep the ship running. Life on board is chaotic, but more or less peaceful – exactly what Rosemary wants.

Until the crew are offered the job of a lifetime: the chance to build a hyperspace tunnel to a distant planet. They’ll earn enough money to live comfortably for years … if they survive the long trip through war-torn space without endangering any of the fragile alliances that keep the galaxy peaceful.

But Rosemary isn’t the only person on board with secrets to hide, and the crew will soon discover that space may be vast, but spaceships are very small indeed.

Rosemary Harper signs on as a certified clerk to the small spaceship Wayfarer, whose multi-species crew builds small hyperspace tunnels through navigable space. She wants a fresh start to get away from her secret past, and this looks ideal. But then the Wayfarer is offered a big job: to build a long hyperspace tunnel from a newly joined member of the Galactic Commons. The job is valuable, but it will involve a long trip to the starting point. The contract will allow them to move their tunnelling operation into the big league, so they snap it up. But the long trip will expose everyone’s secrets…

Both that summary, and even moreso the book cover blurb, make this sound as if it is a book about Rosemary and her past, and that thrilling adventures will ensue. In fact, it is a book with an ensemble cast, and an episodic travelogue style, as the ship moves through a variety of encounters that help uncover different aspects and secrets of both the crew members, and their various species. Stakes are high, but on the individual rather than the galactic level.

And it’s just delightful. The various alien species are alien enough to be interestingly different, without being incomprehensible. The different species are not monolithic: there are different characters within each. Humans are more fleshed out than the other species: there are three specific subgroups, of old-Earthers, Mars colonists, and the ship-born. But this is actually a plot point: the rest of the GC think humans are under-civilised because of this. The small events we see do have consequence, if sometimes only for one or two characters, and help gradually paint a rich picture of this future galaxy. There is tension and conflict and loss and revelation, but relatively little violence. The characters are simply adult and competent, rather than overly-dramatic, cartoonish, or hyper-competent. It feels real.

I once summarised a book to a friend as “nothing happens, but it’s very exciting!”. This one is maybe: “nothing happens, but it’s wonderful!” I went straight out and bought the next book.

Becky Chambers.
A Closed and Common Orbit.
Hodder. 2016

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 17 August 2017

Once, Lovelace had eyes and ears everywhere. She was a ship’s artif1cial intelligence system – possessing a personality and very human emotions. But when her ship was badly damaged, Lovelace was forced to reboot and reset. Now housed in an illegal synthetic body, she’s never felt so isolated.

But Lovelace is not alone. Pepper, an engineer who risked her life to reinstall Lovelace’s program, has remained by her side and is determined to help her.

Because Pepper knows a thing or two about starting over.

Pepper was born Jane 23, part of a slave class created by a rogue society of genetic engineers. At ten years old, she had never seen the sky. But when an industrial accident gave Jane 23 a chance to escape, she jumped at the opportunity to leave her captivity.

Now, recreated as Pepper, she makes it her mission to help Lovelace discover her own place in the world. Huge as the galaxy may be, it’s anything but empty.

Lovelace is a former spaceship AI recently housed in a highly illegal human-looking “kit” body. Having to leave her ship, she needs someone to guide her through human society while she adapts to her new form. Pepper is an escaped gene-engineered human slave. She takes in Lovelace for good reasons, but she has her own a hidden agenda.

This book takes two characters from The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, and tells their story. We learn about Pepper in flash-back when she was growing up as Jane 23, while we also watch Lovelace, now known as Sidra, as she tries to adapt to her horrifyingly-curtailed sensory inputs.

This is another great entry in the Wayfarers series. We see a different aspect of the Galactic Commons culture, as we live with Pepper and Sidra in their hackerspace home, and interact with humans and aliens alike. I particularly like the way Sidra constantly refers to her body as if she is just a passenger in it, and I very much like that the resolution of Sidra’s problem doesn’t opt for either of the obvious easy answers.

Becky Chambers.
Record of a Spaceborn Few.
Hodder. 2018

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 23 April 2019

From the ground, we stand.
From our ships, we live.
By the stars, we hope.

Centuries after the last humans left Earth, the Exodus Fleet is a living relic, a place many are from but few outsiders have seen. Humanity has finally been accepted into the galactic community, but while this has opened doors for many, those who have not yet left for alien cities fear that their carefully cultivated way of life is under threat.

Tessa chose to stay home When her brother Ashby left for the stars, but has to question that decision when her position in the Fleet is threatened.

Kip, a reluctant young apprentice, itches for change but doesn’t know where to find it.

Sawyer, a lost and lonely newcomer, is just looking for a place to belong.

And when a disaster rocks this already fragile community, those Exodans who still call the Fleet their home can no longer avoid the inescapable question:

What is the purpose of a ship that has reached its destination?

Humans in the Galactic Commons have different backgrounds: assimilated, Martians, ship-born Exordians. This is a story of the Exordians: the thousands still living on the Exodus Fleet after new worlds have been discovered and granted. Such a life has its benefits and its drawbacks, but what is its purpose now the voyage is over?

The story starts with a disaster in the Fleet, and then follows several different characters and how that has affected them, as they grow, age, change, or stay the same. Maybe even more so than the previous two books, “nothing happens, but it’s wonderful!” Chambers has really got the ensemble story of ordinary life in an alien future down pat. Unlike the earlier stories, there is only one main alien character here, visiting the Fleet, with culture clash a potential source of personal disaster, and a marvellous resolution.

A wonderful story, with some rather deep philosophy on what makes a good life. (tl;dr: it depends.)