Becky Chambers' Record of a Spaceborn Few is a delightful space opera about preservation vs. change

One of the absolute best books that I read this year was Becky Chambers’ latest novel, Record of a Spaceborn Few, the final installment of her Wayfarers “trilogy".” It’s preceded by her debut novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and A Closed and Common Orbit. I’ve loved each of the books in turn, and the world that Chambers has set up to host all three stories — each of which stand on their own, rather than flow into one another as in a conventional trilogy.

On the face of it, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is pretty standard space opera. It’s set in the distant future, Earth is no longer inhabited, and humanity has joined a larger diaspora of galactic life. But what really sets the stories apart from the space opera stories around her is that they’re intensely focused on the plights of her characters, and most importantly, the bonds that they form with their companions. These books have a bright, intensely optimistic view of the world and universe: people (of all species) can get along and live in relative harmony, despite their differences.

I had a bit of trouble getting into a Record of a Spaceborn Few the first time I picked it up, but it wasn’t until I listened to an episode of Eric Molinsky’s Imaginary Worlds about the use of faith in SF. (If you like SF commentary, you should listen to the show, it’s pretty great). One of the guests spoke about looking at the book through the lens of her Jewish heritage, and everything clicked into place for me — it’s a story about preserving one’s way of life, even as change is inevitable.

At its core, this is what Record of a Spaceborn Few really excels at — it’s about a society that lives aboard the ships that left Earth, eons ago. As is to be expected, ships that have been operating for generations will fall apart eventually, and its inhabitants are struggling to keep their civilization together. They’re reluctant to let some of their traditions fade into the past, even as people are leaving for opportunities elsewhere. There’s a lot to read into this — I’m reminded of some of the utopian societies of the 1800s that existed in Pennsylvania that had trouble competing with the lifestyles of their neighbors. The inhabitants of the fleet also have trouble dealing with newcomers and the changes that they bring with them.

What the book ultimately comes down to is that change is inevitable, and it’s how people balance the preservation of their traditions with altering them that matters. This is not an entirely novel realization — just look at how any religion or civilization has slowly altered itself over time.

But it’s a nice slice-of-life look at a society continually coming to terms with this as Chambers follows a slew of characters, young adults, visitors, researchers, etc., as they move about their lives. In a lot of ways, it’s a good book to sink into and relate to, given the toxic environment that surrounds us now, and how much of that is driven by generational differences and prejudices.