To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers’ first novella is a story that considers the tentative deep exploration of space. And like all of her books, it abides by the two tenets of Chamberism (it’s a thing, don’t look it up) – optimism and inclusiveness.

The optimism in humanity is palpable: the space missions are not publicly or privately funded, but instead come through the third sector and are backed by citizen donations. There’s no ulterior motive, a la Cold War-style, no shareholders to appease. It is the gaining of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. In addition, throughout the mission, the astronauts are endlessly responsible in their exploration. Before stepping on each planet, they repeatedly stop to consider their effect on the foreign ecosystem. The casual and optimistic manner in which Chambers builds her futuristic vision makes for wonderfully enjoyable reading.

Secondly, an enormous diversity is represented with the novella’s small cast of four characters. Remarkable in simply how hardly remarked upon they are, the astronauts’ personal facets are brought up casually, when relevant, taking science fiction forward another important step towards transforming its norms. In addition to modernising social norms, Chambers futurises them by continuing to refine her skill in applying the found family trope with relationships that transcend the concept of ‘standard’ current day romantic and friendly relationships.

As discussed, most importantly, these two themes are not commented on much, they’re just there. More focus is given to the science. The book is harder sci-fi than the Wayfarers series  – Chambers goes into detail discussing how space travel works and its ethics, what somaforming is (sneaking in some biopunk), and the vastly different planets and their indigenous populations with gleeful enthusiasm that is impossible to not share while reading. 

(As a side note: due to the above point, after reading To Be Taught, I’m convinced that Chambers could write a fantastic, easy-to-understand non-fic on space exploration.)

To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a love letter to the very concept of scientific discovery, human progress and humility, and the drive to learn – a fact clear from the beginning given the humble title paraphrased from former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s speech. Becky Chambers has carved out her niche in science fiction and fulfils it adroitly; those who enjoy Wayfarers will savour this novella (though may chafe at the shorter length), those who haven’t will find this a perfect litmus test for her body of work.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War is an incredible, intricately composed story of two rival agents, Red and Blue, going forwards and backwards millennia in time repeatedly trying to undo and outmanoeuvre each other’s attempts to win an endless war. The book is a masterclass in quality over quantity; without exaggeration it can be said that every line is important and beautifully written. Elegant to the point of poetry, sentences often end up being read multiple times. The reader can easily find themselves just enjoying each intricately alluring sentence before realising they’ve ignored the plot for paragraphs at a time. At only 200 pages, the time to read easily equals that of a traditional 400-page novel when the reader is almost forced to slow down and savour each word.

As is reflective of the characters’ personalities themselves, there is no hand holding here in any aspect of the storytelling. The epistolary structure is set up through increasingly intricate means that do not need to be understood to be enjoyed. The lore is vaguely teased out when one agent happens to find it necessary to preclude a taunt with some context. And the time travel system is not forgotten but rather scoffed at. There are mentions here and there of how time is braided together, reminiscent of Red and Blue, two lines of a helix pattern that never meet, but the mechanics are unimportant, not even given the formality of a brief explanation.

Ultimately, the book is truly a unique experience in and of itself. Incapable of being described in the format of ‘x meets y’, it is wholly and truly its own thing. It is bizarre and different and unclear and exceedingly original. This Is How You Lose the Time War may not be for everyone, but it is objectively something individual and undeniably breathtaking.

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the latest instalment in the Wayfarers universe and simply put, it’s incredible. I was pleasantly surprised to see it revert to the style of A Long Way with a large cast of POV characters rather than just the two in A Closed and Common Orbit. In the slice of life genre, characters make or break a novel and thankfully Wayfarers continues to make.

In fact, while all the POVs (except one) are human, there’s a huge range of main characters with a diversity in age and attitude that the prior two books didn’t touch upon. Chambers produces them all with sophistication: from the bored teenager, Kip, who can’t wait to leave the Fleet because ‘anywhere else is better’ to the polar opposite young man, Sawyer, immigrating to the Fleet because it has to be better life currently. From Eyas the caretaker steeped in tradition to Tessa (sister of Ashby from A Long Way) who wonders if it might be better to move on and go planetside. However, my favourite was easily Isabella. Elderly people are so rarely main characters that it was refreshing to see her point of view and every scene with her wife was utterly adorable.

The entirety of the novel is set aboard the Exodus Fleet – a collection of spaceships that house humans that left the Sol system when Earth became uninhabitable (bit didn’t join alien worlds). The Fleet is a fascinating concept and it’s interesting to see how Chambers created its customs. One of the more novel concepts was how to dispose of the dead. The easier route would have been to just have them send ashes into space but instead people known as caretakers reuse the Fleet’s remains, turn them into compost. It could easily have been a pretty morbid addition but is portrayed respectfully. The caretakers are revered by the Exodans (so much so that it is sometimes to Eyas’s chagrin) – the whole process is described in detail, it very much feels like a non-deity-based religion.

Whenever people ask for cosy or optimistic SFF, Wayfarers is always one of the first recommendations and Record of a Spaceborn Few is no execption. It’s probably the darkest of the three (though that’s not really saying a lot) what with the catastrophic loss of life that jumpstarts the novel. But even with that event (and others), Chambers manages to keep the mood upbeat throughout. It’s such an easy read throughout that the reader can just fly through the book.

The only problem I had is that sometimes it felt a bit too exposition-heavy. During the novel’s timeline there is an alien Harmagian documentarian that is visiting Isabella (the historian) on the Fleet. Chambers uses this trip as its very nature to relay cultural and structural explanations. While this is a clever way to infodump on the reader, it’s an infodump all the same. It feels a bit tiresome as it doesn’t further develop either the plotlines or the characters and is a copout-y way to expand the setting. The exposition also bleeds into Isabella’s chapters since she spends a significant amount of time with the Harmagian.

One thing in particular I really liked in Record of a Spaceborn Few compared to its predecessors was its conclusion. I loved the previous two but they both end a little jarringly, both could have gone on a little longer without a doubt. In this book, Chambers employs lots of time jumping at the end to fully conclude each story, giving the reader proper closure for every character – something that the other books, A Long Way in particular, were missing.

Ultimately, reviews of this book aren’t really needed. And I have a feeling this is the case for any future Wayfarers novels. If you liked the previous two, any aspect – the hopeful tone, the worldbuilding, the happy and friendly characters, it’s guaranteed you’ll like this one too. Becky Chambers has combined the many POVs of A Long Way with the more concrete interweaved storylines of A Closed and Common Orbit, perfecting her slice of life style. Chambers has dropped so many little ideas about the universe, it’s ripe for exploration and I can’t wait to see where the series goes next.

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Authority is the sequel to Annihilation in name and follows on directly after the twelfth expedition in the first book.  But if you’re (reasonably so) expecting a continuation of the biologist’s story, you’d be sorely mistaken. Reading this book straight after its predecessor could give you whiplash considering the change in environment. It goes from a weird adventure through a deadly ecosystem to a weird office bureaucracy. From being immersed in Area X to only getting tantalisingly close to the border.

The book follows the new Director of the Southern Reach who is optimistically called Control. His main task is to find out what happened to the latest expedition and report back to his handler. It becomes clear almost immediately that the facility is on its last legs; almost if not every department is being run by a skeleton crew who all seem to be varying degrees of peculiar, a side effect surely of working on such an odd assignment. The latest expedition is back – or more accurately, the biologist returns out of Area X, suddenly appearing in an empty car park.

Control spends the majority of the book trying to understand and control (sorry) the Southern Reach. Unfortunately, from the get go, he is challenged by the openly hostile Assistant Director and has to deal with bizarre staff like Whitby who seems to have gone slightly insane from his time there. With literally no one around to help and his handler ‘the Voice’ demanding results, Control retreats into his own little bubble and focuses on the biologist.

The interviews he has with the biologist are far and away the best parts of the book. She gives cryptic answers to almost every question which intrigues Control and the reader since in Annihilation she was entirely forthright and pragmatic. I think it’s natural that I gravitated towards these sections since we spend the entire last book in the biologist’s head, forming an attachment to her and these interviews are all that are offered.

“A circle looks at a square and sees a badly made circle.”

Unfortunately, they are only one section of quite a long book. Authority is twice as long as Annihilation, coming in at around 400 pages and I was fully aware of the length while reading. The book gets SO mundane for large chunks at a time. And not in a mundane fiction (Wayfarers, Autumn etc) but just red tape and office politics and brick wall after brick wall. Annihilation is perfectly paced, a short book that never lets up so when the sequel is 200 extra words of dragged out plot points, it is acutely obvious.

However, VanderMeer does keep up the ‘weird fiction’ theme, which actually is quite impressive considering an office isn’t exactly the weirdest setting. The book is interspersed with odd goings on every so often. Control’s paranoia slowly develops as he gets stuck into his investigation of the Southern Reach – he’s having odd dreams, there’s this mysterious (but familiar to the reader) sentence painted on a hidden wall in his office, there’s a phone with a seemingly invincible plant growing out of it in his desk and he’s being followed maybe. And there’s this one moment that absolutely blows anything from the first book out of the water. It’s so bizarrely creepy, I’m a little worried about how VanderMeer even conceived it. I won’t say any more but those who have read the book know what I’m talking about.

“Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dim-lit halls of other places forms that never could be writhe”

In standard Southern Reach fashion, for every question answered, ten more are asked – it follows Annihilation in that it’s not for a person who wants answers to everything going on. Some may be answered, some may be left for the third book and some are just left dangling for the reader to mull upon. I found Control to be a far less interesting MC than the biologist was. I wonder if that is the point since we learn far more about his life and childhood and he really can just be summed up as ‘bland’. Maybe the point is show what a normal, generic person would react to the various stimuli of the Southern Reach. Maybe I’m grasping for straws, looking for an explanation where there is none.

Authority is about the building of dread – the slow accretion of things going just a little but wrong. About men and women already so broken by the past that they appear collectively blind (or wilfully ignorant) to the rot spreading around them. Until a moment comes that changes their world that they and we never see coming. This is where the true skill of VanderMeer is shown. Like the characters, we’re so caught up in the monotony of Control’s day to day that we accept all the little terrible things happening around him until it all gets turned upside down.

I’d have preferred more adventure in Area X, more discovery of what it is but that’s a low hanging fruit storyline. Re-treading the first book would have been the easy sequel, instead he switched it up to follow the human side of Area X. Even if I didn’t enjoy it as much, I can respect the decision. For those who liked the ‘what the fuck’ weird, insidious feeling you got reading Annihilation then you’ll like Authority. If you like the adventure, the discovery of a new ecosystem, this book is not going to gel with you.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation was my first foray into the new weird genre and man, it was a deep end if there is one. The premise is basic enough: There is a mysterious, untouched coastline somewhere in the US that, years ago, had suddenly and inexplicably become host to a bizarre new ecosystem. It is quarantined and referred to as Area X by the Southern Reach, a secretive government agency. All the prior expeditions sent into Area X resulted in disasters – the explorers committed mass suicide, killed each other, developed fatal cancers. The twelfth expedition consists of four women – a surveyor, an anthropologist, a psychologist and a biologist (the main character). The biologist is an intriguing character; she’s described as being very distant from others, most comfortable when analysing microorganisms on the coast of Ireland, far away from human contact. She is remarkedly pragmatic when confronted with the unknown and comes off as a little alien herself:

“A religious or superstitious person, someone who believed in angels or in demons, might see it differently. Almost anyone else might see it differently. But I am not those people, I am just the biologist; I don’t require any of this to have a deeper meaning.”

VanderMeer doesn’t ease the reader in but instead starts to throw questions into the air almost immediately. After less than 24 hours the team is disagreeing about basic discoveries. Is this tunnel going underground we found important? Is it a tunnel or a shaft? Or a tunnel? Should we continue on to lighthouse stay here? Why is the tunnel not on the map?

The biologist soon realises that the secret government agency has ulterior motives (shocker!) and that their leader, the psychologist has her own goals. It soon becomes clear that the mission is a farce – equipment is all broken or anachronistic, their extensive astronaut-like training is irrelevant and they are not even fully in control of themselves.

Everything VanderMeer does is carefully added to keep everything bizarre – without names and with their fields of expertise made irrelevant almost instantly after entering Area X, the team is defined only by their bare emotions (the surveyor is aggressive, the psychologist is peculiar, the biologist is curious, the anthropologist is anxious). The expedition team are made to bring outdated technology They are told this to help to keep outside influences out but is it really? Hypnosis stops the team leaving and soon the reader comes to realise maybe the experiment isn’t to see what Area X is but to see how the women react when immersed in bizarre stimuli.

I’ve mentioned hypnosis a few times and I think that its inclusion is really the only real weakness in the novel. VanderMeer relies on the concept of hypnosis quite strongly and in this weird, fantastical environment it’s the almost mind control powers that come off as least believable. Characters forget entire days due to it, they fall into comatose positions, their minds easily malleable from just a single word. I don’t know if hypnosis is actually that powerful in real life but it ruined the immersion just for a moment.

When I first picked up Annihilation I was mildly surprised at how short it was. But the length works in its favour; it doesn’t let up for a moment. The story is constantly being pushed forward, there’s no time to ponder each new revelation as another is thrown at the reader. VanderMeer could have easily filled it out to 400 pages by pausing the story and including backstory on the biologist, on Area X or starting it earlier in the timeline. But he chooses not to. He chooses to start as they enter the area and gives little to no explanations about what is going on. The reader is at an equal loss for knowledge as the biologist – or even more so considering she herself is such an enigma.

It constantly keeps the reader on their toes with a consistently eerie mood throughout. Every page is full of mystery – cryptic writing on the walls of the tunnel with run on sentences that rival dickens, a deep voice coming from somewhere in the swamp, plants that appear to contain human matter within them. I was never really able to feel relaxed throughout but like the biologist who just keeps trucking through, what else can she do, I just keep reading – both of us expecting that eventually everything will be explained.

But that’s the crux of the book. There are few answers. If you’re the type of reader who likes their mysteries explained by the end Sherlock Holmes style, you’re going to be unsatisfied with this. That doesn’t mean to say it’s a bad ending, it’s not, it’s excellent. It’s ambiguous, open to interpretation, just explained enough (that is to say, barely at all) and almost forcing me to start its sequel, Authority.

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2) by Becky Chambers – A fantastically sanguine story of friendship and self-discovery

I read A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet a while ago and loved it. I don’t remember reading such a happy, positive book that presents itself in such a way that doesn’t come off saccharine. I thoroughly enjoyed the slice of life novel which incidentally is a genre that I’d never really come across.

The large cast of characters on the ship felt very Firefly-esque but with far more relatable crew members. The characters were all very realistic and familiar to the reader despite the majority being aliens. Becky Chambers spends a good deal of time developing the worldbuilding of the universe and does so deftly. I particularly like the use of chat logs reminiscent of IRC channels to give us a glimpse of the ‘main’ characters exploration of the space-wikipedia. I say ‘main’ because while Rosemary is introduced first and probably has the most POV chapters, each crew member gets their own storylines. None are world ending but just show that they all lead complex lives with worries and goals.

I was fascinated by the diversity of aliens; never were they just humans-but-blue or humans-but-reptiles (looking at you, Mass Effect) but instead totally uniquely designed. There’s an alien race called Sianats that has entirely been infected with a virus that lets them comprehend multi dimensional space allowing them to pilot ships through wormholes. Since every member of the Sianat race is paired with a parasite, they are referred to as Sianat Pairs and use plural pronouns such as ‘they’ and ‘we’ instead of ‘he’ and ‘I’. There’s a reptilian Aandrisk race (okay, there is one…) but it’s a supremely unique race in that their concept of family is totally different to humans. Every Aandrisk has three families, one that raises them, one that they live with as adults and one that they raises others as a a part of. They have a very casual sex culture, happy to mate with strangers and multiple others in public. The Aeluon are a race of aliens that communicate solely through their colour changing skin. Their skin is admired by all other races and can transition through the entire colour spectrum. These vastly different alien species really highlight Chambers’s imagination in creating her world and them all coexisting peacefully in the one ship is representative of a major theme of acceptance examined throughout the book.

Having enjoyed the lack of plot in A Long Way, I was mildly surprised that A Closed And Common Orbit is a less meandering, more focused novel on just two new main characters. Chambers uses this to explore the characters in more depth by keeping the storylines focus heavily on character development. There’s very little action in the book, probably even less than A Long Way; the characters generally do not develop through actions but more through conversations with those around them and self-reflection. The two storylines are mostly separate but they intertwine occasionally in a thematic manner. Both are about the the discovery of oneself, discussing the idea of what one does after rejecting their designated purpose.

One of the storylines continues off from where A Long Way ends. The AI Lovelace is taken out of the Wayfarers ship due to her predecessor’s relationships with the crew and decides to live with a mechanic Pepper while she tries to get used to going from being a ship AI to a body unit AI. The change is shown to be extremely uncomfortable for Lovelace as she goes from having cameras all over a spaceship and constant access to the galaxy-wide Internet (which she requires to research new ideas and concepts, a task she requires often as she has only just been turned on) to pretending to be a human. Since unshackled sentient AI is at best a touchy subject in the Galactic Commons and at worst, illegal, Lovelace has to disconnect herself and act as a human, limiting her natural inclinations.

The claustrophobic feeling that Lovelace continually experiences is represented excellently and despite my being not a robot, it was surprisingly easy to relate to. She felt like an extreme introvert forcing herself to endure public places and meet new people. Repeatedly, she would run back to her comfort zone and plug herself in to the cameras set up around Pepper’s house to simulate a spaceship monitoring system.

The other storyline covers Pepper’s early years as a human child clone called Jane-23. She is forced to work in a scrapheap sweatshop, taking apart scrap metal to salvage working components. She and all the other Janes are supervised by robot ‘Mothers’ that is somewhat reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale’s Aunts. Her story follows her awful childhood there briefly before detailing how she leaves it behind, and finds a ship whose AI raises her. It’s a very touching story that shows why Pepper was willing to help Lovelace adapt to her new life despite the dangers it included. There are lots of cute little moments like Jane discovering her first cartoon TV show, or how she decides on the new name Pepper.

A common problem in A Closed and Common Orbit in multiple POV books, especially those with just a few, is that often the viewpoint switches too often. I had this problem with The Lies of Locke Lamora too, just as the reader begins enjoying one storyline, it switches to the other. A minor criticism really but just something that made me sigh every so often.

Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoyed A Closed and Common Orbit. The casual nature that Chambers discusses sexuality, gender and inter species culture is wonderfully refreshing. Often when a book attempts to include societal norms that are more progressive than our own or are simply just different they do so in a hamfisted, self-congratulatory manner that undercuts the sincerity of it. Some have criticised Chambers for being overly optimistic in her depiction of the future’s accepted customs and while I agree, I don’t think that that is necessarily a bad thing.