The first two books in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit, both of which I loved, were largely focused on encounters between aliens of different species in the quasi-utopian spacefaring civilisation that she so brilliantly imagines. While humans were included in this mix, human society was not at the centre of the story; in The Long Way, the human protagonist Rosemary spends her time learning about the very different alien societies she encounters, while in A Closed and Common Orbit, the most significant human character, Pepper, has lived much of her life cast out from human worlds, brought up by an AI. Because of this, Record of a Spaceborn Few is the first chance we’ve had to consider how human society itself has changed in this imagined future.
Record of a Spaceborn Few is set on the Exodus fleet, the fleet on which humans migrated from a dying Earth, and on which many of them still make their homes. Life on the fleet is, broadly speaking, communist: resources are distributed centrally, as are jobs, and everyone receives the same renumeration for whatever work they do. It’s suggested that this system is working; very few able-bodied adults are willing to risk the social stigma of being idle, and those who invest more time and effort in their training are rewarded with higher status in the community. As far as I could tell, however, this society is also portrayed as a post-patriarchy (and as a post-patriarchy that has, crucially, also rejected white supremacy and hetronormativity). Race or sex seem irrelevant, although women still seem to be giving birth (and – irritatingly – there seems to have been no technological advances in this area, as one of the characters refers to birth as necessarily painful – why?). We meet gay, lesbian and bisexual characters, and there’s no sense that they face any prejudice. To be clear, this is all so far so good for me – I love the utopian nature of Chambers’s world and I think it’s hugely important to write stories like this where diverse characters can exist without constantly being defined by oppression.
The problem with Record of a Spaceborn Few, for me, comes down to a familiar feminist question: how far can we, who have been fundamentally shaped by being born and raised in a patriarchal society, conceive of a post-patriarchy at all? (Same questions also go for a genuinely post-racial society, but Chambers seems much less concerned with this issue.) In other words, Chambers’s world felt far too familiar to me, especially when she’s shown how adept she is at envisaging fundamentally different alien set-ups. Shouldn’t these post-patriarchal humans feel – well, more alien? One particular sticking point for me came with sex work. Chambers presents sex work as simply another occupation that Exodans can choose when they come of age. Sex workers are valued by this society, and it’s strongly implied that most adults have visited sex workers at some point or another. Pleasingly, Chambers emphasises the significant skill-set that sex workers possess: empathy, perception, intuition, the ability to get on with people.
Treated critically, this could have been fascinating. How much of the inherent abuse and exploitation in the sex work industry is due to the fact that we live in a capitalist patriarchy, where sex is treated as a commodity like any other? Is it possible to imagine a world where selling sex is removed from harmful power dynamics? I’m not sure I can imagine such a world, but perhaps that’s precisely the point. However, Record of a Spaceborn Few doesn’t ask these questions. Instead, I found myself getting more and more uncomfortable with its presentation of sex work. While I’m open to the idea that things might be different in a society that is so radically different from our own, presenting this scenario uncritically in a world that still fails to recognise the harm that sex work does to women feeds into damaging myths. I think that Chambers could have pulled this ‘what-if’ off, but she doesn’t seem to have given it enough thought.
There are other aspects of the text that also felt uncomfortably familiar. One of the central characters is Kip, a sixteen-year-old boy who hasn’t done enough work for his final exams and isn’t sure what he wants to do with his life. He’s bored and tempted to rebel. He and his friend get hold of fake ID, experiment with alcohol and drugs, and try to get access to the aforementioned sex workers. He basically behaves like an idiot. I found this whole plot a bit dismaying. Given that adolescence is culturally constructed – teenagers haven’t behaved the same way at the same age throughout history, and obviously the concept of the ‘teenager’ is, itself, relatively new – I don’t see why Kip would necessarily be doing any of these things. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to challenge our ageist assumptions about young people?
I’m aware I’m holding Chambers to very high standards because her first two books were just so good, and I really enjoyed reading Record of a Spaceborn Few, despite my misgivings – the worldbuilding is richer and more original than in A Close and Common Orbit. However, I’d like to see any future books in this series think more about how humans themselves have changed, alongside the different models of sex, gender and race that they encounter in the alien species with whom they now share the universe.