To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

This was one of the cultural highlights of the summer for me, a new novella from Becky Chambers, who has previously published three delightful novels (none of which were particularly long) in her Wayfarers series. This one is not from the same series and comes in at about half the length of a standard novel – and at under a fiver I can’t complain.

So, why a novella? A small idea, an itch that needed to be scratched? The introduction of a new Becky Chambers universe with some light worldbuilding? Or a short story run wild?

Hard to say. Anyway, I read this in a day, and it was enjoyable but slim pickings. I’ve been thoroughly engaged by Chambers’ work and wouldn’t call her a “science fiction lightweight” as some do, but this novella, if you wanted to be harsh, could be described as four characters in search of a plot.

The set-up is straightforward, though some heavy suspension of disbelief is required. A crowdfunded space exploration programme sends several missions from Earth to explore different exoplanetary systems, all of which have the potential to harbour life. If a crowdfunded space programme is hard to believe, the strong ethics of the explorers also tests your ability to go along with it. These humans are determined to have as little impact as possible upon the ecosystems they explore. They’re explorers, not colonisers, and their code is hippocratic: first, do no harm. Rather than change their environment, they change themselves, which is a necessarily under-explored aspect of this piece.

The plot, such as it is, follows the four crew of one of the missions as they explore, in turn, four promising worlds in a solar system, all of which have – or might have – water. Comparisons to Goldilocks and the Three Bears are inevitable, given that the zone in which life might potentially exist is named after that fairy tale. Is one planet too cold, another too warm, and another just right? And what of the fourth?

The rule of four: four planets, four crew, four personalities. Are they all too perfect? Chambers’ human characters are generally so caring and considerate and tolerant that the conflict necessary to drive a plot has to come from elsewhere. It’s hard to say here whether she intends people to be sympathetic or deeply irritating. Once character comes across to me as so prickly and difficult that I cannot believe they’d be allowed on such a mission. Are the planets and the people metaphorically linked? It’s worth some thought.

Standard science fiction elements are here: a way of dealing with human lifespans and interstellar distances; a way of dealing with the perils of radiation; some hand waving about fuel and propulsion systems; more handwaving about air, food, and recycling. It’s a novella, so you shouldn’t expect Kim Stanley Robinson level detail. But there’s a lot of handwaving, and someone like KSR would dig into that a little and create some peril out f it. Which is not to say that there isn’t peril here: but it’s served as a side dish rather than the main course.

The story begins with the words “Please read this” and even tempts you to skip to the end in order to find out what “this” is all about, but I didn’t do that. They land, they explore, stuff happens, and then they face a decision, which ought to be high stakes and dramatic, but somehow feels like a cop-out.

So: not an essential Becky Chambers read; certainly an enjoyable way to pass the time while you do read it, though. I’d accept this as the introduction to a new series, but if it turns out to stand alone, it’s inessential.

Alternate Routes by Tim Powers and Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers – two reviews

alternate-routes-9781481483407_hrAlternate Routes by Tim Powers

Tim Powers has been writing about the ghosts of Los Angeles since his 1990s Fault Lines series, which started with Last Call in 1992, and finished with Earthquake Weather in 1997. Back then, people were huffing ghosts like drugs, absorbing them, being possessed by them. 

With his LA-set novels, Powers likes to pick a location with some weird history and weave his urban fantasy ideas into it. In the case of Earthquake Weather, he chose the Winchester Mystery House, which was built by the widow of the firearms company founder, and constructed over decades without building plans. In his more recent Medusa’s Web, he took us into Old Hollywood and Bunker Hill, and places that aren’t places populated by people who aren’t who they appear to be. To these locations, Powers links mythology and literature: the Fisher King, Troilus and Cressida, the cult of Dionysus.

The setting for Alternate Routes is the LA 405 freeway, with a side order of Mulholland Drive. This time, the fantasy elements are woven into the eddies and currents created by traffic patterns, and the ghosts are those who died on or near the freeway, and the mysteries concern what happens when you take an exit that isn’t there, or catch a voice from a car radio that you weren’t supposed to hear. The mythology is the labyrinth and the minotaur: Daedalus and Icarus.

Los Angeles is a fascinating sprawl of a city, and Powers clearly finds endless inspiration in its no-place weirdness. But this book, like Medusa’s Web (2016), feels somewhat peremptory and by-the-numbers. As if, one hopes, he’s just getting all these ideas out of his system. As a fan, I still bought this on the day of publication and read it quickly, but this novel does not reach the heights of his best work, Declare, The Stress of Her Regard, and Hide Me Among the Graves, The Drawing of the Dark – all of which have a historical setting away from the West Coast of the USA.

Terrible cover, too. I’ll doubtless come back to it to reassess, but for now I’m disappointed.

32802595Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

This third novel by Becky Chambers, after The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Close and Common Orbit, takes place in the same universe, at more or less the same time as the other novels. This time, the focus is on the human crew of the Exodus Fleet, the refugees from Old Earth, who have been living on the generation ships built to flee the environmental disaster we’re currently creating. To the other alien races they’re a curiosity, sometimes viewed as a charity case, with very little to offer in terms of technological innovation.

There are several focus characters, and the chapters flip between them in a regular rhythm. One is an ethnographer from a different species, who visits one of the ships in order to learn more about the humans who have not left the fleet. Others live and work aboard ship, experiencing day to day life or going through personal crises. There’s a Caretaker, who looks after the dead as their bodies are recycled; an archivist, who is there to record the important events on board; a teenager who is disillusioned with life in the Fleet; and an engineer who faces potential unemployment due to the introduction of outside technology. All of these people lead separate lives, and have individual narratives, which gradually intertwine to become one.

And this is the genius of Becky Chambers. For a while, I was thinking that, like Tim Powers, she was producing work that wasn’t up to her best, not quite as engaging as her debut or its brilliant sequel. But then, towards, the end, I found myself reading through tears as the emotional impact of this story hit home. While A Close and Common Orbit weaves two narratives into one powerful whole, this novel takes thinner threads and delicately entwines them until you are caught in the middle of the quietly devastating web, wiping tears from your eyes.

 

A tale of three books

34701258The problem with holidays, for me, is always the packing of enough books. I always seem to underestimate my requirements, even with strong memories of the last time I did so. I bought a few library books with me this time, and Provenance by Ann Leckie, which I’d been saving up for this special occasion, but I left behind the SF anthology I’ve been working slowly through since the summer, thinking I wouldn’t need it. The reading I do when I’m at work (between 20 minutes and an hour before I go to sleep at night) is both qualitatively and quantitively different than that I do on holiday, when I can fill long hours with sustained and concentrated reading.

Anyway, with a week of the holiday to go, I’ve run out, and will now turn to the books my daughter bought with her.

It has been a mixed bag. I read, for example, the sixth novel in The Expanse series of books, Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey. I find that my enjoyment of this series has been affected by my disappointment in the TV adaptation, which features wooden acting and clunky dialogue. It also suffers from being a collaboration: I really feel as if the narrative style is adapted to the convenience of the two authors. The chapters have a variety of viewpoints, and some of them, quite frankly, are unnecessary. I spent the last third of the book skipping huge, uninteresting chunks. It’s a shame: having ploughed through six novels, I now feel I’ve been wasting my time, because I probably won’t bother with the seventh.

My second disappointment of the holiday was The Silent Death, by Volker Kutscher which is the second of the Babylon Berlin books. Having watched the first season of the German TV series, I thought I was ready to plunge in, but it was a crushing disappointment. Two major problems: turns out, that notwithstanding the fascinating setting (Berlin, 1930), this is just a standard maverick cop procedural, complete with “You’re off the case!” clichés and a protagonist so infuriating that you sympathise with the colleagues who find him impossible to work with. I mean, Michael Connelly wrote the book(s) on this kind of thing with Bosch, but here’s the thing. Harry Bosch may be a stubborn maverick, but still has respect for some of his colleagues and gets along with enough of them to sustain his career. Gereon Rath, on the other hand, is just a pain in the arse. The second problem I found with this book is that the most engaging character in the TV series, Charly, the main female role, is more or less entirely absent from the book for most of its length. Furthermore, while the focus case in this is supposed to be a serial killer, the second body doesn’t turn up until over 250 pages in, which made the pacing seem off. As with Babylon’s Ashes, too, there were chapters with a different narrative point of view, which added nothing to the novel. I quickly worked out who the perp was, and the chapters from his p.o.v provided no new information, just pages you could skip.

Most unforgivable of all, the novel keeps repeating the phrase “serial killer”, which is used both by the cops and the media in the novel, and – as any connoisseur of thrillers knows – the term wasn’t coined until the 1970s. I’m hoping this is simply a translation error.

I saved the best for last. Ann Leckie’s Provenance is set in the same universe as her Ancillary series, but features a new protagonist in a different cultural milieu. As before, Leckie has fun with pronouns and gender, and manages to balance a human-scale story against a vast backdrop of interstellar empire politics which includes both different human cultures and truly alien aliens.

Ingray Aughskold is a young woman, fostered into a political family, who is trying to prove her worth by recovering some stolen antiquities. The unintended consequences of her naïve actions lead to a political crisis and unexpected legal and diplomatic outcomes.

I’m loving this new and recent trend in science fiction, led by Ms Leckie and Becky Chambers, which manages this wonderful balance between human interest, fluid gender identities, and old fashioned space opera. It feels both modern in outlook and comfortingly familiar. If you’ve been staying away from science fiction because you think it’s all faster than light travel and time dilation effects, you could do worse than read these authors. There are now four to read in the Leckie universe, and a third Chambers novel forthcoming in 2018, which will definitely be in my (much larger) summer pile of reading.

 

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

isbn9781473621442I had not read the first novel set in this universe (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), but I will be doing so post-haste after reading this sort-of sequel and finding myself lost in admiration. It’s a long time since I enjoyed a novel as much as this.

I understand this picks up towards the end of the previous outing, but features (in the main) different characters and a different setting. An artificial intelligence (AI), appropriately named after Ida Lovelace, wakes up in a new – illegal – body, is given a new name, and negotiates its way through the (limiting) experience of passing for human.

Such is one strand of this novel, which alternates Lovelace’s story with that of the human who has agreed to help it/her in this new life. We meet this human as Pepper, an inveterate tinkerer whose own history is gradually revealed in the alternate chapters.

What could one story have to do with the other, apart from the coincidence that one was assisting the other in establishing a new life and identity? Well, of course, it turns out that Pepper knows all about establishing a new life and identity and has a particular sympathy for AIs. Their different stories intertwine and then the title of the book makes sense, as the events in one person’s past history seem to mirror/echo the events taking place in the other person’s present.

This is space opera but not; a small and human story taking place in an imagined universe in which there is interplanetary trade and travel and in which humans are aliens living amongst other aliens. Most of all, this is an incredibly moving story about loneliness and difference and identity and coming to terms with it all.

So good. So jealous.