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I love science fiction. It is probably my favourite genre. Hard or soft, I'm not particular. I do find that, more than any other genre, I grasp hold of certain authors and follow them wherever they lead. Barry Crouch, John Scalzi, Martha Wells, Peter Clines, these are active authors taking the genre to interesting places, and taking me along for the ride. But without question, to my mind the best author working in sci-fi today and one of the best modern authors period, is Becky Chambers. 

 

annihilation by jeff vandermeer / in lime green, a dragonfly and a squid-like plant coil around the black letters of the title (three letters per line on four lines) against a beige fieldI discovered Becky Chambers via the now defunct website i09, likely at the recommendation of then editor Charlie Jane Anders (who has become a prominent author in her own right). It was 2014, a very good year for sci-fi. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer hypnotized audiences with it's blaring unique style, Lock In by the aforementioned John Scalzi merged the genre with mystery for a few hundred pages, and the event of the decade for the genre, The Martian by Andy Weir was published. The Martian had originally been self-published, and 2014 was it's arrival in high (publishing) society with the backing of Crown. 

 

the long way to a small angry planet by becky chambers / a small lone figure stands on a hill with the milky way sprawling across the sky above themThese three examples come to mind if only because they stand in stark contrast to the first work of Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. What would become the first in the Wayfarers series is emblematic of all her works: down to earth (even if the characters are in zero gravity), character-driven, and broad in scope without getting bogged down in detail. The Martian is a wonderful character piece, but it is largely driven by the technical challenges Watney faces. Annihilation is philosophy wrapped in mystery, and Lock In is a good old fashioned murder mystery with robotic overtones. 

 

Long Way, which was also originally self-published thanks to a kickstarter campaign, has a lot of the trapping of a Star Trek or Mass Effect-style space opera. There is a galaxy of species out there who have banded together into a political alliance. But Chambers is far more interested in the personal than the technical. And far more interested in telling new kinds of stories within a familiar framework. Her Galactic Commons is not a shiny utopia, nor is it dystopia on the brink of collapse. It is simply complex.

 

Complex in a way that most novelists are uninterested in exploring. She doesn't spend chapters going over the technical details of faster than light travel. Instead, she world-builds by creating cultures and behaviours for her aliens that make them feel ancient and lived in. That they have motivations spurred by behaviour, not plot dependence.  The plot, the titular long way to a small angry planet, is a secondary consideration. Instead, the story is in the interactions between the crew of the Wayfarer, and reveals the depth and scope of her universe through them. It is a world realized by the characters in it, not characters realizing their world. 

 

The Wayfarer, as a ship and crew, have all the hallmarks of a successful on-going series. Science fiction has been built on the backs of the tightknit, rag-tag crew whose adventures we follow. And so much of my respect for Chambers is that, for her second novel, she leaves them entirely behind. The further installments of the Wayfarers series explore other corners of this universe she created. Imagine if, instead of following the Skywalkers, each Star Wars film was set on a different planet or ship. That is the radical and monumental choice Chambers made, to utter success. There are some threads of connection - the protagonist of book three is the sister of the captain from book one, for instance - but by and large the "series" installments stand by themselves. Making it literally a shared universe of stories.

 

a closed and common orbit by becky chambers / two figures stand on a hillside while a shower of falling stars fills the sky above themBook two, A Closed and Common Orbit, broke me as a person. I challenge anyone to read it and not dehydrate themselves through the eyes. I have not cried this hard at anything that didn't involve grievous bodily injury in years. The story is told from two perspectives: Lovelace, an AI struggling with their newly awakened identity, and Jane, a young orphan struggling to survive a harsh and inhospitable life. To say more is to risk revealing too much, and these are not stories you want to know too much about before digging in. Not that there are LOST-style spoilers to be had, but because the journeys you go on are so aggressively personal, you want to experience them with the characters, not as cold, unfeeling segments of a tome. Thankfully, the stories are so deep and go in unexpected directions that the plot synopses on the covers barely scratch the surface.

 

record of a spaceborn few by becky chambers / a lone figure sits on a plain with their legs pulled close to their chest with a nebula sprawling in the sky above themBook three, Record of a Spaceborn Few, is the most human-centric, and the most meandering. If I'm being honest, it was the one I formed the weakest connection with, but I blame myself more than the book. In a kind of anti-Battlestar Galactica mode, the book takes place in a crumbling fleet of ships united by the conviction that humanity can fend for itself without alien assistance. Like the pilgrims or Mormons of history, this group of zealots float through space hoping to find a place to keep to themselves, all the while questioning the conviction of their beliefs. It remains deep and profound materials to focus on, when other authors would be more interested in the iridescent aliens who communicate through flashing colours.

 

the galaxy and the ground within by becky chambers / a low mountain range with a calm, purple tinted night sky above them2021 is a great year for fans of Chambers, as there are two new books arriving from her this year. In June comes the concluding entry in the Wayfarers series, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. This book promises to be the least human entry, and if the press is any indication, might resonate with an audience who have spent the last year being locked away from their lives while their world grinds to a halt. I'll be sad to see the universe go, but if it means Chambers starts exploring new worlds and new stories, all the more power to her. In 2019 she released her first unconnected work, the novella To Be Taught If Fortunate, a short tale about astronauts surveying planets for potential colonization. And in July of 2021 the novella A Psalm for the Wild-Built will be released, the first in a new series following a Monk and a Robot, searching for the answer to one of life's great questions: what do people need?

 

a psalm for the wild built by becky chambers / in the lower right hand, a man sits in a carriage drinking tea; in the upper left a small robot stands. the cover is a jumbled wave of a path between them intermingled with flowers and vines and the titles.Chambers works feel immensely personal. The characters are fully realized, to an extent that it can feel invasive to read about them. The books are wonderfully and proudly inclusive and Queer, and treat that inclusivity and Queerness with such banality and matter-of-factness, to support the idea that what makes people (be they human, robot, or alien) special is simply who they are. And that no matter where you go in the universe, you can find people who accept that.

 

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Fictionally Yours,

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