Science fiction writer Becky Chambers is up for a Hugo award (SF’s equivalent of the Oscars or Pulitzer Prize) this year—twice. Her 2018 novel Record of a Spaceborn Few has been nominated for best novel. The Wayfarers series, of which Record is the third book, is also in the running for best series this year.
The series as a whole, and especially the most recent book, highlight a facet of SF that can sometimes be neglected in the shadow of the world-shaking blockbuster epics: stories that are concerned more with what happens to individuals and small groups than with the Fate of the World. I’m going to tag this subcategory “domestic SF.”
I don’t mean to imply that Chambers’ tales are concerned with cosy traditional family life. On the contrary, some of her characters’ situations are decidedly nonconventional. This is science fiction, after all. But family and home do play a central role.
When we think of science fiction—especially early modern SF, from about 1920-1940—we tend to think of adventure stories: space opera, “planetary romances” like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter stories, or the modern revival in Star Trek and Star Wars. In these tales, conflict was a must, and often on a grand scale. We were Saving the World, or even the galaxy, the universe; or at least (for instance) the beloved city of Helium, as John Carter was wont to do.
Many of these early epics had to do with exploration. We were ‘going where no one had gone before’ in the Jules Verne Voyages Extraordinaires, or in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds (though in the latter case one might say instead that ‘where no one had gone before’ was coming to us). The heroes were frequently achieving the first of something, a momentous event: first spaceflight, first interstellar flight, first contact with nonhuman intelligence, or (when spaceflight had become routine) first landing on some particularly odd sort of planet. Whatever they were doing, it was a big deal.
Of course this was never all of science fiction; but it made up a major part of modern SF. And this tendency continued into the mid-20th century. Even a scenario that initially seemed purely local and personal often turned out to have grand-scale implications.
In Heinlein’s The Star Beast (1954), for example, the Everyboy teenage hero is unusual only in having a pet that was puppy-sized when his great-grandfather brought it back from an interstellar trip, but has gradually grown to the scale of a medium-sized dinosaur. The story opens with “Lummox” getting into trouble by eating a neighbor’s roses, plowing straight through a set of greenhouses, and so forth—the kind of domestic turmoil that might turn up in any situation comedy. (At least in science fiction.) But it eventually turns out that Lummox is actually a mere child from a fearsomely intelligent and pugnacious extraterrestrial species that lives for centuries. When her relatives come calling, it requires a major diplomatic effort to head off an interstellar war. What started out as a neighborhood squabble has become a planetary crisis.
We see something of the same development, but with a different twist, in the movie E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). The first part of the story focuses mainly on the friendship that develops between E.T. and young Elliott. The situation grows into an adult-level crisis in the second part. But Spielberg has a different take: even at the end, the story remains centered on that personal relationship between the two main characters. The trail of candies Elliott lays out for E.T. leads to a momentous first-contact moment; but it isn’t clear at the end whether Elliott’s contact will lead to some kind of new era for humanity, or whether things will return to normal once the alien spacecraft departs.
E.T. shows that what’s at stake in SF doesn’t have to be world-shaking. The whole story may simply revolve around the lives of a few main characters. And that’s what I mean by ‘domestic SF.’
The Wayfarers Books
Chambers’ first novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014), opens when a young woman named Rosemary Harper joins the motley crew of an aging spaceship-for-hire called the Wayfarer. Her relationships with the varied personalities (and species) of the crew draw her out of herself and allow her to develop her potential in classic bildungsroman fashion. As the plot thickens, Wayfarer does get involved in major diplomatic affairs, in a small way. But, as with E.T., the focus stays on the characters and their interactions. We’re much more concerned about whether (for instance) the ship’s AI, Lovelace, will succeed in being downloaded into a human body at the urging of her human beloved, than in galactic politics. Wikipedia puts it concisely: “The novel concerns itself with character development rather than adventure.”
This tendency is even more pronounced in the second story. A Closed and Common Orbit (2016) leaves behind most of the characters of the first book to follow the distinct, newborn AI that ended up occupying the human body in question at the end of The Long Way. Orbit entirely eschews the grand scale in favor of personal relationships, as the main character tries to decide how to manage this strange new life in the flesh while making friends with a woman who herself had an extremely odd childhood. One review correctly observed that Orbit is even “more intimate than its predecessor.”
The third story, Record of a Spaceborn Few, takes place in the same universe but, again, mobilizes an entirely different cast of characters. Chambers is not writing a cumulative single story on the model of, say, the Star Wars movies. Rather, each book is complete in itself, although they share a common background and characters occasionally cross over. This in itself indicates that we are not building up to a single galaxy-spanning climax. The author’s interests lie elsewhere.
Record of a Spaceborn Few
The most recent book builds on the backstory of which we’ve seen glimpses in the prior volumes. In Chambers’ future history, humanity, having ruined its home planet, sets out en masse to search for new homes in slower-than-light generation ships, the “Exodus fleet.” It’s only when the are discovered by more advanced nonhuman species that they gain limited access, as impoverished refugees, to higher technologies and faster-than-light travel. By the time of the stories, people from the Fleet have spread out to live among other species on numerous other worlds; some have even returned to their own solar system to colonize Mars. But a substantial number of humans still remain aboard the immense ships that had been their ancestors’ homes for so long, which have now been put in permanent orbits around a star loaned to them by another species.
Record explores possible options for choosing to live one’s life in these circumstances. Some of the “Exodans,” like young Kip, pine for the wider horizons of a planet, yet end up opting for a place within the Fleet—after spending some time going to college “abroad,” onplanet. Others, like Tessa and her family, do take on the new experience of living in the open, on a planet. Meanwhile, some of the dispersed humans born on planets come to decide they’d rather live aboard the Fleet, whose close-knit culture has its attractions despite the shabby and relatively modest conditions aboard; and some of the Exodans choose to create a “cultural education” center to train these returnees so they can fit into that culture.
A friendly alien observer, visiting the Fleet to gain material for a study and staying with one of the main characters, provides an external viewpoint to place these various life decisions in context. But the core of the story is how each individual or family chooses among the different possible ways of life. There’s no great crisis or climax, and the story doesn’t come down on the side of one lifestyle or another. It simply lays out the possibilities.
Family Life Out There
Chambers’ stories, then, seem to be moving more and more in the direction of ‘domestic’ or small-scale concerns. There’s a continuing theme of belonging to a family group, or something like one—even when the “family” in question, as in Orbit, consists of both ordinary embodied humans and “sessile” AIs that never leave the home they operate (giving a whole new meaning to the term “homemaker”).
With Chambers as the bellwether, so to speak, we can trace similar kinds of stories back through the history of SF. For example, another Heinlein “juvenile” novel, The Rolling Stones (1952), really is a domestic story: the Stone family, bored with their comfortable life on the quietly citified Moon, buys a spaceship and sets off to visit Mars and then the asteroid belt, getting into various scrapes and small-scale adventures as they go.
These “adventures” can be as mundane as the teenage twins’ run-in with bureaucracy and the law when they try to import bicycles to Mars without first researching the customs duties—or as serious as a life-endangering spacecraft malfunction. But there are no grander events or interplanetary crises involved. (Incidentally, the book has nothing at all to do with the band The Rolling Stones, not even if you try to compare the “rocks” of the asteroid belt with—no, even I’m not going to go there.)
Another perennial favorite of mine is Zenna Henderson’s tales of the People, refugees from a far-off world who are scattered across the Earth when they must escape in “life-slips” as their spacecraft breaks up on entering our atmosphere. These short stories each center on different individuals or families of characters, built around a common theme of finding the lost and bringing them back to their own people. The unusual powers of the People often evoke xenophobic hostility in the Earthlings among whom they are hiding—but just as often bring out compassion and kindness from the people who take them in and help them. The array of short stories does not really build to any climax or conclusion. Rather, each person’s fate is a story in itself—though it is intimately bound up with those of others.
Whole subgenres of SF are inherently oriented toward the small and personal. There’s a significant category of science fiction murder mysteries—Isaac Asimov was famous for these—which by definition revolve around a particular individual’s death, which may or may not have cosmic ramifications. Similarly, a SF romance necessarily focuses on a particular couple; and again, while their relationship may have broad-scale importance, the story is just as sound if what matters is only the two of them.
On the Big Screen
My impression is that SF movies, even more than books, have tended to concentrate on big crises and broad scope; perhaps a visual medium evokes a particular fascination with spectacle. (Explosions, give me lots of explosions.) But that’s not always the case. Now that we’ve shown we can do believably spectacular stories along the Star Wars lines, moviemakers may be turning back toward more personal-level tales.
A good example is the teenage SF romance The Space Between Us (2017). I’m fond of this film, though it didn’t do well as the box office and was disliked by critics. The movie fits our survey here because it’s all about the particular pair and the other people involved with them. There’s a base or colony on Mars, but that’s just the background that sets up the essential premise of the story—how a boy born and raised in a scientific station on Mars is determined to visit the home planet and to meet the girl he’s been corresponding with there.
I’m tempted also to cite the Chris Pratt-Jennifer Lawrence film Passengers (2016). It’s all about the two principal characters (who are the only characters for much of the story). The stakes do rise at least to “save the ship” level when the main characters have to perform death-defying acts to prevent the destruction of the sleeper ship they’re on. But, as a romance, it does maintain a focus on the fates of those two people—in a way that is rather poignantly realized at the end.
Becky Chambers’ Hugo nominees thus illustrate that aspect of SF that deals with the personal and local rather than the grand and spectacular. I’m all for more of this. Once we get over the initial amazement at space travel and other scientific advances, we can settle down to telling the small individual stories that these advances make possible—without giving up the grand-scale tales as well, of course. In a literary realm, eating our cake and still having it is a consummation devoutly to be wished.