Book Review: Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

‘Mom, can I go see the stars?’

Reviews of the previous two books can be found here and here.

Becky Chambers takes us somewhere else in her world. I am really enjoying the fact that she keeps writing in the same universe, loosely connected books that sometimes happen at the same time as each other. It feels like we get to stretch out across the world, and try things out from new and interesting perspectives. In previous books, the Exodus Fleet has been mentioned and one of the main characters in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is originally from the Exodus Fleet.

This book is set (mostly) on the Fleet. It happens at the same time as TLWtaSAP, but elsewhere. The Exodus Fleet is mainly a human place – it is the fleet that left Earth after the rich people had gone to Mars with all the resources and abandoned the scarred planet. It is the fleet that took so long to build that those who conceived of it knew they would never see it fly. And it just went, out into the black not knowing if anyone would find it, if there was anything to find. I have a lot of feelings about the Fleet.

This book, even more than the previous two, is an ensemble piece. It is less a plot, more a snapshot of a culture at a particular time. Of various lives in and around the vast spaceships, how they are shaped by where they live and how they shape it. We have Tessa and Isabel and Eyas and Kip and Sawyer. Tessa, raising her children on the Fleet and worrying about her wayfaring brother. Isabel, an archivist (and also an adorable old lesbian). Eyas, who works with the dead (the dead are composted on the Fleet, because they need something to grow their food in, and it’s rather wonderful). Kip, disaffected teenager trying to find his place. Sawyer, descended from Exodans but raised elsewhere and hoping to come home. And Ghuh’loloan Mok Chutp, a Harmagian ethnographic researcher visiting the Exodus Fleet.

And it’s wonderful. There is so much to talk about here, and I found it all so touching. I don’t want to spoil anything, but this is another lovely book from Becky Chambers, different from the other two but wonderful.

I got very emotional over the culture of the Exodus Fleet, how much it had been thought through. The basic idea of ‘everyone has a home, and everyone is fed’ as the starting place of their culture, and working up from there. That in their culture, everyone is provided for. Resources are shared out, and then people barter for skills or extras. Everything is used, and everyone is meant to be cared for. And that this was a choice that was consciously made when they left Earth, because they had already been through so many alternatives. That jobs are not paid for, but about helping the community function. When you are asked what your job is, you are being asked what you do for the community. Terrible jobs, like cleaning sewers, are doled out on a lottery and everyone has to take a turn regardless. And it’s not perfect, not at all, but Becky Chambers made it very very believable and I had a cry because this is a thing we are told is impossible.

Increasingly, we are told that everything is a commodity. People are commodities, or resources, and we are meant to keep capitalism going and increasingly if the state cares at all it is only in terms of keeping us all going long enough to contribute to the machine. In the UK, our healthcare is being chipped away, and we are still in austerity even though it kills people and it is being made harder and harder to receive Benefits and they are being cut and cut and cut. If you are poor, nobody cares. And we are told that it is impossible for anything else to exist, that anyone telling you otherwise is lying or deluded. But we’ve had a health service for seventy years and it’s worked. In Finland, they trialled Universal Basic Income, and the results were good. I remember reading (though I can’t recall where) that the amount that poverty costs the state in terms of related health problems, desperation crime, benefits etc is far far less than what it would cost the state to just give people money. We live in a world where there is a bloke, the richest person in the world, and he could give every homeless person on the planet 100k USD and still be a millionaire (and there’s a petition here) Just take a moment to digest that. There exists a person who could single-handedly end homelessness and still be a millionaire. That is something that exists and is real. And people sort of just shrug. But try suggesting that maybe people should be given money because they are alive and they are people, and that fine, if this world is going to function on money then let’s distribute it, and watch people go red in the face telling you why that wouldn’t work and why it’s wrong and why, basically, certain people just deserve to suffer. Or watch people nod along right up to the point where they might have to do something. So it was a relief to read this book, to find something so enormously and simply counter to that attitude.

Rating: read this book – spin slowly through space.

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Book review: Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti The Night MAsquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

It started with a nightmare.

This book is so good! This whole trilogy is so good! You should definitely read all of them! Nnedi Okorafor is a genius. Because of the way in which this trilogy is structured, it is really very hard to review this book without dropping big spoilers for books one and two (reviewed by me here and here). So this is going to be a vague and excitable review, done partially in bulletpoints.

Things in this book:

  • Really interesting thoughts about aliens.
  • Binti. I love Binti.
  • What is home? Where is home?
  • Okwu. I also love Okwu.
  • Incredible narrative. Somehow sprawling despite being in this little little book, and covering so so much – historical narratives, war, prejudice, family, home, humanity, growing up, life, death…
  • Spaceship fish!
  • PTSD and coping with it.
  • Lots of maths, but in a good way (I struggle with maths).
  • Thoughts on peacemaking.
  • Read it!

Binti: The Night Masquerade was the perfect finale, and it took me by surprise! Had I made guesses at where this book was going to go, I would have been wrong. The Binti trilogy is a stunning piece of science-fiction/afrofuturism that has reshaped my expectations of science fiction writing.

Read this book: look out at the stars, and ask if they are looking back.

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Book Review: Provenance by Ann Leckie

Provenance Ann Leckie

“There were unexpected difficulties,” said the dark grey blur.

I have briefly mentioned the Imperial Radch trilogy before, in a slightly incoherent, oh-my-goddess-I-love-this-so-much way. In order to for this book to make any sense, you need to have read those three books (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy) first. They are very very good, so off you go and read them. I’ll wait.

Done? Okay, on to the review. Provenance is set in the same world as the Imperial Radch trilogy, but outside the Radch Empire and with a new point-of-view character. It is set shortly after the events of Ancillary Mercy, although it is not a direct sequel. Ingray Aughskold is a very different person from Breq/Justice of Toren One Esk. She is entirely human, for a start, and she comes from one of the many civilisations living outside the Radch Empire (the Radch do not make for good neighbours). She is young, she is a bit inexperienced, and she is desperate. Or at least, she feels that way.

Ingray is in many ways a very privileged young woman, fostered by a prominent family on Hwae. Her family is also rather cutthroat, and when we meet her Ingray has just sunk all of her money into a mad scheme designed to set her above her fosterbrother and secure her place in the household. Safe to say, it does not go as planned at all. Events spiral out of her control, there are other agendas at work, and by the end of the book her original aims are almost forgotten. It is fantastic.

I love the things that Ann Leckie does with worldbuilding, especially in the way that she creates social and cultural norms and then puts them next to another culture with different ones. Hwae, for example, has a three-gender system, with children considered agender. People declare their gender when they become adults, and take on an adult name. She has done this after writing an entire trilogy with a culturally Radchaai point of view character, who thought of everyone as ‘she’ because the Radchaai only have one gender. There are people from a different system (the name escapes me), who cannot speak to family members or even acknowledge their existence. There are aliens, there are humans from different places with very different ideas about how things should work, and there are humans who are legally considered aliens. It is also great that a lot of her spacefaring cultures feel distinctly non-European, and are mostly not white.

Provenance is big and fun and complicated. It is about where people are from, and how much that matters. It’s about the stories that people tell about themselves; the personal ones and the historical ones, and what happens when one person or group’s stories are told louder than others, or when those stories turn out to be not entirely true. It is about Ingray Aughskold figuring out that she doesn’t need to be anyone except herself, and in the background huge things are happening as the Presger and the Geck and the Rrrrr come to meet and discuss whether or not AI can be part of the non-interference treaty.

I strongly recommend Provenance, as well as the Imperial Radch trilogy. Ann Leckie’s world is a big exciting place with lots to say about personhood and Empire and society, and she says it well in the form of compelling stories.

Rating: read this book; question everything…

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Book Review: Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

‘Five, five, five, five, five, five,’ I whispered.

Sequel to Binti: read that first!

I have previously expressed a desire to buy everything that Nnedi Okorafor has ever written; this desire is only getting stronger as I read more of her work. Binti did incredible things in ninety pages. Binti: Home does equally incredible things in one-hundred-and-sixty-two. It is a fantastic gem, packed full of imagination, sharp observation, creativity, and a rollercoaster of emotion. The world, skillfully set up in Binti, expands into more detail (and spaceship fish spaceship fish spaceship fish!)

Binti has been at Oomza University for a year now, and she is heading home accompanied by Okwu, who is part of a species that has been at war with parts of humanity for ages. Binti has changed, and as she travels she wonders who she is now, if she is the same, if she is still human, if she is still Himba.

Now, I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but maybe the question she should have been asking was whether she was ever who she thought she was… I loved every second of this sequel! It followed up, it answered questions that I had at the end of Binti, it developed and it went to unexpected places. It left me with a burning need to read the next in the series, and it again showcased Nnedi Okorafor’s skill at touching on big issues without sacrificing story. About the only problem I had was that the pronouns for Okwu seem to change randomly and I couldn’t quite tell if they were meant to or not. Sometimes they were ‘it’ sometimes ‘him’ and I think in the first book they were ‘she’ at one point, but the way it’s done it almost seems like a mistake rather than a deliberate choice. I got along fine, and headcanon that Okwu changes gender.

So, read this book. Wonder if you ever really know who you are…

Review: Beauty, Glory, Thrift by Alison Tam

This is the first story in the Gods and Monsters season from the Booksmugglers, and it is a wonderful offering. I’ve just finished reading it – a quietly beautiful story about the goddess Thrift, who makes a bargain with a thief in order to leave the temple where she waits with her bickering sisters.

The writing is deceptively simple, and the relationship between Thrift and the thief develops slowly. I enjoyed the attention to detail in Thrift’s point of view; the way she experienced things without being corporeal. And it was a pleasing journey, with a few surprises along the way. A lovely little tale; a bit sad and a bit happy. Recommended.


Beauty, Glory, Thrift by Alison TamPublished 6/13/2017 I am Thrift and I want to leave this place, and see the far ends of the universe, and never spend another moment in stasis ever again. Take my hand and bring me with you… On a lost planet in the depths of space, goddess-sisters Beauty, Glory and…

via Beauty, Glory, Thrift by Alison Tam — The Book Smugglers

Book Reviews: announcement and Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

I have read a lot of books recently, however I’m struggling a bit to find time to write “proper” reviews of them (super busy with work and writing a new story). So I thought I’d do a series of bite-size reviews of around 250 – 300 words each, just until I have more time again. I’m sure there will be some longer ones mixed in there! I hope you enjoy 🙂

Let us begin!Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

I powered up the transporter and said a silent prayer.

This is an incredible book. Short, at ninety pages, but full. Bursting, almost, with ideas and skill and craftwork. I believe I described the other Nnedi Okorafor title that I’ve read, The Book of Phoenix, as being a cataclysm. This is a quieter book, but no less powerful. Binti is of the Himba people, and she is leaving her home and her planet to attend Oomza Uni, which flies in the face of tradition. Please note that I am not knowledgeable about the Himba people, so I cannot speak to the accuracy of the representation in this book.

It’s hard, really, to know what to say because there is so much contained in this slim volume. Binti is a fantastic protagonist; completely believable in her characterisation. From the first sentence I am drawn in and intrigued: I want to know who she is, where she’s from, where she is going and why. And I empathised with her, to the point of snarling “what the f*ck?” under my breath when a stranger in a public space touched Binti’s hair without asking (which I know is a real problem, and a whole other subject deserving of lots of space because it’s so not okay, ever, to grab a stranger’s hair!) and yelped out loud, and swore some more at other distressing points (this is me trying to avoid spoilers) and cried when Binti lost her friends. Messily. There was snot, people. The world building was also excellent, and very impressive; creating such a real science-fiction world in a mere ninety pages must, I imagine, have been quite hard (also one spoiler: spaceship fish!). I cried at the end as well, because this is such a beautiful novella and I want more. Luckily there is more, and I’m just waiting on my next payday to buy the sequel.

Mathematics is something of a theme, as Binti primarily got into Oomza Uni with her incredible mathematics score. I really struggle with maths, but the novella is still completely readable and enjoyable and I actually found myself thinking things like “Hmmmm, maybe maths isn’t so bad, maybe I should go learn more maths”. And aliens and friendship and and and and I have to shut up now or I’ll just squeee.

So to conclude, brilliant main character, excellent writing, excellent story about growing up and making choices (and lots of other things) and more to come!

Rating: read this book, learn about equations.

Book Review: Planetfall by Emma Newman


Every time I come down here I think of my mother.

This is a striking work. It’s the only thing I’ve read by Emma Newman – a standalone science fiction novel about exploration, grief and god. Unusually for me, I had to take a break from reading it in the middle rather than just reading through. This is because the point-of-view character, Renata “Ren” Ghali, has a deeply seated anxiety issue that, although far more extreme than my own experience, managed to trigger some of my anxiety. Nevertheless, I came back and finished it because it is brilliant and I needed to know what happened.

Planetfall is written in the first person, so we are intimately entangled with Ren’s fears and feelings. And she has a lot of them, relayed to us with utter precision. Ren is the primary 3D printing engineer on a colony on an unknown planet, and the facts about the colony are drip-fed to us in a way that feels very natural; they are people who came here looking for God, following the Pathfinder Lee Suh-Mi. They are the only inhabitants of the planet, or they should be, and their colony is built at the base of a huge organic structure that they refer to as God’s City.

And then a man arrives: Sung-Soo, a stranger and the grandson of Lee Suh-Mi. To most of the community, this is at minimum a cause for celebration and at most a sign from God that soon Lee Suh-Mi will return. For Ren, it is the cause of gutwrenching anxiety and fear because she has been keeping a secret ever since planetfall, and Sung-Soo’s presence may just unravel everything.

This book is a study in narrative tension; we know there is a secret, but not what it is. We know that Mack, the charismatic ringmaster, is the only person other than Ren who knows. But what happened? And how? And, just as importantly, does Ren even remember? And how can Ren cope with her anxiety and her mental health when, at the core of it, is a secret so big that she can barely think about it? The plot is unwound through the present, but also through memories of family and friends, of leaving Earth and arriving on this planet. It’s a fragmented portrait of a fragmented person, written with skill.

As I said, I had to take a break in the middle of reading this, so the beginning and the end are a bit disjointed in my head. Against all the odds, I actually found it uplifting by the end (but perhaps that’s just me). Planetfall is inhabited by well-observed and realised characters, in a detailed and believable world. And I loved it, despite the fact that I kept having to take breaks to go and cry and once nearly had a panic attack because Emma Newman’s description of Ren having a panic attack was too accurate. It’s a tense, tight mystery that encompasses grief and guilt and lies and was, at it’s heart, wonderfully human. I highly recommend it, although perhaps step with caution if anxiety is an issue for you.

Rating: enjoy this book, but remember that trying to find God never ends well in science-fiction.

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