I’ve found Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers books a bit hit and miss. They have many positive qualities and I absolutely understand the love for them but I’ve struggled to finish more than one of them. So I was interested to see her branch away in this novella that is set in a much nearer future.
Not unlike the film Interstellar, the story follows a group of explorers visiting exo-planets each with potentially harbouring life and each with their own unique circumstances (an icy planet, a high-gravity planet, a water world). What makes these explorers different from the standard trope is that they are purely doing science for science’s sake. They aren’t the advanced guard of terraformers or colonists (or not intentionally so). It’s a nice idea to see in fiction that too often sticks 19th century European-explorer tropes onto science fiction trappings.
As with her Wayfarer stories, the crew are mix of characters who attempt to work together with compassion while dealing with their own unique personalities and issues.
And that’s about it for positive things I can say. Maybe it was because of the audio book but I found the protagonist to be patronising and condescending creating an overall tone of smugness that often ran counter to the plot. The story was full of the kind of poorly worked through unnecessary detail that serves Chambers’s stories badly (like the genetic enhancement to make the crew’s skin glitter when they are working on a dark planet…in full protective suits to stop them contaminating the planet). I really don’t need every detail to be science perfect and free of any niggles to enjoy SF but Chambers often adds these kinds of techno flourishes that then make little sense. It’s the sense of these thing as carefully constructed details that adds to the incongruity of them that simply wouldn’t be an issue if treated more vaguely or out of focus. For example, I have zero issues with the ship’s interstellar drive. How does that work? Who knows! And that’s fine — it’s a necessary thing for the story to exist and not everything needs an explanation but if you give an explanation that is intended to make sense textually then it really should make sense. Arrrgh! There’s nothing wrong with having characters get glittery skin via gene modification in itself but if you want that to happen because it would be cool to have glittery skin THEN HAVE THAT AS THE REASON WHY THEY DID IT – because it was cool and not because it might save them some infinitesimal fraction of the power on lighting on their trips outside of their interstellar spaceship on a DECADES long mission.
That issue isn’t just confined to the techno bits but also to the character motivations. We have a whole scene in which one of the crew members is in anguish at having to kill an alien critter. It is an important emotional moment and as an idea it is a neat reversal of the usual human-alien encounter featured in, for example, the various Alien films. But, but, but the crew really, really must have already worked through emotionally and ethically a lot of the issues that they then struggle with and we KNOW this because the main character earlier had already discussed the biggest obvious problem: they keep dropping a great big fiery rockety spaceship into these eco-systems killing goodness how many critters each time it plonks down. I’m not having a go at the ethical framework the crew have adopted, it made sense and the fact that even to explore and investigate requires a degree of pragmatic acceptance that they WILL have some impact on the local fauna. It’s like she’d set a story in a vegetarian restaurant but for just one scene and one scene only, she needed the characters to be vegans. Later on the crew (under psychological stress but still) end up killing a huge bunch of alien creatures because they were just really f-ing annoying.
I audio-booked this one and if I’d read it with my eyes I’d have given up way before the end. Even so, I had to re-listen to half a chapter because my mind had wandered off to somewhere more interesting part way through and I realised I had lost track of 30 minutes of the story. Even the title of the story has that maybe-you-didn’t-think-this-through aspect to it, being a quote from the recording added to the Voyager probe’s golden disc from (at the time) UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim which is reprised at the end of the story:
“As the Secretary General of the United Nations, an organization of the 147 member states who represent almost all of the human inhabitants of the planet earth. I send greetings on behalf of the people of our planet. We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate. We know full well that our planet and all its inhabitants are but a small part of the immense universe that surrounds us and it is with humility and hope that we take this step.” [my emphasis]https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Kurt_Waldheim
Yes, it’s a great quote but hmmm the inspirational quality is maybe not so great in context. I’m not saying nobody should ever quote Kurt Waldheim, just that there is a hell of a lot of baggage there that makes any quote from him becomes weighed down with irony particularly when used inspirationally about our common humanity.
There’s a decent short story or novelette here but the whole thing needs some merciless editing. I ended up actively disliking the whole crew and by the end I had to imagine that the actual twist was that the rest of planet Earth found the crew so insufferable that humanity just pretended that Earth had lost all capacity to communicate with them any more, like somebody pretending to have bad phone reception to get out of a phone call.
The same emotional beats, the same subversion of space exploration tropes, the same view of science-for-science’s-sake could have been done in a much shorter, much tighter, much, much better story. I finished it days ago and thought if I stepped away from it then I’d be less annoyed by it but I wasn’t. Now I’m doubly annoyed because I’ve ended up writing a mean review and now I’m annoyed that I’m annoyed.