Becky Chambers is the author of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, A Closed and
Common Orbit, and Record of a Spaceborn Few. Her books have been nominated for the Hugo
Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, among others.
You can find her online at otherscribbles.com.
The thing that struck me most when reading the Wayfarers books is that you have an abundance of good people who find ways of de-escalating difficult situations. It’s rare to find space opera that doesn’t rely on blazing violence. Did you always intend for the characters to be largely nonviolent?
Yeah, that’s very much on purpose. I enjoy an exploding planet or a good ol’ zero-g dogfight as much as the next person, but I also think that if the only stories we tell about space are those of war or conquest, then that’s a pretty narrow view of the future. There’s more to humanity than that, and certainly more to the universe. The other side of it is this series is built to feature stories about ordinary, everyday people. There is war in the Wayfarers setting, but it happens in the far, far background. It’s the daily news, not something most of these folks deal with first-hand. When my characters do encounter acts of violence—and they do—those moments are rare, and they are shocking. That’s how it feels for most of us, right? The grand majority of people are not out here solving problems with fists and guns. We only have our words, and we’re largely decent, even if we don’t agree with each other. Real violence is traumatic for us. I want that to be true for my characters as well.
It can be a decidedly narrow point of view! So why do you think there are so few space operas that tackle the themes of nonviolence and concentrate on the stories of ordinary people? And what do you think attracts them to violent solutions?
We could probably do an entire panel or essay series on that question alone, but my off-the-cuff answer is that themes of battle and empire are foundational for the genre. I don’t know enough about the literary emergence of space opera to give concrete evidence here, but I’d hazard a guess that it has everything to do with cultural context, as is true for all stories. You’re talking about a genre whose roots trace back to things written during the peak of European and American colonialism in the 1800s, and which fully blossoms in the early decades of the twentieth century, when the Western world is perpetually at war. Then you get into the Space Race, and suddenly we have real-life military posturing taking place off-planet, so that just further fuels those fictional threads of space being a realm that must be colonized, a place full of enemies that must be destroyed. Exploration so often has links to the military powers-that-be, and space exploration especially. It follows very naturally that we tell stories about war heroes and space colonies, even if we’re not necessarily conscious of why we’re doing it. Plus, given how long this genre has been around and how popular it is, at some point, those influences became part of its genetic makeup. We write space battles because that’s just how it’s done. And because they’re fun, of course. I’m saying all of this out of love, I really am. Loving larger-than-life space stories is the whole reason why I wanted to take them apart.
That makes a lot of sense! So where do you see your book fitting into the general tapestry of the space opera genre?
I feel like I’m somewhere on the back of the tapestry. You know, the part where when you flip the carpet over, you see all the threads, and it doesn’t look half as impressive? I don’t mean that in a self-deprecating way, I’m being serious! My books aren’t true textbook space opera, because the scale of the stories is so very, very small. They lack the flash and stakes of their older cousins, and that’s on purpose. My intention with the Wayfarers series was to create a classic sort of space opera setting, with huge galactic governments and crumbled empires and border wars and the whole nine yards, then flip the camera around and focus on the folks who simply live there. It really is just a little patch of threads that’s part of the greater whole—both within its own setting and within the larger genre. This continues to sound self-deprecating, but I’m feeling rather at home in this metaphor.
Talking of home, can you tell me how you came up with your vision of the future Earth? It’s a much different, more hippy-like vision of Earth than we usually see!
BC: It was important to me to portray a human species that has had to eat an enormous dose of humble pie in order to survive. I wanted humanity to lose its sense of exceptionalism and specialness. We’re just one species out of countless others, and we cannot survive without banding together and developing a more communal mindset. Rendering Earth largely uninhabitable was the obvious choice for teaching that lesson. But it was equally important to me to not portray humanity as a monoculture. We’ve never been that, and we never will be. I figured it made sense to have some subcultures of humans who want nothing to do with aliens or life away from Earth. So, one of the groups of humans still living on Earth are a religious sect that lives a strict hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They see any technology beyond basic hand tools, no matter how well-intentioned, as counter to our nature and a path to destruction. That idea was born out of the debate over how to handle the real-world environmental crisis we’re in the middle of. Will technology save the day, or is the only answer to massively scale things back? I genuinely don’t know, but given the way I’ve written about Earth thus far, you can correctly assume that I’d prefer a future in which we can safely keep our gadgets.
Were you surprised by the way people responded to the themes in the Wayfarers?
BC: Yes, mainly in that so many were into it! I was very unsure when I wrote The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet whether anybody would want to read a quiet little slice-of-life that takes place on an ugly spaceship owned by a pacifist captain. I almost gave up on it several times, because I was so worried that it wouldn’t count as a “real” book, or “real” science fiction. I was more delighted than I can say to find that there were plenty of people who were indeed up for what I had to offer.
You originally launched the books via Kickstarter. Did the reactions of your backers differ from readers who got their hands on them after they were traditionally published?
BC: Not as far as I’m aware. With any group of readers, there are folks who dig it and folks who don’t, which is exactly how it should be. I’d guess that there was a higher chance of success with the backers, since they were down with the pitch from the get-go. But I’m mindbendingly fortunate in the regular readers I have, no matter whether they came aboard during the Kickstarter or with the third book. It sounds cheesy, but I honestly can’t imagine a nicer, more supportive group of folks. They give me the fuel to keep going.
What projects have you got coming up that people can look out for?
I can’t say too much about this one yet, but I’m wrapping up a project with Serial Box that’ll be announced before the end of the year. It’s a collaboration between myself, Yoon Ha Lee, Rivers Solomon, and S. L. Huang, which was just an incredible group of folks to work with. Flying solo, I’m currently writing a novella, which I likewise can’t say too much about, though I will say that it is a space exploration story that I’m having a blast with. Next year, I’ll be writing the next Wayfarers book. I also have a pair of solarpunk novellas coming along down the road.