I’m trying to revisit a book I liked when I was eighteen. I had just started on staff at Strange Horizons. When I told the magazine’s Senior Reviews Editor, Maureen Kincaid Speller, that this book—A Closed and Common Orbit (2016), and its predecessor, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (2014)—were among my favourite current works of science fiction she did not agree with me. But I think she found it interesting to hear the perspective of someone who instinctively enjoyed the Wayfarers series. Five years later, I’m trying to work out how I came to that perspective myself. After the third book—Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018)—came out, I fell unceremoniously off the bandwagon. I hated it, I told all my friends I hated it, I seethed, I talked to Maureen about it. Then I largely stopped thinking about it, because I had other things to do and other books to read, and because I felt that I had the capacity to make a really righteous judgment. I had an unassailable position: the previous books had relatable main characters, but Record spent a significant amount of time inside the heads of characters I thought felt like pastiches of teenagers, like flat versions of experiences I’d really had. My reaction didn’t need further thought: a good series had become a bad series. This was a fact. Wayfarers’ Best Series Hugo Award should have been a blow to my feelings of objectivity, but it wasn’t. I just couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t get into the heads of people who’d liked Record.
When I came back to the Wayfarers series last year, it was because I wanted to understand why I’d reacted so strongly. What, if anything, had changed between Orbit and Record? As I had in the past, I talked to Maureen about my plans. After going over the basic ideas, she asked me to write this because she wanted to read it. Circumstances changed. I’m writing this essay, then, in dedication to her. I hope that I’m doing it justice.
All work exists in context. The Wayfarers series is no exception. It wears its influence from space opera on its sleeve. The series itself offers some useful metaphors for talking about the relationship between Wayfarers and space opera: the inheritance is there in bits and pieces, the original forms still visible in the way they have been soldered together to perform a new function. For this reason among others, I think that it’s more accurate to categorise Wayfarers as a kind of post-space opera than as a space opera itself, because it uses the tropes and conventions of space opera in a way that’s entirely conscious of not only the existing space opera canon but also its surrounding discourse.
For instance, it’s often remarked upon that alien characters in space opera are queer-coded; or at least that these creature-people for whom it’s not necessary to be human so much as humanised, whose relations to the world are marked by an unassailable strangeness, can be likened to a queer other. They reflect an outsider’s perspective, a material representation of things-that-aren’t-like-me. Wayfarers takes those aliens and says—okay, they are a stand-in for queer people. They are a representation of people who are made into others, on a number of axes. The wire is cut short, and the connection is made directly.
Another trait that the Wayfarers series draws from space opera is a certain brand of didacticism. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that didacticism is not in and of itself a bad thing. Star Trek had things on its mind that it wanted to teach its audience—and this is one of the show’s qualities that its fans often cite as one of its strengths. Chambers seems aware of this—A Closed and Common Orbit contains an entire monologue dedicated to a fictional children’s series that is said to have contained this precise kind of content:
“This was the very first kids’ sim to have an Exodan and a Martian not just occupying the same ship, but being friends. Having adventures, working as a team, all that fuzzy stuff. This may not seem like a big deal now, but forty standards ago, that was huge. A whole generation of kids grew up with this, and I shit you not, about ten standards later, you start seeing a big shift in Diaspora politics. I’m not saying this sim is solely responsible for Exodans and Solans not hating each other any more, but Big Bug was definitely a contributing factor in helping us start moving past all that old Earth bullshit. Opened some minds, at least.
The combined effect of these decisions—flattened metaphors and a transparent desire to teach—is allegory. Characters become representatives of politicised groups more than they seem representative of people. Their actions have an implicit morality attached, with a system of narrative sticks-and-carrots to clue the reader into whether they are “good” or not. This is the point where I think that, in the specific case of Wayfarers, this didacticism goes wrong. It’s not so much that the books find teachable moments; it’s that the books are a teachable moment in and of themselves. An allegory lives or dies by the strength of the parallels it’s built from and the argument it develops. Of course, making intangible things tangible, and recasting existing things and experiences into new forms, are literary techniques highly characteristic of science fiction. Allegory is admittedly situated at an extreme end of this technique’s spectrum of employment, but while both its didactic nature and the inherent limitations in using such closely-coupled symbols and meanings can make it difficult to create nuance, allegory remains a form and not a function. It matters more what is made with it than what it is.
Wayfarers, though, is about as nuanced as a brick, which is a problem when handling inherently flawed and easily-mixed metaphors. Aliens can be used to represent multiple kinds of othered identities and experiences. Wayfarers knows this, and it tries, but most of its attempts aren’t … good. Yes, there are trans aliens—the Aeluons have three sexes, where two sexes are assigned a specific gender identity and one requires a hormone-producing implant to continually transition between the other two, according to physiological need—but this is an intensely flawed representation that needlessly simplifies the breadth of trans and nonbinary experience to what certainly feels like biological essentialism. The concept of species is used comparatively with race, but in a way that nearly completely neglects discussion of structural racism or any kind of power dynamic. Racism stays within the realm of individual bigots, and is only observed between different species. The species themselves are incredibly homogenous—there’s approximately one language per species, and one overarching culture—and, with the way human ethnicity is discussed, you’re left with the distinct impression that the books’ sincere belief is that a monoculture is a hallmark of progress. Racism becomes the domain of species, it seems, because their separate biologies prevent an all-American melting pot. This sort of thing happens over and over—perhaps having its culmination in a scene in Orbit where, species being used this time as a stand-in for disability, different species are given different train cars with different seats. The phrase used—“different seats for different butts”—is clearly supposed to relate to disability aids, but has pretty bad connotations when within the same scene species is also being used as a metaphor for race. To add insult to injury, the original idea isn’t great—having specific train cars for disabled people is another form of segregation, and a common form of exclusionary design in real life.
The series’ approach does evolve over time, but this is mainly a function of the changing political landscape to which the books are responding. This is particularly visible in the shift in the way that Pei—a military contractor whose job is to transport soldiers and munitions—is presented between the first three books of the series and its final entry, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (2021). In Galaxy, the narrative gains an awareness that using lethal force to maintain a hold on contested border territories that have been acquired through settler-colonialism is perhaps not a neutral endeavor. Galaxy was published in 2021, when discussions of indigenous land sovereignty had entered the mainstream of the political discourse of American liberal progressives; but the other books had been published beforehand. Galaxy’s introduction of Speaker—a character who doesn’t unequivocally support the troops and has a political philosophy other than an incredibly milquetoast pacifism formed entirely out of a personal dedication not to think too hard about war—transforms Pei’s job from a calling to a livelihood. This is change, but it’s not particularly radical—and that’s the point. The Wayfarers series is never at the bleeding edge, and it never strays into new territory. The narrative opinion is fixed at a certain position on the Overton window, and it only changes when the political climate has already done so. This makes it inherently reflexive: Wayfarers can never actually propose anything new.
While I don’t think that the Wayfarers books were written cynically—I think that the shifts in the political outlook of the narrative are true reflections of changes in Chambers’s opinions—the fact that each book is trying to teach its political outlook to others means that this doesn’t really matter. It’s not so much that the books go out of date, it’s that they present a kind of morality tale where morality is defined as the current state of American progressive liberal thought: what is already being done is correct; the next—and better!—form of society will be a natural progression from the current state of affairs; there is one right and morally warranted opinion. While Galaxy, for its flaws, breaks away from this with its presentation of Pei and Speaker as holding fundamentally opposing yet understandable viewpoints, it’s important to contextualise this development as happening after the Wayfarers series received widespread acclaim. Galaxy feels like an intentional course-correction—a strange development for a series that had been proclaimed the Best only a few years prior. The fact that Galaxy isn’t part of the Hugo for Best Series isn’t just a technicality. It matters that it wasn’t even on the horizon when the award was issued—because whatever changes in approach are made within it, they cannot be considered a contributing factor to the series’ success with readers.
Now, in fairness, readers are not coming to the Wayfarers series to think heavily about politics. This might sound weird, considering that the books are full of political statements, but the books in the Wayfarers series are well known as comfort reads. I think that the main reason that they’re able to achieve this is that the Wayfarers books are set in the everyday. Politics, of course, influences everyday life and is part of everyday life, but capital-P Political Fiction tends to focus on the somewhat extraordinary. The novel feels slightly less mundane because of the space opera trappings, but peel off the spaceships and stars from Planet and Ashby is the owner of a small-time construction company that does contract work for the federal government. There’s a focus here on day-to-day life within which the politics is embedded. “Bigger” politics affect the story, but this comes through mainly in thoroughly ordinary ways: news releases, paperwork, low-level bureaucrats; how characters do, or don’t, access healthcare; food history. The overall effect is that you’re just reading about some guy’s life—he just happens to live on a spaceship.
In this way, Wayfarers is reminiscent of Weimar cinema. In his 1930 book The Salaried Masses, the German critic and filmmaker Siegfried Kracauer remarked that “we must rid ourselves of the delusion that it is major events which most determine a person. He is more deeply and lastingly influenced by the tiny catastrophes of which everyday existence is made up.” Kracauer saw the salaried workers of Berlin as seeking distraction in a mass culture that presented their everyday narratives in the trappings of the fantastic. Later, exiled to America as a Jewish refugee, he would consider the films of Weimar Germany as pretext to fascism and a window into the collective subconscious of the nation.
I’ve often heard that the Wayfarers books have no plot. Hell, I’m sure I’m guilty of saying so. If you go onto their Goodreads pages, you’ll see that there are two kinds of reader who are very keen on pointing this out. The first kind will say something like, "There was no plot! Why do people like this?" and the second will say, “There was no plot, but I was enraptured!” They’re both observing the same thing and having wildly different experiences. As much as I think that the political nature of the Wayfarers books feeds into their success, I also think that to understand the phenomena around them it’s necessary to step back from it and take a look at what else the Wayfarers stories are trying to be. One of the things that I want to do is establish that all of the Wayfarers books do in fact have a plot. They have the plot of an online serial novel.
This can create the appearance of having no plot, because the way that tension and payoff is balanced is not the same as in traditional publishing. Structuring a serial novel out of separate, mostly self-contained arcs that either come together at the end or are resolved midway through the work is a way to spread out payoff over the course of a story so that readers aren’t left hanging. Each instalment becomes a kind of act unto itself. This isn’t the only way to write a serial novel, but it’s one way to do it, and it’s one that’s popular in online serialised fanfiction. Wayfarers is almost certainly influenced by scifigrl47’s Toasterverse series, which enjoys a significant amount of influence within the Marvel Cinematic Universe fandom. The Toasterverse series is known for its focus on everyday and domestic scenes, and it popularised the common-in-fanfiction framing of the Avengers as close friends and/or romantic partners who both live and work within Stark Tower, which runs parallel to the setting, characters, and relationships in Planet. In this way, Wayfarers deploys literary codes that will be widely accepted by a particular audience. There is undeniable overlap between SF fandom and fanfiction readers, and having prior exposure to completed novel-length-or-longer serialised works that follow similar narrative structures to Chambers’s novels opens them to a very large—and previously commercially unexploited—audience. Of course, it also makes it easier for some readers to sustain their interest than others.
The series’ apparent plotlessness—experienced as a draw or otherwise—seems to have had an effect on the surrounding discourse about Wayfarers. Other readers and reviewers have pointed out where the Wayfarers series has failed—for example, in the way it handles eugenics, which by the general tone of the fan response you’d never guess was a major motif. But the criticism doesn’t seem to stick, or make it into the broader conversation at all. If the Wayfarers books don’t have a plot but merely episodes, then its flaws, too, can be treated as isolated accidents rather than symptoms of a wider problem. They become individual mistakes. The presence of a single failing is counterbalanced by the places where the series succeeds—and moreover, a critique of one aspect of the work can by nature have no bearing on the rest. It is a shame that this has become the settled consensus—because the problems with the Wayfarers series are in fact systematically produced by the approach it takes to conveying its perspectives.
One of the series’ recurring motifs is a prototypical coming-out story. Characters have moments of self-discovery that result in their relationship with their family of origin being changed forever. They leave their previously safe surroundings and enter a fraught and continuous process of finding family again and learning what it means to authentically be themselves. Rosemary, Sidra, Pepper—all of them follow this path in one way or another. For me, personally, this was the part of the Wayfarers series I fell in love with. It was something I could find hope in when I was in exactly the same situation. I think that for many Wayfarers fans, this is a story which they either personally relate to or recognise within their own friends and family. This is also a specific narrative of migration: Rosemary spent all of her money on a new identity; Sidra’s literal existence is illegal in the place in which she lives; Pepper was a child refugee. These stories are blended in such a way that they aren’t really separable, but they can serve a dual purpose and mean different things at different times. I think that this is where Chambers’s command of metaphor actually works in favour of the story.
The migration narrative is significantly more specific in Orbit. It’s a seemingly more organised story than the others, with two concurrent plotlines happening decades apart that intertwine and mirror each other. The story goes like this: a person faces hardship in their place of origin; they make the decision to immigrate, and face further hardship in doing so. When they arrive, they prove themselves through hard work. Finally, as a sign of success, they open a business. These plot threads in Orbit are straight retellings of the American Dream. When a character realises the dream, their experience is uncritically rendered as synonymous with lasting happiness and success; failing in this effort, as Sawyer does, is the ultimate tragedy. This isn’t the only place in the series where American cultural archetypes are used to narrative effect: Sawyer is a man estranged from his cultural heritage, who seeks to find family and belonging by making a return to the land of his ancestors; Ashby is a small business owner with a heart of gold. These are stories that Americans might not even register as stories, and which the rest of us know how to read due to exposure to American media. Outside Orbit, they may be less imperative to the structure of the plot, but they are still crucial to the way that the Wayfarers books are made coherent: rather than being plotless, they’re loaning their narrative structures from elsewhere. This provides the story with a feeling of forward momentum and implicitly connects the Wayfarers series to the canon of myths of progress.
The first volume’s titular “angry planet” might be one of the less memorable parts of the initial Wayfarers books, but its appearance in the novel’s title does a lot of heavy lifting by positioning one particular strand as the main plotline. It proves to be strongly related to another familiar narrative. The Toremi Ka are rich in fuel resources, nomadic, and intrinsically unpredictable and warlike due to their religion. For the hegemonic Galactic Commons, a trade agreement with the Toremi Ka is presented as unavoidable, though perhaps ill-advised, and involves the former lending the latter military support. This is more than reminiscent of the way in which American dealings with oil-producing countries in the Middle East are often framed. While concern is raised by one character over this potentially leading their government to involvement in the territorial disputes of a foreign nation, their warning comes directly after the narrative voice’s statement that “aside from butchering trespassers, the Toremi had kept to themselves, of no concern to anyone except the scientists and entrepreneurs frustrated by a walled-off core.” The possibility that somebody will extract something—whether it’s profit or knowledge—is presented as an inarguable good, and participating in this venture is not seen by any character as an ethical dilemma so much as an increase to personal risk. The rest of the plot doesn’t have to hang off much because the motivation is assumed and the way it’s going to end is telegraphed in advance.
The way that the Toremi Ka are made into the inhuman other so that they can be an enemy on whom kindness and cooperation doesn’t work is intensely off-putting, especially in relation to a real-world context in which people are similarly dehumanised for similar motivations. The same tropes which Wayfarers tries, in approach to race-as-species, to deconstruct and use as a critical tool are in this context simultaneously weaponised without question. It’s a window into just how much of Wayfarers’ projected objectivity is limited by the specific viewpoint to which it is wedded. Again, coherence and structure is applied to the episodic plot through the invocation of cultural tropes and narratives that are assumed to, in some core sense, be true. The Wayfarers series has as much mass appeal as it does because it is not only in alignment with the viewpoint of its target audience, but it reinforces to them that they are right.
The way that the series presents religion demonstrates how it not just contains but is governed by unexamined assumptions. In general, faith in the series is a way in which people can differ that is categorically not presented as deserving of inherent respect—to the point where its influence on any kind of decision-making is considered dubious and worthy of suspicion. However, this only extends to beliefs and practices explicitly discussed as religious. Overt practices of religion are presented in two forms: either they’re harmless but strange personal spiritual practices, or potentially deadly xenophobic cults. If a character’s religious beliefs are never discussed, then they’re irreligious by default. Irreligious characters do all sorts of religious-seeming things: they swear to the stars as a higher power, and conduct mourning rites featuring formalised prayer. Other potentially religious practices, like the Shimmerquick festival in Orbit and the First Brand ceremony in Galaxy, are viewed as either having lost their original spiritual significance or presented cynically as mechanisms of forging social belonging by the characters who partake in them.
This narrative perspective reflects the belief system of a kind of post-Christian atheism that develops in societies such as the United States which possess an inescapably Christian dominant culture. In this view, the harmful parts of religion are wholly contingent on belief; when belief is removed, what is left is not religion but a secular cultural practice. Toleration is born out of pragmatism: either it isn’t likely to be possible to convince someone to adopt a secularised practice, or their beliefs are compatible enough with secular practices that hesitant respect may be given to it. While Ohan is in good health, for example, their religious beliefs are tolerable—even if other characters begrudge them certain aspects of it, such as a special dietary requirement. When they essentially plan to die for their faith, however—something that they would have planned for their entire adult life, and which holds fundamental significance in their religion—they are thwarted by the unstoppable force of another character’s redemption arc: in a move that will isolate Ohan from the community of their homeworld for the rest of their natural life, the intercessor Corbin cures them without consent. While Ohan’s plot is also wildly ableist, it’s notable that the fact that Ohan makes their decision based on faith combines with their status as terminally ill to form a good enough reason to remove their right to choose.
In a situation that mirrors Ohan’s, the decision of Jenks’s mother not to get "genetweaks" for her child that would increase his height is partially faith-based—but is viewed as a rational decision because Jenks doesn’t experience any adverse effects from his short stature. The background of Jenks’s mother is also presented as more respectable: a former teenage religious extremist who carried on a more secularised form of her religion after becoming a scientist as an adult. But the important question isn’t really asked: if Jenks’s condition is not really disabling, then why is it wiped out by default as part of the Galactic Commons’s eugenics protocol? Are there, indeed, any disabled people in space? If Jenks’s condition was disabling, then would there have been a choice to make at all? If Jenks’s mother had been more devout, would the same decision become unsupportable by the narrative? The logic of the scene starts to unravel. It’s pretty clear based on the emphasis put on the reasonableness of Jenks’s mother’s religious beliefs that it has a great deal to do with her credibility, and by extension the credibility of her son’s continued choice not to invasively modify his body in a way that he doesn’t want to.
I think it is a justifiable speculation that Wayfarers’ obsession with eugenics is motivated by a preoccupation with healthcare as it is delivered in the United States. The series exhibits a desire to come up with a way to deliver universal health care at a low cost to the state. Eugenics policies are usually planned and justified by the projected cost to the state of enabling and prolonging a particular person’s life. While there have been eugenics programs in America, it’s important to note that they also have a long history in countries with socialised medicine, for the precise reason that a state-based healthcare model makes an individual’s health easy to collapse into an investment/return model. Because the socialised healthcare of the Galactic Commons is contextually one of the series’ speculative elements, the question that Wayfarers is grappling with is: how much eugenics would be acceptable as a trade-off for socialised healthcare? The answer, really, should be “none”; but Wayfarers satisfies itself with an exception-ridden opt-out policy. In the many discussions of eugenics across the series, its reactionary politics, its uncritical reproduction of American values, and its difficult relationship with faith are alchemized. The result is flimsy, indeterminate, and yet somehow presented just as confidently as every other "fact" that Wayfarers wants to teach.
The reductive approach to intersectionality in Wayfarers has yet more consequences in Planet. At the start of the book, two coworkers are described by their employer, Ashby, as "going to kill each other one of these days." One of them, Sissix, has a long-standing friendship with Ashby. The other, Corbin, is described by Ashby as an "extremely valuable headache"—a "total asshole" who is completely averse to social interaction but incredible at the technical aspects of his job. Corbin is in a one-on-one meeting with his employer when he uses a word described as a racial insult to describe his coworker. Ashby admonishes him for his use of derogatory language, and punishes him by making him give Rosemary, the new clerk, an introduction—fully in the knowledge that he can’t refuse.
“I just lost my temper, was all.” Corbin was obviously still angry, but even he knew better than to bite the hand that feeds. Corbin knew that he was a valuable asset, but at the end of the day, Ashby was the one who sent credits to his account. Valuable was not the same as irreplaceable.
This punishment is vindictive more than anything else. The original reason for Ashby’s meeting with Corbin was that Corbin had disagreed with hiring a clerk who was so recent a university graduate. Making Corbin give Rosemary a warm welcome is something Ashby knows he’ll be both uncomfortable with and bad at. The root cause of the problem remains unaddressed: whether Ashby’s friendship or working relationship with Sissix is prioritised, he’s still putting the value Corbin brings to him over the benefit that not having to share a working environment with a bigot would bring to her. Nothing is really achieved. Rosemary gets a sweaty, limp handshake from someone who doesn’t want her to be there and, afterwards, Corbin carries on the way he has been. Nevertheless, this is treated as a victory by the narrative. Ashby’s relationship with Sissix remains unchanged, and the events of the scene are never revisited. What Ashby did to oppose Corbin’s racist speech is completely immaterial because abuse of power isn’t recognised by the narrative as a bad thing.
Corbin is a really complicated character to deal with. I’ve already mentioned his redemption arc, and how it distorts the story of another character. For much of Planet, however, he is, for lack of a better term, a narratively-designated punching bag. He’s more there to prove a point than he is to actually have a character of his own. Corbin is the story’s only literal white guy, a trait that is remarked upon as bizarre by every character who sees him. It’s strange because the ethnicity of every other human who wasn’t produced through Bad Eugenics is described in terms like "nationless blend," regardless of their affiliation with different human nations, of which there are multiple. The idea that the cultural backgrounds of their ancestors would simply just not matter, eventually tending towards a homogenous, quasi-American blend is pretty appalling. But in any case, Corbin is not from the same nation as anybody else we meet. He’s instead described as the descendant of early space explorers who essentially lived underground on a rocky moon and lost their skin pigment generation-on-generation.
From this description, it’s really not clear whether Corbin’s ethnic background is actually one that we would consider white or not, or how that is socially constructed in the racial paradigm of the Wayfarers universe. If anything, it feels like Corbin is significantly more racialised than any other human character in the book. Nevertheless, it seems pretty clear that readers are supposed to interpret Corbin as white. He’s certainly entitled, not sociable, has a chip on his shoulder, is bigoted to his alien colleagues, and has the general vibe of a nerd who got rejected as a Big Bang Theory background character. This adds another layer of complication: Corbin comes off coded as autistic, only I think that this is a coincidence. It makes it strange to read scenes where Sissix, who needs a breathing mask to deal with the sensory overload caused by her species’ sensitive sense of smell in certain areas, is given a narrative pass, and Corbin is mocked relentlessly for doing essentially the same. The only character who’s explicitly coded as autistic is an Aandrisk woman we meet for one scene only, wherein it seems that Sissix taking pity on her and performing basic Aandrisk social practices is the highlight of her year. None of this, as we may now have come to expect, is examined or even acknowledged.
Corbin’s character is, in every sense, the trainwreck end-result of trying to have metaphors entirely take the place of actual representations of experiences. It’s probably clear that I still don’t think that Wayfarers deserved the Hugo Award for Best Series. In its dogged determination to represent everyday life, the series copies wholesale assumptions of what everyday life is. Representing the everyday is a challenging task, but a critical representation of the everyday is possible. I think of the French writer Georges Perec, whose essays circle and are encircled by the things that make up what happens when nothing is happening, by the spaces in between events considered worthy of note. Perec’s work is marked by a deep sense of alienation, a conflicting attachment to and detachment from the world immediately around him. Knowing something of Perec’s life, it becomes apparent that he could never have taken for granted many aspects of the world that others pass through like water. His parents, Polish Jews, were killed in the Holocaust; he was raised by an aunt and an uncle in a country to which he simultaneously felt a sense of belonging and foreignness. In a French radio broadcast made in 1981 and re-published in English under the title Some of the Things I Really Must Do Before I Die, he remarks of a desire to write a science fiction novel. It seems that he thought that science fiction could be a vehicle for this kind of commentary; but before Perec’s idea might have been realised, he died—only a year after he wrote his list. While Wayfarers can be read as an analogue to the pre-war works of Weimar Germany, I’d like to believe that it could also be a sign of receptiveness to works like Perec’s imagined science fiction novel—however, its circumstances throw this into doubt.
The Hugo voting population is overwhelmingly American and leans liberal, and while it’s certainly pleasant to be shown that your perspective and ideas are good, something being enjoyable doesn’t necessarily make it worthwhile. Wayfarers calcifies the current state of affairs in America and presents it as a future that we should be excited for. It’s stifling, particularly in an international context, where the publishing industry is heavily affected by American markets. American acclaim has a way of becoming international acclaim, and the American market proves to be something of a test bed for publishers to find books that will be profitable to sell overseas. So what we end up with is American authors writing about American experiences for an audience of Americans whose books are picked up by American agents to sell to American editors working at American publishing houses who market the books to Americans who give them American literary awards. Even if at any point a non-American is involved in this process, their work has to fit into this structure well enough that more challenging works are increasingly unlikely at every stage of the process.
This bigger picture tends to evade scrutiny because it obstructs the view of individual players in this process acting as artists, curators, and consumers. It is easier to see Wayfarers as a bad episode of publishing than a feature of a broader problem because to do so carries the threat of erasing their agency and individuality. It can, at any turn, be used either to transform them into either an innocent who simply could not have affected anything had they wanted to or the avatar of everything that is wrong with the world. To view it as part of an interdependent process causes crises for both the concept of credit and the concept of blame. It’s incredibly dire and carries the implication that in order to see the forest, we must cease to see the trees.
Whenever Wayfarers sets out to achieve something and fails, it does so on its own terms. But, for everything I’ve said, I think that there is some truth to the way that Wayfarers represents the world. It shows everyday life as neither subject to or parallel to the bigger picture. Individual lives matter, intrinsically, and characters are both affected by and able to affect their own context, which is informed by and inevitably part of the bigger picture. This is complicated, because an intervention on a single level will find it difficult to make a systemic impact. Still, viewing these instances as clashes between an innate understanding of interconnectedness and the unshakeable pressure of neoliberalism forces into clarity the incompatibility of such an ideology with the material reality of the social environment that it is trying to describe.
One of the ways in which this happens is in the crosswiring of the narratives of found family and the workplace environment. The idea of office colleagues as family can be the source of many difficulties, both in the workplace itself and in the personal lives of those involved. It allows professional relationships to rival relationships with friends and family, encouraging workers to spend less time and energy engaging with their unprofitable personal life. It is promoted by business owners because it increases productivity, albeit at the expense of the happiness of their employees. However, this is not a trope that Wayfarers deploys cynically, and I think that its popularity in Marvel’s Avengers fandom is quite relevant to contextualise how this helps create a feeling of ordinariness despite representing a dynamic that is really quite unrealistic. In the Avengers fandom, "found family" is practically synonymous with a Toasterverse-style presentation of the main characters as, essentially, coworkers and flatmates who are also best friends and often lovers. It’s popular because a lot of people want to read about it. Fanfiction is written and read for enjoyment, and distributed for free. I think that the reason that this trope is successful with readers is because it takes a fundamentally unsatisfactory narrative, to which many people are subjected to against their will, and makes it feel like a promise that could be fulfilled. This is not a phenomenon which can be squarely blamed on Wayfarers because it likely did not create this trope from whole cloth, given its textual similarities to fanfiction; regardless, it certainly did not become popular in an environment where a sizeable number of its readers have never encountered this trope before. I would also like to go further to say that it would be detrimental to view this as a situation where writers who are simply attempting to portray their everyday environments—though perhaps an “idealised” everyday environment—are in some way to blame for promoting this narrative.
I would also like to say that I do not think that readers are to blame for seeking out stories that soothe the feelings of alienation produced by capitalist work environments. However, I think that everybody within this process would do well to think about what they find pleasurable in the works they enjoy reading, writing, or otherwise producing in a more critical and introspective manner. I say this in the full knowledge that I can only make this comparison to Toasterverse because I have read every entry, for fun. This isn’t something I’m proud or ashamed of; it just is. It’s led me to the belief that you can only decide that you want something else when you understand what it is that you already want. Taking an unfiltered look at subjective, everyday, ordinary, and banal experiences can reveal things left unrecognised and gaps between narrative and material reality. This is a strength of Wayfarers. It’s a shame that Becky Chambers does not recognise her own subjectivity, or choose to channel that strength into reinforcing the worldview she presents. It’s a shame that fans don’t perceive this subjectivity either, taking Wayfarers’ didacticism as an opportunity to be taught, but not also to reflect upon the lesson and whether what was being taught was worthwhile. It’s a shame that the publishing professionals involved on many levels were willing to uncritically enable this.
The only reason why Wayfarers deserves this kind of dissection is that it is repetitively positioned as a literary achievement, one that readers should engage with not just for their personal enjoyment but in order to better themselves. The series stands out from similar works because of the widespread acclaim it receives—it and the books within it have been shortlisted for and won many awards. As a text, it is far from unique; what is unique about it is the phenomenon that surrounds it. Wayfarers can’t be meaningfully distanced from the things that make it into what it is: The Hugo Awards; The Kitschies; Hodderscape; your TBR pile; my history in fandom; Becky Chambers’s writing career. Science fiction.
It’s tempting to single one of these things out as the point of blame for the series’ outsized success, sparing the others—but doing this does not just turn Wayfarers into a singular black mark on a trend that is intertwined with it for a multitude of reasons; it then hides those reasons to boot. My initial enjoyment of the series was closely bound to my context at the time; I now believe that there was no huge difference between the second and third novels. The tropes Record used to build its plot—wholly unreasonable teenagers whose main need was a dose of firm parenting, the idea that some part of a person might be left behind in an unseen ancestral home—were ones with which I was already disillusioned. I had simply changed in the meantime. I’d started university, and this was a change that I felt more in control of. I didn’t need another Rosemary or Sidra to relate to, even if I wanted one. I could easily say that Wayfarers was a mistake, that I was ashamed of having liked it, that it was a blip in a broader history. Noise in the signal. But it’s more complicated than that, and if I reduce it to any of these ideas then I can’t understand why I was there then and how I got here now. It would become my own personal historical amnesia. I would never be able to look at my own perspective.
And we need to—we need to look at our own perspectives, and those of others, in order to understand everything more fully. Wayfarers does not do the work necessary to lay itself bare, or to truly reflect on viewpoints incompatible with its own. I, personally, am feeling quite done with Becky Chambers’s writing. I do not want to hear what she has to say in her post-Wayfarers books because I am personally feeling a bit burned. I do not think this means she has nothing to say, but I do think it means that it’s worth taking Wayfarers as context for her later works—be they responses to, or continuations, or contradictions of the approach taken in her first professional book series. And that was an approach which was—if we’re to be honest—partial and limited.
If we want to be able to shape the future then we need to not only be able to see the world as it is but see it through our own eyes while walking in our own shoes. We will get there from here, because we have to. But we need to be able to talk about where here is, what it’s made of. Striving for objectivity and perfection—the ideal representation, the ideal world—is a dead end when ideals are subjective and come to blows. We all need futures, because we are all going to be there, every day of our lives. Similarly, the everyday is within everybody’s grasp. It’s something we can all observe, that we are all experts in by the sheer force of living. I want to imagine a science fiction where everyday lives are not just comforting recreations, or ideals to be lived by, but vulnerable and written in recognition that within them is contained a perspective; I want us to recognise from Kracauer and Perec that the everyday has value, but also cannot be romanticised. I want to imagine a fandom in which inherent goodness is less favourable than a recognisable rendition of a personal reality. I want it to be coffee-stained, in the bottom of backpacks, lost in a cafe, dog-eared, unread, bookmarked, borrowed. I want it to come from everywhere, and I want to be open to it.
Editors: Reviews Department
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department