I READ a lot of sci-fi and, my, the future can be grim at times. Whether it is characters dealing with alien invasions, technology gone wrong or the ravages of climate change, most modern books in the genre are dour affairs, in stark contrast to the “golden age” sci-fi of the 1940s and 50s, when unrealistic techno-utopianism ruled.
But it isn’t all bad. Increasingly, authors are writing “hopepunk” stories (a slightly cringeworthy term inspired by cyberpunk) that weaponise optimism, according to one Vox journalist.
At the forefront of this subgenre is Becky Chambers, award-winning author of the Wayfarers series. But unlike the golden age stories, Chambers’s characters live complex lives and know that not all problems can be tackled with the wave of a plot-solving gizmo. Instead, they rely on relationships to succeed, picking each other up and dusting themselves down in the face of adversity.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, the first book in the series, details the adventures of the crew of the ship Wayfarer. As the title suggests, it is much more about the journey than the destination. In a way, not a lot happens, but all the characters are changed by their interactions with one another.
My favourite character in the book is the charming and tragic Dr Chef (yes, he is the ship’s doctor and chef), one of the last of an alien species called Grum, which resemble a kind of six-limbed otter and gradually change biological sex over their lifetime.
This is just one example of the incredibly diverse cast of aliens that populate the Wayfarers books, which share a universe but mostly stand alone. There are Aeluons, who communicate by flashing colours on their faces, and the reptilian Aandrisk, whose society is influenced by the fact they lay eggs – children are normally the result of casual sex, and aren’t reared by their biological parents.
There are also artificial intelligences that run ships and other hardware, but it is illegal to upload an AI to a humanoid robot. This is key in the second book, A Closed and Common Orbit, which is a fantastic examination of identity and autonomy.
Chambers’s latest, the novella A Psalm for the Wild-Built, takes place in a new continuity outside the Wayfarers universe, but shares much of its DNA. It is set on a moon called Panga where humans realised that their sprawling, oil-burning factories were unsustainable and set up a vast rewilding project. “It was a crazy split, if you thought about it: half the land for a single species, half for the hundreds of thousands of others,” writes Chambers. “Finding a limit they’d stick to was victory enough.” Around the same time, robots became sentient and withdrew to the new wilderness, with humans promising to leave them alone.
The book is set some time after this Transition, and follows a tea monk, Sibling Dex, who goes from settlement to settlement as a travelling salesperson-slash-roaming therapist. Despite bringing joy and comfort to those visited, Dex is unsatisfied and heads out into the wilds, looking for a new purpose – eventually making contact with a robot, Mosscap, the first time humans and robots had met in centuries.
The heart of the book is the relationship between the two and the way they support each other. It is a joyful experience and, as with all of Chambers’s books, I was left with a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.
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