A roadtrip story, through spaaaace, that doesn’t go anywhere fast. But it is filled with cuteness.
The story follows Rosemary Harper, a newbie clerk and student of alien languages. She is sent to the ship Wayfarer, a rough patchwork spaceship that lays a new tract of wormholes through an empty patch of space. She meets the eclectic multi-species crew of Wayfarer: some humans, some aliens and a friendly AI computer. Expect lots of interspecies, inter-AI, inter gender romance in all possible combinations.
This is one of those fun adventure stories of a colorful crew aboard a starship, like in Star Trek, Firefly or in Guardians of the Galaxy. There is the energetic engineer, the angry algae-ist, the tattooed computer cowboy, the amiable AI and the exoplanet pilot. Some are pink, some are brown, some are copper-colored. They joke and they fight and have adventures in interstellar space. It also has a lot of similarities to Samuel R. Delaney’s Babel 17 (1966), with the quirky crew, the stress on biotech, the languages and the social commentary.
Becky Chambers is a new author on the scene and this is her debut novel (with an awesome title). She has an excellent feeling for characters and dialogue and her crew are all very distinctive people with their own voices. She gives everyone a personal back story, and it is great how you get to feel like you are a part of this family of space farers. It is fun to read about the crew interacting. Some are friends, others can’t stand each other, and the captain tries to maintain a balance and a running ship.
It is all quite jolly. The book is a bit cartoonish, with aliens that look suitably weird but familiar, like reptiles and elves and some walrus/caterpillar chef cook. What is interesting is that she consciously made the crew very diverse in both species and gender, with one alien who is occasionally male or female and a lot of wink-winks about prejudice but portrayed with alien races. So, it is smart, in a social issues kind of way, but light on the science and futurism side. It is soft-SF in space, like Ursula K. LeGuin would write, but more lighthearted. Chambers seems so preoccupied though with gender issues that she made just about every single relationship in the book non-standard. At a certain point, that starts to feel forced.
The book is really about characters and dialogue. It’s the kind of story where the crew sits around a table at dinner and they argue and fire jokes at each other and that would take up a whole chapter. This is the life blood of the book, and the action and plotting is understated. For a starting author, Chambers is very confident in her writing, but the characters are also a bit like they were taken from templates. The mechanic Kizzy is just a bit too much of a manic pixie girl and the cook is a bit too much of a friendly mustachioed uncle.
It’s like a feel-good roadtrip story with quirky characters being chatty and nice to each other. There is little plot though and hardly any tension. The story is not devoid of nice world-building or science, but it is deftly hidden within the conversations. It is amusing and optimistic, but not for everyone.