Record of a Spaceborn Few is more like the first Wayfarers book than the second. It features a big ensemble cast, and there isn’t much by way of overarching plot, or a dramatic conclusion. I found it hard to get into, to be honest – the very beginning had a lot to wrap my head around all at once, and then the rest of the first half felt slow and uneventful. But the novel did grow on me, and I ended up reading the whole second half in one sitting.
This book concerns the society of the Exodus Fleet (or the Exodans). Basically, these are the descendants of the humans who had to leave Earth once they’d finally rendered it completely unlivable through pollution and climate change. They built these huge generation ships, the Fleet, and went out into space. The Fleet basically operates as a post-capitalist society: there’s no real social hierarchy, and everyone is equal, taking their turns on sanitation duty for example. There’s a lovely line that gets trotted out a few times at “naming ceremonies” where new Exodans (e.g. babies) are inducted to the Fleet: “While we have food, you will eat. While we have air, you will breathe. While we have fuel, you will fly.” Everyone’s necessities are guaranteed, no matter what. For things beyond that, people trade; intra-Exodan trade takes the form of barter. And it’s also a society that really, really values making full use out of every single thing and letting nothing go to waste. Another of the POV characters – the most interesting one, really, Eyas – is a “caretaker”, which is basically equivalent to a funeral director, except with human remains all being processed and repurposed into compost for gardens, in line with the philosophy that death and life is all a cycle.
Sort of like Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, Chambers doesn’t depict this post-capitalist society as perfect. Other societies in the GC have superior technology and luxury goods, but the Fleet needs foreign currency (“creds”) to buy them, and then more purist Exodans bemoan the impact “creds” are having on the Exodan way of life. Young people are moving away from the Fleet to settle planetside, seemingly mostly for the reason that life planetside is more exciting. Fewer people are moving to the Fleet than moving away, although this seems partially because the Fleet doesn’t exactly go out of its way to attract immigrants or help them settle in (which is the core of one of the book’s key subplots). Exodan society is depicted as stable (I was going to say “stagnant”, but I don’t think that’s quite right), unlike the neverending-growth-minded societies elsewhere.
So, the setting is very interesting, although that was probably a given considering it’s the same universe as books 1 and 2. Honestly I think the thing that let this book down (somewhat) for me is that a lot of the scenes are “slice of life” stuff that aren’t all very interesting. Eyas, as I mentioned, was the most interesting character for me. In order of most interesting to least, the other POV characters were Isabel, an archivist hosting a Harmagian (alien) anthropologist guest; Kip, a teenager doing Dumb Teenage Things; Sawyer, a frustratingly clueless outsider to the Fleet who hopes to become a part of it; and Tessa, a frazzled mother-of-two who ends up emigrating. Sawyer’s chapters were genuinely pretty frustrating to read, but his sudden death leads to a bunch of interesting chapters from the other characters’ POVs, so that’s something. I also liked that Eyas rebounded from her initial closed-mindedness to decide that she should do more to help newcomers acclimate to life aboard the Fleet – she and Kip definitely exhibited the most character growth, haha. So, not all the individual scenes were that compelling but as I mentioned, the book did get better as it went on.
Overall, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as instalments 1 or 2 in the series, but it was still good. I’d recommend it if you enjoyed the first book, and particularly if you’re interested in depictions of socialist/anarchist/post-capitalist societies in science fiction.