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Is Becky Chambers the Ultimate Hope for Science Fiction?

September 16, 2021 - Posted in News Posted by:

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Some of that knowledge she put to preprofessional use, writing little fictional stories, mostly fantasy, based on her favorite books and movies. Chambers’ mom introduced her to Tolkien; Star Wars and Star Trek were movie-night mainstays; she was obsessed with Sailor Moon. When Chambers was 12, Contact came out. To explore the unknown, to encounter aliens “through a female protagonist,” Chambers says, “it grabbed me hard.” After that, she began reading Carl Sagan, the beginning of her fascination with space.

Looking up and out, though, distracted Chambers from having to look within, at the “absolute absence” she felt at the center of her young life. “Who I was, where I fit, what sort of life I could expect,” she says, “and there was just nothing.” Then, at 13, Chambers met a girl in a science class whose older sister had a gay best friend. “I was like, oh, that’s an option?” Chambers remembers thinking. “Well, my whole life makes sense now.” It would take several years before she was comfortable enough to come out to her parents. When she did, Mom was wonderful; Dad, not so much. “It was really bad at first, you know,” she says, shutting down a little. Although he’s “come around a lot,” Chambers says, she still doesn’t like talking about it.

In Chambers’ books, people—the word she uses not just for humans but for all member species of her so-called Galactic Commons—don’t come out. They simply don’t have to. “I don’t have terms for gay, straight, etc.,” she says. “People are who they are and they bring home whoever they’re going to bring home and they love who they love.” In The Long Way, Rosemary, a human woman, develops feelings for a female reptile-bird alien named Sissix. Rosemary “leaned in,” Chambers writes in a pivotal scene, “running a smooth fingertip along the length of one of Sissix’s feathers.” When I tell Chambers that a (straight, male) colleague of mine, who read the book, doesn’t believe humans would actually want to have sex with giant lizards, she is appalled. Has he even been on the internet?

The internet is where a college-age Chambers met her future wife, Berglaug Asmundardottir. On a Star Trek roleplaying forum, to be exact. Asmundardottir is not, so far as we know, a lizard person; she is, merely, Icelandic. When Chambers talks about her, the lighting in the room seems to somehow brighten and soften at once. In the acknowledgements section of each of the Wayfarers books, Chambers thanks her wife in a new way. Record of a Spaceborn Few: “Berglaug the incredible.” A Closed and Common Orbit: “The best part of every day.” The Galaxy, and the Ground Within: “If one scrap of my writing outlives me, I want it to be the one that says that I loved her, and so I will write it wherever I can.”

Out of college, Chambers moved with Asmundardottir to Edinburgh. The plan was to find work in the theater scene there—that’s what Chambers studied in school—but nothing much materialized. A couple years later, they relocated to Iceland, where Chambers freelanced for US publications, all the while writing dialog and scenes for an unformed story about queer misfits in space. For a long time, Chambers didn’t think “it was a real book,” she says. “I was like, no one is going to want to read this. It’s not a real story. There are no planets blowing up.” The tension, in other words, was internal. It came from the characters.

When I suggest to Chambers that the narratives of her novels mirror the coming-out process—a lot of tension, very little plot—she pauses. “I think … I think that’s fair,” she says. “It’s not one of those conscious things, but I definitely think that’s fair.” Whatever the case, the story resonated. With the help of a small following she’d built up as a freelancer, plus the interest of a handful of strangers, Chambers was able to self-finance on Kickstarter the novel that became A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Among other positive notices, io9 called it “the most delightful space opera” of the year.