"Space belongs to you": Becky Chambers on optimistic sci-fi and ending her Wayfarers series
Becky Chambers won the inaugural Hugo Award for Best Series in 2019, and with her latest novel, The Galaxy and the Ground Within now out, she talks about building "wonderful and insignificant" stories about space.
I first came across Becky Chambers' novel The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet shortly before it hit stores in 2015, drawn to its exciting description of the crew of an interstellar starship that's tasked with creating the lanes that make interstellar travel possible. While I expected something action-packed like Farscape or Firefly or Guardians of the Galaxy, I found something more rewarding: an intimate portrait of a close-knit crew, examining the various journeys that brought them to that particular moment in time.
Chambers earned considerable acclaim for the novel, and quickly followed up with a new novel, A Closed and Common Orbit. While that book is set in the same world, it's a leap away from her debut, picking up a couple of characters before going off and exploring their own journey — an artificial intelligence that finds itself in an android body and a young, genetically modified girl growing up in a scrapyard. 2018's Record of a Spaceborn Few is a delightful story of the lives of the last descendants of Earth struggling to maintain their aging fleet and maintaining their way of life, and in her latest and final installment of the series, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, we meet four aliens who find themselves stuck on an interstellar pit stop, and get to know one another while they wait for a crisis to pass.
Chambers has written two shorter books as well: To Be Taught, if Fortunate, and A Psalm for the Wild-Built (due out in July). A sequel to that forthcoming book is A Prayer for the Crown-Shy is due out sometime down the road.
Last month, I was a conversation partner with Chambers for her event at Mysterious Galaxy Books in San Diego, California, and you can listen to our interview here. Before that, however, I had a chance to sit down and chat with Chambers. We covered some similar ground, but some different things as well.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I want to get a sense of where you first encountered science fiction, and I understand that your parents worked in the spaceflight industry?
My dad was an aerospace engineer and a civilian contractor — he's retired now — and my mom is an astrobiology educator and is an educational consultant at the [Jet Propulsion Laboratory], but neither of them have worked for NASA directly. They have been on the ancillary fringes of who NASA works with, basically.
How did their role there influence you and your interests in space?
In general, I really grew up taking interest in space for granted. I didn't think of it as unusual — space is just what people's parents do, right? They send people to space.
So it really wasn't until I got to college that I encountered folks who didn't feel that way about space exploration, and it really threw me for a loop. But in a good way. I had one particular conversation with a friend at the time, who was the first person who asked me the excellent question of, "why should we care about this, when there's so many problems down here?"
It was one of those things that — having your worldview rocked a little bit is often a healthy thing — was something that really stuck with me and I've thought it about a lot. One of the things my parents fostered in me was to be scientific about things, to always question your assumptions, to never assume that you have all the answers to everything. And so I really examined that: "why do I care about this? Do I actually care about this, despite the fact that I was raised in this environment? And what's my connection it, to me personally? If I'm able to sever myself from my upbringing, remove myself from that context as much as possible, what's left?"
So much of that thinking has shaped my work, and my views on it are evolving all the time. But it definitely gave me a drive in my work to to communicate that to people: here's why I think you should care. You don't have to, but here's why I do. And if you weren't on the space bandwagon before, I'm gonna try to get you on board. And so in that, I tried to make my work as as accessible as possible to people who are new, either to human spaceflight in general, or just space opera and science fiction, both in a real world and a fictional context. I want my stuff to be an easy entry point if you're new here.
So how did growing up in that environment shape your view of what science fiction could be? We've all seen plenty of folks in the scientific community look down on science fiction as a genre because of the tropes or mistakes, or novelistic shortcuts like faster than light travel or antigravity, and so forth.
Well you see, that's the thing: my folks were never pedantic about it and were actually the ones who introduced me to the genre at large. I don't remember life before Star Wars and Star Trek. The Next Generation aired when I was three years old, and I would sit on the couch between my parents after dinner, and we'd pass a tub of ice cream back and forth while we watched it together. I don't recall not having those stories and those characters in my life.
Even though my parents have spent their lives in STEM, I was never pushed to go in that direction. It was a big part of my familial osmosis, but I was encouraged to do whatever I wanted to do, to explore whatever interests I had, and it was obvious early on that I was interested in storytelling and in art. So they were very, very encouraging about that, and I never saw those two as being in conflict. It was always made very clear to me that these are different things: science is different than fantasy.
And both of them were wholeheartedly embraced in my home: my mom read me Lord of the Rings as a bedtime story. When I was in grade school, she was always taking me to the library, and I'd come home with a stack of a million paperbacks and everything. That's actually one of the things I value most about how I was brought up: that the two went hand in hand. And even though they're obviously very different approaches and very different disciplines, they were never presented to me as something that was in conflict with each other.
Let's fast forward a couple of years to 2012: you began writing The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. How did you go from consuming those stories to having one to tell?
I've been writing since I was little, so I think it was something that was just always going to happen. A few years ago, my sent me this autobiography that I had to write for school when I was in the fourth grade, and there are a lot of things in it about my future plans that didn't stack up. Like, I do not own the three Golden Retrievers nine year old me apparently wanted to have, but I had written that I wanted to write books when I grow up. And I did that! I think my nine year old self would be would be happy to hear it.
But yeah, I've always been scribbling stories in notebooks and everything, and with this one in particular, it was something that I've been tinkering with for a long time. I had the first glimmers of what ended up being Wayfarers while I was in college, at least seven years before I started writing the book, where I was world building, and making up these characters, and writing little stories about them.
About a year before the Kickstarter, I had this box — this actual, physical box full of scraps of paper and Post-it notes and notebooks that I'd saved over the years. It just reached a critical mass where I was like, "you either need to do something with this, or you need to stop because what is this?"
And I just decided to go for it: I couldn't tell you what the thing was that pushed me over the cliff, but it just it reached a point where I was like, "alright, I think it's I think it's ready to go, I want to see I want to see what I can do with this." And it all snowballed from there.
Midway through writing it, you launched the Kickstarter — how did you decide to go the crowdfunding route rather than the typical path of finding an agent and publisher?
It's kind of a grubby answer, but the honest one is that it was, I was very broke, but also didn't want to give up on writing this book. I was freelancing at the time, doing a lot of different writing work — mostly content writing. I was writing this book on the side, and that was where my heart was at, and what I wanted to be doing, while everything else was paying the bills.
My paid work dried up, and I had this gap of a couple of months where I didn't have any gigs at all, and I knew that I would have to stop working on the book. I knew that finding work would be a full time job in and of itself, but I was so close to being done. I was like "I really think I could finish this book in two months," and so I decided as sort of a Hail Mary — I really framed it to myself as, "if this doesn't work, you need to let this go. It's a sign from the universe— not that I believe in science from the universe — that you need to do something else with your life."
So I went to Kickstarter and said "Hey, I'm almost done with this book, and I need two months. Would you would you help me?" And to my eternal surprise, the internet said yes. I was able to finish it entirely because of generous strangers. So yeah, I don't know if we'd be having this conversation right now, if I hadn't done that, because I would have just put the brakes on it.
Do you ever hear from the original backers about the books?
Yeah, occasionally — there's a small handful of folks that I will get an email from now and then. I massively appreciate it, and it's so humbling. It's something I'm so grateful for, to have people who have had my back this whole time. It's really incredible.
I came across the books when they were published by Hodder & Stoughton, and you went from a sort of self-publishing release to something a little more traditional. What was that transition like?
The thing of it is that I wasn't super successful when it was self-published. But I knew I wouldn't be, and was hoping to go the traditional route at first. But it didn't pan out, and because I ran the Kickstarter campaign, I wanted to get the book into people's hands as soon as possible. Basically, I sold enough copies to make back the money that I'd ponied up for the cover art, and that was it. I knew that marketing and promotion were not my strengths, and so I just thought "okay, I did what I said I was going to do, I got the book to the people who I was going to get it to, and I thought, that's it!"
At that point, my freelance work still hadn't picked back up, and I'd taken a nine-to-five normal office job, because I had to, and I really thought I was done.
It wasn't until a few months later — this would have been in 2014 — I went to WorldCon in London, my first WorldCon ever. I didn't know anyone and I had no idea what I was doing — I just wanted to be there. I was living in Iceland at the time, so it was an easier hop than it would have been for me now, in California. And like you do at WorldCon, I ended up at a party, met a lady there that I hit it off with: we had beers and chatted and hung out, and I had no idea she was an editor. I didn't talk about my book at all, because it was just somebody I was hanging out with at the con.
A few months later, she got in touch out of the blue and said that she'd read my book and if I was interested in traditional publishing. So she was my first editor. Obviously, I said yes. It came out of nowhere because I wasn't pushing the book at that point, and had no idea that any of this was coming.
One of the things that I've found interesting about the series is that each book largely stands on its own, following new characters and worlds. Did the rest of that series come out of that box of notes and writings that you'd put together over the years, or did you now go with that world in The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet and start anew?
So, I did start from scratch with the latter two books, Record of a Spaceborn Few and The Galaxy and the Ground Within. A Closed and Common Orbit — well, half of it at least — was born out of the first short story I ever got a rejection letter for. I had this idea for this girl building a spaceship in a junkyard, and it was not a good story — it was very rightly rejected. I wasn't there yet! I hadn't put in the time I needed to be able to write a good story yet.
But that story hung out in my head and almost is like an Easter egg to myself, I decided to put her into The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet as just a side character. And when that went well, I was asked to write a sequel, I knew from the jump that I didn't want to continue on with the crew from the first book: I just didn't have anything further for them. I didn't want to keep milking that — that would be shallow. So instead, I said that I'll tell Pepper's story, and went back to that original bad little story that I wrote and fleshed it out and put it in the setting, so there was that template for her with that book.
But really, with the other half of that book, and the ones that followed, I was starting from scratch. I would just sort of decide, once I decided to start the book, "okay, what corner of the galaxy do I want to explore now? What interests me right now?" In general, I'm a very seat-of-my-pants kind of writer, so I usually, just go with whatever feels good.
So what was the germ for the next two books, Record of a Spaceborn Few and The Galaxy and the Ground Within?
So, with Record of a Spaceborn Few, I really wanted to dig into the fleet, because the exodus really was something that had been mentioned so much in the other books, and I wanted to laser in on that. I also think that because The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit were books that jumped around in location and time so much, I kind of wanted to just sit with one thing for a while and say, "Okay, I'm just gonna write about these people in this place." We'd have inklings of other cultures around the edges, but I really just want to hone in on what the fleet looked like.
For The Galaxy and the Ground Within, it was it was honestly just a sort of flipping to the other side of that, because I had done Spaceborn Few, I was like, "Alright, I've had it with humans. I just want aliens. I don't want any human characters in here at all." I had explored that other flavor enough that I wanted to go to something completely different for the fourth book.
Yeah, who needs humans anyway?
I think we're overrated a bit!
Reading over the books, one of the things that catches me is how the concept of community feels like it's right at the center of each book, whether it's a spaceship or partnership or generation ship, or people waiting for a disaster to go away. How is it that you've come to focus on this?
I think community and the way that people interact with each other is one of the things that I find most creatively interesting. I will be the first person to tell you that my books do not have big, chewy plots, so if you're looking for something with a more traditional arc or a big MacGuffin, that's not what you're gonna find here. You're gonna find people talking to each other.
I don't know if I have like a coherent thesis statement for why that's the thing that makes me go "ooh!", but I just I think that the way people relate to each other, the way they shape each other, the way we all are completely dependent on each other — even if we want to think we're not — those are the kinds of stories that excite me the most. I think that there are stories that you don't need to add to that. I mean, I'm biased, but I think you can absolutely build a book around people who just sit and talk. I also think it does go hand in hand with the upbringing I had in space science, and the way that that has shaped my worldview: the whole concept of us being, wonderful, insignificance, and completely dependent on one another, and that we're all just these tiny things within this enormous galaxy of people and planets and everything that exists here: none of us are alone.
For me at least, to tell a story about space that only focuses on one person is kind of counterintuitive to what learning about learning about space and loving space has taught me, which is none of us are alone, that we all exist in this place together, and that it is shared equally. It becomes this sort of chicken and egg thing where that's what space taught me and so now these are the stories I write about space.
I think it's a quality I try to bring to my stories in that they are set in this big fantastic setting, but they're these very, very small, intimate stories, ones that don't shape the galaxy as a whole. None of these people are really any kinds of movers or shakers: they're just people getting by. That dichotomy between big and small is something that I've tried to play with throughout the series.
While reading The Galaxy and the Ground Within, I couldn't help but think about how well it described 2020: it's a story of a group of people hunkering down amidst a slow-moving disaster. How did the pandemic figure into writing the story here? Did it figure in at all?
So, I finished it during the pandemic, and I'm fully aware this book hits differently now than I initially intended. It's funny, because I'm sure that the pandemic influenced this book, I couldn't tell you how. But my approach as I was finishing it — my deadline was June of 2020 — and we'd been in it for 2-3 months at that point. My approach was just to white-knuckle through it. Don't pay attention to the outside, try not to think about what's going on, and just finish the book. I failed miserably, but just get this done was my approach.
The thing that I was intentionally holding in mind while I was working on it, was the 2019 wildfire season here in California. There was this stretch where [California] started doing these intentional power shut offs to try and mitigate the risk of wildfires. The first one they did, they didn't give us any warning, or at least six hours warning, and then we had no power for five days. It was this really weird experience at the time; now we're all very used to just sitting at home.
But the difference was, there was nothing I could do. I couldn't work because all of it lives on my laptop, which I couldn't charge, and it was dark and cold. There was absolutely nothing to do but just sit. And it was an experience that really stuck with me: just the how deeply dependent I am on the technology around me; what my life looks like when you strip all of that away.
That was the experience I was drawing from with The Galaxy and the Ground Within: I was very deliberately pulling from that. But of course, now it doesn't seem like this weird and unique experience. But something I think a lot of people can relate to the feeling of being stuck inside and you don't know when it's gonna be over. So yeah, it's interesting to me as people have started writing to me about the book, and how it's it's striking a chord with them that I didn't really intend.
There's always been this enormous importance placed on those square-jawed heroes who have enormous stakes ahead of them to save the galaxy. There's been times over the last couple of years where I've felt insignificant in the larger events of the world: horrible things are happening, but there's nothing I can do about it individually. But hat I can do is some small good in my community, like speak up in a forum or raise a little free library, or donate books, or donate my time locally. It's increasingly feeling like those tiny building blocks are overlooked and that's what makes up that bigger picture, that consequential story. I guess, the more people who do small acts of good make up a greater good.
That ethos is it exactly. The intent with these books was to always tell stories that they felt that they could relate to as much as possible. Even though I'm writing stories about aliens and AI and people who live on spaceships, I want it to feel like this is a life I could recognize, these are problems that I recognize, these are solutions that I could implement myself, but not in a preachy way. Like, this person is me, and I don't know any chosen ones, and I don't know any heads of state or big military heroes, those are not the people in my everyday, but they are the sorts of people we tend to tell stories about. For good reason! Those stories are exciting and fun.
But coming back to the idea of space belongs to you, not just to the privileged few and to the heroes — to us specifically. That's the sort of stuff I focused on, what's the most important thing to most of us? Family, friends, the little things we do, because they're the things we can do. That's so important and it's so valid, and it still belongs in a book — it's still a story worth telling, even if it only effects 10 other people, or one other person. It's still worth talking about.
Do you think that's why the series has resonated so well with readers?
I would guess so — I continue to just be delighted and surprised that these books have been as well received as they have been. I really didn't think at first that anybody was going to want to read this, because of the small-scale stories within them. It actually hung me up for a really long time: there were a number of years where I probably could have started it, but I was like, "This isn't a real book. This isn't a real science fiction book."
There weren't any planets blowing up, or a ragtag crew of heroes, and they're not really, making a big difference in the galaxy. But as it turns out, apparently people wanted to read that! I've found in my years of writing, talking with fans, and chatting with readers at conventions that there's a real hunger out there for for smaller stories, or slower stories and things where the planet doesn't blow up.
I don't say that to disparage those stories, because I still love them, but I think that they're, especially in the here and now where there's so much of life that is so fast and so anxious and so fraught, there is a comfort to be found in stories that are quiet and slow. If they find that here, I'm really grateful for that.
With that in mind, why stop with four books?
It's for the same reason why I knew I wasn't going to write another book about the crew of the Wayfarer: I just knew I was done.
I have many, many beyond this and things I'm working on now, but I just felt like it was time to say goodbye. But I just felt like it was time to say goodbye. It's bittersweet, but I just didn't have anything further that was really grabbing me by the collar. And part of it is that I first started working on this universe when I was 20 years old. I'm 36 now, and I'm just ready to do something else, to go play in a different sandbox and explore different ideas.
There's this sort of double-edged sword of being in a series this long, which is on the one hand, it's very easy to jump into a new book because I've already built everything and I know all the rules, and don't have to start from scratch. But it also means that I am bound to decisions I made 10 or more years ago, which are not necessarily things I would have chosen now, or even things that I'm exploring now. I'm going somewhere else with my writing now, and if I ever decide to come back to it, And, you know, if I ever decide to come back to it, cool, but from where I sit right now? I think it's the right place to let it be.
Looking back over the course of that time, how has your writing changed, and how has your worldview changed in that time?
Writing-wise, it's difficult to sum up — I can look at a book and see all the nitty-gritty nuts and bolts and all the little bad habits I've undone and the things I would like to do better. I think in general, my writing has gotten more streamlined and efficient. I actually had to go look at The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet for promotional thing recently, and I was like, "man, there's a lot more words in here than there needs to be, Chambers."
I'm always trying to find new ways to — efficiency is such a weird word to use because it's very cold — I'm always trying to find the cleanest and quickest route to get to the heart of what it is I want to say. I think I've improved at that, and I would like to continue on.
Worldview-wise, how do I sum up 15 years? I think that if I look at The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and look at The Galaxy and the Ground Within, it's obvious to me that at least the things I think about within the genre itself have shifted a lot. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is very much a riff on the sorts of science fiction and space opera that I grew up with — the entire world this is set in, is what you'd see in Star Wars, Star Trek, Farscape, and whatever: it's your intergalactic communities, it's your bustling spaceport filled with things from Jim Henson's creature shop; it's very much that it's rooted in that. It's me, playing with that idea and flipping the camera around and telling different stories within that space, but it's an unconventional story set within a conventional science fiction setting.
With The Galaxy and the Ground Within, I really looked at that and was like, there's stuff here that I wouldn't necessarily do now — do they need to have money? Do they need to have a military? Does colonialism need to be baked in here at all? I don't think so. I think you can tell stories about space without having it be rooted in that.
So if The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is me riffing off of other other space opera, then The Galaxy and the Ground Within is very much me having a conversation with my 20-year-old self, and being "what do you actually need here? How much can you deviate from the bedrock of this? What ingredients are absolutely necessary?"
I think that's probably the biggest shift: I'm feeling braver and more excited about stepping outside that sandbox, and figuring out what else this could be.
Looking back on the series, what stands out for you the most after all the years you put into the series? Any high points, lessons, overarching themes that resonate with you?
You mean about the written work itself, about the books being out there in the world, or any of the above?
I would say, of the experience of the books being out there in the world, by far the thing that has meant most to me is the people I've encountered while doing this, be it Kickstarter backers, or people at conventions. I've been just so extraordinarily lucky, in the people I've made connections with because of these books. And I mean that in a very personal sense: I don't mean that, in a professional sense. I've gone to cons and stuff all over the world by now, which is still just an incredible privilege to have. Everywhere I go, I meet people who want to tell me their small stories and want to share their community. I'm not sure I have the words for how much that's meant: it really feels like a symbiosis. I feel like I'm getting so much more out of it than I'm actually putting in.
It's really showed me honestly some of the best in people. I write these stories where I tried to paint a positive and hopeful picture of the world, and then I go out there and meet people who reinforce that for me, that people are good and worthwhile, and that everybody's got a story worth telling. That, to me has been, if I do nothing further beyond this point, that's the thing I'm always gonna treasure.
On the page itself, I don't know if I have a high point. It's difficult for me to say because I always feel more fondly about the books that came out before the most recent one, because the most recent one is the one that I remember having my nose to the grindstone with.
I really do have a soft spot for A Closed and Common Orbit because I was able to dig that old story about and make it into something new. That experience has really shaped the way I approach writing in general. I never throw anything out anymore. Even if I think it's working, even if it doesn't work, I never throw anything out. I never delete anything: I just copy and paste it into another document to maybe harvest it later on. I really became sort of a magpie because because of that book. So ask me again in another five years, but yeah, I've learned something new from each of them, but that was the one book of the four that taught me the most.
You recently had To Be Taught, if Fortunate come out, and you've now got the Monk & Robot books coming. Can you tell me a bit about those, and what we can expect?
Monk & Robot is a completely different direction: they're solarpunk science fantasy. They're set on a secondary world called Panga, which is a small moon where humans have always lived. Honestly, my approach in this series is "Because I said so." For To be taught, If Fortunate, I lean so hard into hard science and realism; Monk & Robot is me having fun. It works because I said so.
The premise of the setting is you have these people where they're encountering this situation which will probably sound familiar to folks in that they're facing ecological collapse due to their own rampantly unsustainable production methods. All of their factories are staffed by robots, and one day, all the robots gain consciousness, for reasons no one knows. To this day, no one knows why. But all the robots became sentient, and to humanity's credit, everybody hits the brakes immediately to figure things out, because they're not going to force them to work.
They asked the robots what they wanted to do and invited them to come into their society, and the robots like no: they wanted to see what the world was like without humans in it. They were like, "all we know is what you've built, we want to go elsewhere, we want to go into the wild, we want to observe nature, and we're going to go do that for a while." And so they just left, and no one has seen or had any contact with them for about 200 years.
The book picks up with a traveling monk named Sibling Dex, and they are in something of a personal crisis when we meet them. The world has changed dramatically since then — we narrowly avoided ecological collapse, we've built this, beautiful, sustainable, near-utopia. It's not perfect, of course, but it's a pretty good place to be. But that doesn't mean that people don't stop having problems and Sibling Dex definitely does. And by chance, they encounter a robot named Mosscap, and they strike up a friendship go have a go have a cool road trip together. So that's the the messy summation of where the book starts.
What are you most optimistic for, moving forward?
I'm very excited about where I'm headed next. I can't talk too much about the contractual side of things, but I'll say that I'm really excited to be moving into new territory and to be doing new things. As bittersweet as it is leaving Wayfarers behind, I'm really excited to be stretching my wings in different ways.
With every book I've written, I'm always trying something new, whether it be technical writing-wise, or something creative that I'm messing around with, it really is exciting now to be starting from scratch and just to be able to go in whatever direction I want to go. We'll see how successful I am at that.
I'm really looking forward to just kind of digging into what it is that I am interested in now. If I've gotten out of this groove, alright, what is my grove? And I don't have a good answer for that yet. But that's actually something I'm really excited for, to discover what that is.
The Galaxy and the Ground Within is now out in stores, and A Psalm for the Wild-Built will be out in July.
Thanks for reading — if you enjoyed this interview, I've got a couple of others from the past year you might also enjoy:
- Mary Robinette Kowal, about her book The Relentless Moon and her Lady Astronaut series.
- Christopher Brown, about his latest book Failed State and rebuilding optimistic societies.
- Martha Wells, about her award-winning Murderbot series.
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