I complete very few series/trilogies – #somanybookssolittletime – but there are, of course, some I will make an exception for. I won’t be missing any of Alison Weir’s books about the wives of Henry VIII, or a new Matt Haig but in terms of science fiction I think Becky Chambers’ particular brand of intelligent, character-led space opera is one of the only ones I will guarantee a read to. I bloomin’ love Becky Chambers.
This book is set on the Exodan Fleet – the ships which humankind set out on when they left Earth generations ago. But we are not, on the whole, looking at the kind of big, life-changing events which lead to evacuating a planet. There is an episode early on where one ship in the fleet is seen to fail – which was fatal for those involved, traumatising for those who witnessed it from other ships of the fleet and, then, the source of scrap material for the surviving vessels – but generally we are seeing day to day life. It is a well thought out society where family, work and the community all work hand in hand and we meet a wide range of inhabitants: children, young adults looking for their role and older people. We meet those responsible for keeping mankind’s memory of their past safe and those who oversee what happens to people when they die. There is incident and human emotions but I was also fascinated to hear about all those little details which most sci-fi doesn’t mention.
Chambers’ books aren’t, strictly speaking, a series. There are connections between characters and they all take place in the same world, during the same timeline, but each could be read as a standalone novel. What they do all share is a great sense of humanity (even when referring to non-human characters but it seems a bit too Douglas Adams-y to go into Vogonity/Harmagianity…) – you care about the characters whether they are on a spaceship punching wormholes through the fabric of the universe, an A.I. learning if they want to be human or a Harmagian anthropologist reporting on the humans who live on the Exodan Fleet. And you care whether you are male or female, gay or straight, a rebel or a conformist – everyone is represented in this world (and yet it never feels like anyone is just included to be politically correct). I am fascinated by the stories which Becky Chambers tells – I hope there will be many more forays into the world of the Galactic Commons and mankind’s place within it.
The late (and very much lamented) Douglas Adams had this to say about deadlines: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”. When said deadlines loomed it is alleged that his publisher would lock him into hotel rooms in an effort to get the book finished on time. I don’t know how true this is but it may be a tactic which Ben Aaronovitch’s publishers may want to consider since this, the sixth book in the Rivers of London series, has been promised for the best part of a year as far as I can see. In fact when we were told the publication date had been set for 3rd November there was an awful lot of scepticism. When I mentioned on Twitter that the date had been confirmed (and I had an e-proof from Netgalley to prove it) there was probably an equal amount of doubt and over-excited squeeing. The customers who have been in so far to actually collect their copies have generally shown a curious mixture of disbelief and elation. And I’m fairly certain that when they have read the latest outing of P.C. Peter Grant and his colleagues in that branch of the Met which investigates ‘weird b*llocks’ they will forgive Ben Aaronovitch for the delay.
The Hanging Tree has everything that you would expect from the series. Peter Grant does lots of the leg work for his boss, Nightingale, while also trying to compile a proper Operations Manual for the Falcon department. He is given back-up by Guleed, a kick-ass female, hijab-wearing DC, and tolerated by the rest of the force. Mostly because he deals with stuff so they don’t have to. There is plot aplenty – involving rich teens getting mixed up with drugs, collapsing buildings, mysterious shell companies who own some eye-wateringly pricey London real estate and general peril – but I don’t want to give too much away. Let’s just say there are a lot of familiar characters (the personifications of the Rivers of London themselves are still my favourites) and villains. The Faceless Man shows up (or rather doesn’t) as does Lesley May, Peter’s ex-colleague turned baddie, and there are interesting new faces who, I hope, we will see again in future novels.
I enjoyed the wit and pace of this book – as always they are like a normal police procedural story with added magic, humour and weirdness – and I really like Peter Grant as a character. Little comment is made about his race (and as a whole race is only mentioned to describe white characters – an interesting twist on how these things usually happen) but we do see some of the difficulties he faces. Much is made of the way that London itself plays a major role in this series but I am particularly struck by the way that the books reflect the city’s generally accepting attitude to diversity.
When it comes to the sci-fi and fantasy section at work I tend to lean heavily on the side of fantasy fiction. Terry Pratchett. Trudi Canavan. Tolkien. Sherri Tepper. I’ve dabbled in the harder sci-fi, like the Martian, but I tend to go for something humorous like Douglas Adams or something which blurs the line between fantasy and sci-fi like Anne McCaffrey or Julian May. I tend not to read books set purely on spaceships or space-opera-ish stuff. Rob has hinted that I might like to try Arthur C Clarke but I’ve never taken him up on it – and the fault is mine not Clarke’s, obviously. Maybe it is just that I’m more interested in the human side than the science. Or maybe I tend to associate hard sci-fi with lots of explosions and shouting (which is certainly how the films appear to me), and with characters who are created with more thought to potential action toys than actual human qualities. Not there is anything wrong with blowing stuff up and merchandising but it is not usually my cup of earl grey (hot). And then, like so many others recently, I discovered Becky Chambers and was re-introduced to the human face of science fiction. Actually to be fair I didn’t so much discover Chambers’ first book, the Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, as give in to the encouragement of many of my bookselling colleagues (and, it seemed, a fairly large chunk of bookish people on Twitter). They enthused me so much that I didn’t even see if I could get a freebie from the publisher (although they were on offer) but went straight for buying my very own copy. I don’t regret it in the slightest, though, as all those folk pushing me towards this marvellous novel were absolutely correct – this was a fabulous book. The fact that it was a debut novel made it even more remarkable.
I didn’t show any such restraint when a proof copy of a Closed and Common Orbit – not quite a sequel, more of a linked story – showed up at work. I had really enjoyed getting to know all the characters in the first book – a varied band who gave a whole new meaning to the word ‘diversity’. Humans, aliens of many races, and even a close relationship between a human and the ship’s A.I. system – so I knew I’d be interested in what happened next to some of them. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers about either book so if you haven’t read TLWTASAP (as I understand its fans call it) then I’d nip off and read it now before you carry on with this review. Done? Good, I’ll go on…
Lovelace, the A.I. system from the Wayfarer has been removed from the ship and is currently learning how to exist in a very realistic – but totally illegal – human body. She is helped by Pepper and Blue who obviously have a complicated back-story of their own and, instead of a spaceship, the story is set on a very cosmopolitan planet where commerce and technology seem to be the order of the day. Although there are a lot of differences between this story and the first book what has remained is the importance of great characters. We discover who Lovelace is (or Sidra as she now calls her human form) at the same time that she does – she has to discover how to be human, how to be limited by her own body and how to fit into society – and, as Pepper and Blue’s past is gradually revealed, we realise that there is more than one way of being human. I’ve seen a few negative reviews of Chambers’ writing (but only a very few – the vast majority are hugely positive) which seem to take objection to the fact that qualities like equality, fairness and basic niceness are given such prominence but I think they may be missing the point. This is a universe where humans are pretty much at the bottom of the pecking order and where more enlightened alien races keep control. There is a sense of equality – in terms of gender, colour and species – but there are still taboos (especially in terms of mixed-species relationships). We can see that A.I.s are the very last group to be given equal status just as, in the shape of Sidra/Lovelace, we are learning how much like humans they can be. There are not many explosions but lots of people – and people of every colour, gender, sexuality, species and programming.