After reviewing The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit, Antonio Díaz brings us an extremely interesting interview (which you can also read translated into Spanish) with the author of those two novels: Becky Chambers. Hope you enjoy it!
Antonio Díaz: In the TLWtaSAP (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet) universe, the Human race finds itself weakened and divided. On the one hand, we have the Exodans, that are pacifist, and on the other hand, the people that remained on Earth, that are considered xenophobes. This approach seems contrary to the general practice, where Humanity is portrayed as an Empire, normally powerful (although in some cases not as much as they'd want to believe). What made you portray Humanity in such a way?
Becky Chambers: In my view, the human species could do with a bit of humble pie. We’re still struggling with the idea that the universe wasn’t made for us and that we’re not the center of it. We often are in sci-fi. We’re either the thing that everybody looks up to (a la Starfleet) or the out-of-our-depth underdog that swoops in to save the day. I went for something in the middle, a human species that barely escaped its own extinction, that knows we don’t matter much to the galaxy at large, but are persevering all the same. And in that, I also wanted to get away from the idea of empire and conquering being the end-all-be-all of human achievement. Our worth is not solely determined by how many planets we’ve stuck our flag in.
AD: A Closed and Common Orbit was published last October. TLWtaSAP talks about different races and relationships between them and introduced plenty of your universe's background. You did that through Wayfarer's crew and their interactions among themselves and the people they meet. However, this second novel has different characters and a more focused scope. What are the differences between them? Will there be more novels set in this universe?
BC: My intent with The Long Way was to create a spacefaring future for the everyman, a future that anybody reading it would feel like they could fit right into. A Closed and Common Orbit is the acknowledgment there will always be people marginalized by society -- either by accident or on purpose -- who have to carve their own niches.
You’re also talking about the difference between writing from nine points of view and writing from two. While both books deal with relationships and personal struggles, I’d say Closed and Common is the more introspective of the pair.
AD: When I read TLWtaSAP, what I liked the most was the Wayfarer's crew. You managed to give life to a ship full of believable beings, each one with their own voice. In this novel, everyone has its own story and we learn a bit from each. What did you do to build believable alien species?
BC: I often start with biology. How is this species different from a human? How do they move? How do they reproduce? What sort of environments do they prefer? Those things inform so much about a species’ culture. Aandrisks being cold-blooded, for example, affects everything from their architecture to their meal habits to the kinds of protective gear they’d need to pick up a cold object. I also do my best to get away from treating humans as the default template for life in the galaxy. Primates aren’t the most common thing on our own planet by a long shot, so why would anything from elsewhere look or act like us? Granted, I’m writing science fiction, not speculative evolution, so I always have to balance the alien-ness out so my characters are still functional characters. It’s always a give-and-take between pushing boundaries and keeping the reader comfortable. I find that focusing on everyday micro details (food, family, home) rather than the macro (political structures, etc.) helps to paint a clearer picture of who these people are and how they live.
AD: I was pleasantly surprised with the gentle but casual treatment you give to non-heteronormative relationships in the story. The inclusion of more diverse relationships is more and more present in fantasy and science fiction but I wouldn't say they are common yet. Do you think we're getting closer to a more representative SFF?
BC: I do think so, yes. There’s always been plenty of space at the table, and the genre’s getting more and more honest about acknowledging all the different varieties of human existence. For my part, there’s nothing complicated about it. I just write futures that have people like myself and my friends in them, as anyone would. I don’t know how I’d go about writing anything else.
AD: Nowadays looks like every science fiction book that gets released has a dark and pessimist tone. However, TLWtaSAP has an optimistic approach (despite its title). Was that a conscious choice? Or the novel simply “came out” that way?
BC: That was a very conscious choice. There’s no question why so much of our sci-fi is scary right now. The human race is currently facing challenges on a global scale, and we’ve never had to do that before. Grimdark is an understandable, even healthy way of exploring the fears we’re all wrestling with. But by the same token, you also have to have stories that give you something to aim for. Survival for survival’s sake isn’t enough. So in my future, yeah, humans screwed up. We broke the planet. We nearly wiped ourselves out. But we got through it. It sucked, but we got through it, and the struggle was worth it. I don’t sugarcoat it. There are still plenty of messes and bad corners of the galaxy (particularly in the second book). But you’ve got to balance out all that grim with something to hope for. Otherwise, what’s the point?
AD: In TLWtaSAP the main characters are normal people that try to live their lives and do their work. They are, in the end, another cog in the machine (albeit an important one). That is relatively new in a genre where big heroes and existential quests seem to cloud the market. Why did you decide to do TLWtaSAP a novel with a more “slice-of-life” or “everyday” approach?
BC: Space stories are almost always about heroes: rebel heroes, military heroes, chosen ones, you name it. And don’t get me wrong, I love those stories. They’re some of my favorite places to let my brain hang out. But the problem with only telling those stories is that it perpetuates this idea that space is a place that belongs to the elite. During the Space Race, astronauts were the military elite -- test pilots and so forth. Nowadays, the astronaut corps chooses different traits in their candidates, but you’re still talking about the intellectual elite. Space tourism isn’t too far away, so now you’re opening things up to the financial elite. Space isn’t a place for everybody; it’s where only the best of the best go. I want our perception on that front to change. Space belongs to all of us. And that’s a feeling that started when I was a kid, watching Star Trek and Star Wars religiously. I never related to the heroes. I knew I wasn’t like them. I was always interested in the people behind the heroes, the crowds of nameless people in spaceports. Those were the people I saw myself in. So what I did was build a big space opera setting, with big intergalactic factions and complicated politics and all of it, and I flipped the camera around to the extras in the background. I wanted to know what life was like for the people just passing through.
AD: TLWtaSAP has been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA in the Best Newcomer category, and the Kitschies in Golden Tentacle (Best Debut) among other awards. How do you feel when your opera prima earns the praise of the critics?
BC: It’s incredibly surreal. It’s such an honor, and I never know what to say about it. I’m still pinching myself that anybody’s reading my books at all.
AD: When you first released TLWtaSAP you did it following the self-publishing road (including its very own Kickstarter). Do you think the market is changing? Is there a space for both traditional publishers and self-publishing?
BC: There’s absolutely a space for both. People often ask me which path I think is better, and I honestly can’t say that either of them are. Each have their pros and cons, and what you prefer depends so much on how you like to go about creative projects. I think it’s wonderful that there are so many different options for getting stories out there. That’s good for writers and readers alike. Publishing isn’t a zero-sum game. More ways to go about it means more stories being told, and that’s nothing but a win for everybody.
AD: One of the things I liked the most about the book was the out-of-the-box problem resolution. Some of the novel's situations are common to the science-fiction genre but in TLWtaSAP you solve them in a rather alternative and refreshing way. Particularly, as a lawyer, I thought it was quite believable the resolution of the “bureaucratic issue”.
BC: I’m very happy to hear that! All of that ties back to wanting this to be a story about ordinary people. The grand majority of us do not know how to use weapons or fight aliens or rewrite the rules of physics anytime something breaks. Most of us just follow the directions on the box and fill out paperwork and solve problems within whatever social rules we live under. My crew breaks a few of those now and then, but nothing major. They’re not criminals, and they’re not a crack team of space adventurers. They’re just folks.
AD: You worked for several years as a writer for TheMarySue.com in the video games section, so it's safe to say you have plenty of experience with them. What are the things you're looking for when you choose to play a video game? And of course, which are your favorite video games?
BC: The games I reach for depend so much on my mood. RPGs and stealth games I am always up for, no matter the circumstances. Shooters I enjoy but am picky about, and I don’t like to play them if I’m coming off of a stressful day. If I want to chill out, I love puzzle or exploration games. Generally, though, the thing I’m looking for no matter the genre is a good story. I want a setting I can sink my teeth into. I want characters I’ll obsess over. I want abilities that make me laugh and cheer and feel powerful. Playing a pre-determined character suits me fine, but I’m happiest when I can just copy-paste myself into another world and go exploring. It’s hard to pick favorites, but if I have to: Myst, Portal, Tomb Raider (the original, for nostalgia’s sake, but I love the new ones), Dishonored, Minecraft, and, in the number one spot, the entirety of the Dragon Age franchise. I can talk about Dragon Age all day long.
(You can also read this interview in Spanish/También puedes leer esta entrevista en español)
(You can also read this interview in Spanish/También puedes leer esta entrevista en español)