I’ve known about Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers series for a long time but never felt interested in it because it’s sci-fi. But reading more science fiction is one of my goals for this year and when I saw that this standalone by the author was nominated for the Hugo awards, I thought what better way to get acquainted with her writing. And this novella turned out to be something I never expected.
I don’t think I’ve read any proper space exploration or first contact books before, so this was a first and it definitely made for an interesting premise. And this book is almost written like a scientist explaining to normal people the purpose of their mission and what goes on during their daily activities – and that was just perfect for a novice sci-fi reader like me. There is still a lot of scientific terminology used that went above my head, but the main character also explains the basics well and I really felt like I was learning something new. There is also not much of a story or plot here, it’s more like a catalog of all that happens to the scientists during their travel and testing; which can be a bit boring if not for the captivating words of the author and the absolute wonder that the characters feel whenever they encounter something new. It was that sense of awe, and sometimes despair that kept me going, and I can’t deny that this was a reading experience unlike any I’ve had before.
But the best and important part of this book is the questions it asks and the themes it deals with. On one hand – we have the isolation that the astronauts feel after having been away from earth for so long, how it affects their mental health especially when they encounter some troubles, and how it affects their decision making; on the other hand – they also wonder about whether their exploration is ethical, what about the species on the new planets which never consented but still get affected due to their tests, and how can we humans justify sacrificing a few of these species for the sake of our quest for knowledge. There is also a great emphasis on these scientists being explorers and not colonizers, ready to adapt themselves to the new environment but not change it to suit them; and also the importance of pursuing space exploration as a means to learn and gain knowledge for the sake of it, but not for a profit motive.
To conclude, this novella maybe short but it is hugely impactful and I realize now why it’s been nominated for the awards. It just slowly makes its way into your heart and changes your perspective forever. You definitely should check it out if you are a fan of sci-fi, but I think it works even better for newbie readers of the genre like me. And what an ending that was – exquisite, poignant, heartbreaking but just perfect.